A shakeup of committee chairmanships stands to boost the clout of the oil and gas industry in the U.S. Senate at the same time it strengthens the candidacy of one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Democrats.
Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana will probably become the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee early next year, giving the gavel to a lawmaker with deep ties to home-state oil producers and refiners. The shift stems from President Barack Obama’s nomination of Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana to be U.S. ambassador to China, and the likelihood that the current energy panel chairman, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, will replace Baucus at the head of the Senate Finance Committee.
Analysts say the energy panel post for Landrieu could boost her campaign for a fourth term, a 2014 race that has been targeted by Republicans hoping to win back control of the Senate.
“Now she can campaign that she is the chairman, and that she can and will be doing things that help Louisiana,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Washington-based Cook Political Report.
The energy committee’s top Republican, Lisa Murkowski, hails from another oil and gas producing state, Alaska. That may improve chances for bipartisan alliances around industry priorities such as expanded exports of natural gas sought by Cheniere Energy Inc. (LNG) and Dominion Resources (D) Inc., as well as TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Taking over the committee should help Landrieu reap campaign donations. Oil and gas industry donors already have given her a fundraising edge over her likely Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy. The industry has donated $393,500 so far to Landrieu, compared with $144,250 for Cassidy, according to the latest data tracked by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
All told, she’s raised $8.1 million through Sept. 30, while Cassidy has raised $4.1 million.
Landrieu is the third-ranking Democrat on the energy committee, behind Tim Johnson of South Dakota who is unlikely to give up his chairmanship of the Banking Committee and isn’t seeking re-election next year.
Landrieu already had been campaigning on the prospect of becoming energy committee chairman in 2015, with Baucus having previously decided not to seek another term next year. Her campaign website includes a July article from the Gambit, a New Orleans blog, that said her Senate longevity would pay off for Louisiana by positioning her for that job, assuming Democrats held their Senate majority after the 2014 elections.
Her re-election campaign could use a jolt. Her approval ratings in polls have dropped and her state has a Republican tilt, giving Obama just 41 percent of its vote in 2012.
Landrieu had an edge over Cassidy, 48 percent to 41 percent, in an Oct. 14-15 survey of 632 Louisiana voters by Public Policy Polling. The poll, which had a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points, was conducted just before the end of the 16-day government shutdown, which Cassidy backed as a way to stop implementation of the Affordable Care Act. In the shutdown’s aftermath, attention in Washington turned to the troubled rollout of the health-care law, which Landrieu supported when Congress passed it in 2010.
Landrieu, who has never gotten more than 52 percent of the vote in her three previous Senate races, had a 46 percent positive rating and a 51 percent negative rating in a Nov. 6-12 poll of 600 likely Louisiana voters by Southern Media and Opinion Research Inc. Her positive rating was 10 percentage points lower than in a similar poll taken in the spring, before the health-care law’s glitches surfaced.
She is among the four Senate Democrats who the Cook Report and other political analysts say face the toughest re-elections; the others are Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Republicans, currently favored to win three open seats, need a net gain of six seats to take control of the chamber.
Differences between Wyden and Landrieu on gas imports underscore how a change in the energy committee’s leadership may benefit Louisiana.
While Wyden advocates keeping gas exports limited to keep consumer prices down, Landrieu supports expanded overseas sales of liquefied natural gas, or LNG. Of 23 LNG export applications filed with the Energy Department, at least eight are for facilities in Louisiana or offshore near its coast.
“Landrieu has been on board with LNG exports,” Erik Milito, the director of upstream operations at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a conference call with reporters on Dec. 20. “Louisiana is one of those states that stands to gain a lot from LNG exports.”
Gas producers such as Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) and Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) stand to gain if more gas is exported, which could boost demand and prices for the fuel. The American Petroleum Institute, which is intensifying its lobbying push for crude-oil exports, represents companies such as Exxon, BP Plc. (BP/), and Chevron Corp.
Landrieu co-authored a 2006 law that gave Louisiana a share of the oil and gas revenue from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, which the state borders. In 2011, she urged the Obama administration to move more quickly to lift a moratorium on deepwater offshore oil drilling imposed after the April 2010 explosion of a BP Plc oil rig in the gulf -- even as she urged the federal government to keep pressure on BP to pay claims for damages arising from the oil spill.
Louisiana is ranked seventh among U.S. oil producing states, behind Texas, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Oklahoma and New Mexico, according to the Energy Information Administration. That doesn’t count oil produced in the gulf’s federal waters.
She also has challenged the administration over its efforts to regulate emissions of greenhouse gas emissions and supports the Keystone pipeline. That $5.4 billion project designed to link Canada’s oil sands with refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast is opposed by most Democrats in Congress.
With Murkowski set to unveil a paper on expanded crude-oil exports next month, Landrieu’s ascension could also kick off a discussion about that in 2014 as well, said Kevin Book a managing director at Clearview Energy Partners in Washington.
“An Energy Committee led by two oil-state senators could engage in considerably more substantive debate than we anticipated,” next year about crude exports, he wrote in a note to clients.
Landrieu’s potential ascension is not good news for environmental groups, which have been fighting both the Keystone pipeline and LNG exports. She has a lifetime score of 49 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, the lowest of any Senate Democrat. Wyden’s lifetime score is 89 percent.
She voted repeatedly to try to head off Environmental Protection Agency rules curbing greenhouse gases, said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters.
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