Even by the standards of the U.S. Congress, where committee chairmen traditionally wield their gavel for the benefit of home-state industries, Mary Landrieu’s unapologetic boosterism of Louisiana’s energy interests is drawing notice.
Since becoming head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year, Landrieu has installed a pair of Louisiana aides on the panel’s staff to address the needs of what she calls “America’s Energy Coast.” She’s leaned on agencies to issue permits for Sempra Energy’s natural gas export project in the state. Last month she held a hearing in Louisiana to get an update on a local hydroelectric project.
No one in recent memory has so aggressively used a gavel to get re-elected, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington. Whether it will be enough to hold off a Republican challenger in her toughest contest yet remains to be seen.
“She has to show voters that she’s fairly indispensable,” Duffy said. “And many believe that if she’s going to win, this is one of the reasons why.”
Campaigning in a state President Barack Obama lost in 2012, Landrieu is relying on her ability to help home-state interests and campaign givers, and putting some distance between her and the party. Landrieu, a supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline, has set a vote tomorrow on a bipartisan bill that would bypass the administration and clear the project after several delays.
Landrieu’s energy panel has had past chairmen who helped the home state, including former New Mexico senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, but they were more quiet about it than Landrieu is, especially when they were in Washington, Republican strategist Michael McKenna said.
“They ran the committee like New Mexico was a separate country and they were the ambassadors,” McKenna said. “It was like the other 49 states existed for the benefit of New Mexico. But they never talked about the stuff they were stealing for their states, at least not in D.C. But then again, they were never in a tough re-election.”
In an interview, Landrieu said her chairmanship is a top draw for voters who “realize the importance of having that gavel for Louisiana,” where almost a fifth of the people work in the oil and gas or affiliated industries. And no one should be surprised the state is featured in committee work since it’s such a big energy producer, she said.
“I’m using the committee resources appropriately for the country; we can’t help it that we’re a big energy state,” said Landrieu, who is seeking a fourth term.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take the chamber’s majority. They’re likely to win three open seats, and are targeting four incumbents in states that Obama lost in 2012: Landrieu, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
Louisiana has much to gain in energy-policy debates. It’s 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 of Mexico’s federal waters.
Democratic leaders and the administration oppose most of her energy views, so her approach is nuanced. Obama keeps his distance, but Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last month toured the state with her to talk about creating energy-industry jobs. With party leaders unlikely to advance many of her proposals on the floor, the Landrieu focuses more on decision-making by agencies the panel oversees.
She’s pushing the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve Sempra Energy’s plan to export liquefied natural gas from a facility in western Louisiana. When FERC in April said the plan won’t damage the environment, she made clear she’s already pushing for swift final action.
She also took some credit for an Energy Department decision late last month to streamline LNG export permitting, noting she told them to do so in March.
On May 20, she pressed two FERC nominees about their positions on plans by the ArcLight Partners LLC hedge fund to abandon or replace parts of a natural gas pipeline that serves nine Louisiana parishes. She crowed about it two days later when FERC said it would hold a meeting at month’s end to examine the matter.
“As chair of the Senate Energy Committee, I will continue to pressure ArcLight to fulfill its responsibilities and ensure that Louisianians continue to have access to affordable natural gas, and that it is delivered through a safety functioning pipeline,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, she’s reshaped the committee agenda, with plenty of support from the top Republican on the panel, Lisa Murkowski from energy-producing Alaska. Landrieu’s first hearing in March examined the need to export more natural gas and oil, at a time she said the economy reflects the benefits of more production. She backs exports of U.S. natural gas.
Her predecessor, Ron Wyden of Oregon, said the U.S. must weigh the costs to consumers before approving more gas exports, and this year he said the debate could be extensive.
At a May 1 hearing on last winter’s propane shortage, she noted propane’s importance to home-state voters before turning to panel witnesses including the owner of a butane propane service in Winnsboro, Louisiana.
Landrieu’s Keystone effort could be stymied because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hasn’t agreed to bring the issue to the floor, said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican.
“Mary Landrieu can bring this vote up every day from now until the end of the year, and it’s not going to mean anything,” Barrasso, a Keystone supporter, said today.
Her inability to maneuver bills through the Democrat-led Senate brings the risk of her looking ineffective, McKenna said. While she highlights policy differences with Obama on issues like approval of the $5.4 billion Keystone XL pipeline and opposition to a new EPA climate-change rules proposal, there are no plans yet to debate the issues on the Senate floor.
McKenna said Landrieu could press White House officials to help her re-election by taking steps to aid the energy industry.
“She may be able to get the administration to find a way to expand crude oil exports, without making a big deal out of it,” he said. “But it might be incremental -- I don’t think she’ll open any floodgates.”
How much the chairmanship helps her is in question. In April, after 600 likely Louisiana voters were told she had been elected in 1996 and recently was appointed committee chairman, 59 percent said they thought electing someone new was more important than keeping her in office.
The April 28-30 poll by Southern Media and Opinion Research also found that Landrieu drew support of 36 percent of those surveyed, while her Republican rival, U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy, had 35 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Energy industry donors, many of whom tend to favor Republicans, are opening their checkbooks on her behalf. She’s raised $547,286 so far from political action committees and individual donors affiliated with the oil and gas industry, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Cassidy has collected $202,900.
From all sources, Landrieu has raised $11.3 million and Cassidy $6.4 million. The national political parties are likely to pour money into the race closer to the election, and super-political action committees that can spend unlimited funds are already involved. One Democratic super-PAC allied with Reid has spent $2.1 million against Cassidy so far.
Cassidy says Landrieu may be a “smart politician” to keep her committee’s agenda centered on Louisiana. But the fact that her re-election could keep Democrats in the majority will cost her votes, he said.
“There is a pro-oil, pro-gas party, and that’s the Republicans,” he said.
Some home-state donors, though, say they’re willing to put aside party affiliation to keep a top state lawmaker in a powerful post.
“My politics is energy, and she’s really earned her position as the head of the Energy committee,” said Mark Miller, a self-described Republican who donated to Landrieu and is president of Lafayette, Louisiana-based exploration company Merlin Oil & Gas. “She works very hard and she’s always been an advocate of our business.”
Landrieu isn’t the first senator to use her chairmanship as a campaign tool. Former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat, lost her bid for a third term in 2010 after telling voters her leadership created a “pipeline for jobs and opportunities” back home.
The drive to showcase Landrieu’s committee clout has had rough moments. Her campaign in mid-April aired a TV ad statewide highlighting her chairmanship by showing her taking on a government witness at a hearing.
It backfired when it became apparent it was a re-enactment, because video of congressional hearings can’t be used in TV ads. Senate Republicans pounced, with a National Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman lambasting her for “talking tough to an empty chair.” And the Washington Post said TV stations in Louisiana should be “ashamed” for airing misleading ads.