New head of Senate Energy Committee has environmentalists seeing red

 Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Democratic leadership during a press conference to address "the Senate's third day of legislative business without passing a single measure to provide immediate relief to the victims and survivors of Hurricane Katrina" Thursday, September 08, 2005 on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) just became the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) will bring a sharply different outlook to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee now that she has taken the gavel from Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has moved over to chair the Senate Finance Committee.

Landrieu favors building the Keystone XL pipeline, protecting tax breaks or incentives for oil drilling, and placing limits on the power of federal agencies to set mercury or carbon dioxide guidelines for coal-fired power plants. Wyden takes the opposite position on all those issues.

Landrieu supports giving oil companies the right to export crude oil as well as natural gas, while Wyden supports giving natural gas export permits on a case by case basis and does not have a public position on crude oil exports.

The Louisiana Democrat helps maintain the Democrats’ majority in the Senate, but she is closer to the oil and gas industry than most other members of her party.

Does any of this matter in a Congress hard-pressed to pass any legislation? Maybe. Landrieu could try to obstruct some Obama administration initiatives, especially on coal plants. She could work with committee Republicans to fashion legislation closer to the oil and gas industry interests. And she can make her voice heard more clearly than ever.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Energy Department Tuesday gave conditional approval to another liquefied natural gas project, this one in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, and owned by San Diego-based Sempra Energy. It would export 1.7 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas. Just one day earlier, on Monday, Landrieu, who already had a lock on the new chairmanship, sent a sharply worded letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz saying that the delay in issuing a permit was “simply unacceptable” and that “we must not sit on our hands and let this great opportunity go by.”

Many environmental groups oppose exports of natural gas because they believe the exports will spur demand for more fracking. And many big industrial users of natural gas oppose exports because it would raise prices, though the Energy Department says only slightly.

“Senator Landrieu’s chairmanship arrives at a critical moment for U.S. energy policy,” American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard said in a statement. “With her strong support, the people of Louisiana have played a major role in America’s energy revolution, and her deep understanding of energy issues will continue to serve her well as chairman. We look forward to working with Sen. Landrieu on smart policies that will strengthen American energy security.”

Landrieu also wants to increase the portion of federal royalties that goes to states along the Gulf of Mexico coast, a crusade of hers for years. As it stands, all states get oil and gas royalties in water up to three miles from shore, but the federal government owns the waters beyond that point. She already led the successful fight in 2006 to get 37.5 percent of federal royalties on certain leases off the gulf states directed to those state governments and coastal restoration programs.

But in a compromise, the legislation imposed an annual $500 million cap on payments to the Gulf Coast producing states.

Landrieu, whose state consistently ranks at or near the bottom of social welfare benefits has now introduced a bill that would lift the cap and shift revenue from the Treasury Department to the states of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama. Her bill would also let inland states keep 50 percent of the royalty and rental payments on renewable energy produced on federal lands, according to an Oct. 17 press release.

Landrieu has also hammered away on the Keystone XL project. On Feb. 7, after the State Department issued a final environmental impact statement, Landrieu urged people to sign a petition urging President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

“This new study underscores what has been said all along about Keystone XL Pipeline:  it’s time to build,” she wrote. “I urge the president to act swiftly and give final approval so we can put people to work in these good-paying jobs right away and our refineries in Louisiana and Texas can refine this energy from our close ally, Canada. It’s time for the president to take action.”

Daniel J. Weiss, director of climate policy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, said “Many people expect Chairwoman Landrieu to increase the Committee’s focus on the oil and gas industry, particularly on royalty payments to states from offshore production.  At the same time, there may be less attention paid to policies that grow investments in clean alternative transportation fuels and renewable electricity."

And as she faces reelection this fall, her energy positions are likely to come under fire from both liberals and conservatives. For example, NextGen Climate Action -- a political committee funded by billionaire Tom Steyer -- is preparing to poll its supporters to determine which politicians to target in this year’s election. “Tell Senator Mary Landrieu to Get Her Facts Straight,” one ad on the ballot reads.

Here are some key differences between Landrieu and Wyden:

In 2012, Landrieu voted against a Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) bill to eliminate $2.4 billion in tax breaks for the big five oil companies; Wyden voted for it.

In 2010, Landrieu voted to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to set limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide, a common greenhouse gas. Wyden voted to maintain EPA’s authority. The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org targeted Landrieu with hard-hitting ads in the wake of the vote.

In 2012, Landrieu voted to block new mercury and toxic emissions limits for power plants; Wyden supported the measures.

The League of Conservation Voters has given Wyden a 90 percent lifetime record and Landrieu 51 percent.

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) had introduced a bill to block natural gas exports before he became chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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