Gulf State lawmakers juggle oil industry interests with climate, safety concerns

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010; 11:30 AM

In their battle to represent Louisiana in the U.S. Senate, incumbent David Vitter (R) and challenger Charlie Melancon (D) differ sharply on Wall Street reform, stimulus spending and a host of other issues.

But as the devastation from BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster widens, the two lawmakers agree on one thing: It is no reason to halt drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

The calamity illustrates the overwhelming influence of oil on the politics of Louisiana and other Gulf States, in which lawmakers of both parties have generally maintained enthusiastic support for offshore drilling in defense of one of the region's bedrock industries. In Louisiana, the sector provides more than 300,000 jobs and handles about a quarter of the oil and natural gas consumed in the United States, according to industry estimates.

The oil business strongly favors delegations from key Gulf States in its campaign contributions. Lawmakers from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama received an average of $100,000 from oil and gas companies and their employees in the past three years, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics and analyzed by The Washington Post. That compares with $30,000 for lawmakers from other states.

Local Republican and Democratic politicians alike say they try to balance the interests of both the industry and of conservationists while being mindful of the central role the region plays in supplying oil and gas to the rest of the nation. Many gulf area lawmakers also say BP must be held responsible for the economic impact of the spill on the commercial fishing and seafood industry, which has come to a halt because of the disaster.

"We need to find that balance between 'drill, baby, drill,' and 'spill, baby, spill," Melancon said in an interview. "We need to figure what it is that needs to be done so we can move forward."

But Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said many elected officials in the Gulf States "have very close, cozy ties with the oil and gas industry. That habit is hard to break even when disaster is staring them in the face."

The Deepwater Horizon rig, leased by London-based BP and owned by Transocean of Switzerland, suffered an explosion on April 20 about 50 miles southeast of Venice, La., killing 11. The spill has poured tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the gulf.

The disaster has prompted growing pressure from environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers to slow or halt the pace of oil exploration along the coastal United States. Last week, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar halted offshore drilling permits and canceled hearings -- including some scheduled in Virginia -- until officials complete a review of the incident.

The spill has also hurt the chances that climate-change legislation will pass Congress this year, since expanded oil drilling was viewed as a crucial concession to winning over moderate Republicans in the Senate.

"Expanded drilling is dead on arrival," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), an opponent of offshore drilling. "Now that people see that this can completely disrupt their livelihood, their culture and their way of life, I think you're going to see attitudes on drilling changing dramatically."

But it's not clear whether that applies to states such as Louisiana, where the oil and gas industry has dominated the state's economy for nearly a century. Vitter said in a recent television interview that slowing or halting offshore drilling is simply not realistic.

"Clearly, there have got to be changes made because of this incident," he told Fox News. "We need to learn a lot of from it and there needs to be new procedures and equipment. . . . But we certainly shouldn't start shutting things down."

During a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) warned against a "reactionary and overly stringent" response to the spill. "This accident should not be used as an excuse to halt the gains the United States has made in developing domestic energy sources," he said.

Vitter and Louisiana's other senator, Mary Landrieu (D), rank among the top recipients of oil and gas money in Congress; while on the Hill, each has taken in more than $750,000 from companies and their employees, records show. Melancon, who lags Vitter badly in both fundraising and the polls, has received just over $300,000 from the industry and its employees in three terms in the House, records show.

Overall, nearly half of the top 20 recipients of oil and gas money in Congress hail from Texas or Louisiana, which together account for about a quarter of the industry's jobs in the United States. Landrieu, who has received nearly $200,000 from oil and gas political action committees over the past 15 months, said that she is "not a handmaiden to the oil industry" and had also received money from environmentalists.

Stuart H. Smith, a New Orleans attorney who has filed lawsuits against BP on behalf of environmental and fishing groups, said that "the oil business has pretty much gotten whatever they want in Louisiana for as long as they've been here." He said the oil spill has laid bare tensions between oil conglomerates and commercial seafood operations, which extract resources from the same waters.

"You'll find a lot of fishermen who will have two sons, say, one who's a fisherman and one who's working on a rig," Smith said. "Those are the main opportunities down there."

Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, said the political influence of the energy sector in the state is exaggerated. He also bemoaned the attacks on the industry by environmentalists and others since the BP disaster.

"The industry has a lot of opponents, political and environmental, and this provides a great stage for those opponents to stand on," Briggs said. "But we didn't stop going to space because of the Challenger, we didn't stop importing oil because of Valdez and we shouldn't stop drilling exploration because of this one very tragic accident."

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company