Mary Landrieu Is Paying — and Getting Paid Big — for Her Stance on Global Warming

When it comes to Mary Landrieu and the environmental movement, it's complicated. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
March 23, 2014, 7:14 a.m.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists need Mary Landrieu, but they don’t love her — and they’re prov­ing it with their check­books.

Louisi­ana’s Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or and Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Bill Cas­sidy are locked in a Bay­ou battle that will go a long way in de­term­in­ing wheth­er Demo­crats can hold their im­periled Sen­ate ma­jor­ity, a force that has proved an im­plac­able bul­wark against a steady stream of House Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks on en­vir­on­ment­al reg­u­la­tions.

But that hasn’t con­vinced the en­vir­on­ment­al lobby’s heavy hit­ters to cut checks for Landrieu. In the past year, only one en­vir­on­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tion has donated to her cam­paign. The Bat­on Rouge-based Cen­ter for Coastal Con­ser­va­tion gave Landrieu a $2,500 nod, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. The Si­erra Club, Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, and En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund have handed over a com­bined con­tri­bu­tion of ex­actly noth­ing. All three groups de­clined to com­ment on the re­cord when asked wheth­er they would en­dorse Landrieu.

So why have en­vir­on­ment­al­ists thus far washed their hands of a cam­paign so crit­ic­al to their move­ment’s fu­ture?

In short: They just can’t stand her stance on glob­al warm­ing. Landrieu is an oil- and gas-in­dustry cham­pi­on who tip­toes around the glob­al-warm­ing de­bate and voted to block the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate rules for power plants. Lin­ing up be­hind a can­did­ate like that, en­vir­on­ment­al groups fear, would sig­nal to Demo­crats that their sup­port is un­con­di­tion­al — and that greens can be taken for gran­ted.

“We don’t want to be in a situ­ation where one party feels like we’re be­hold­en to them. That’s how we get taken ad­vant­age of,” said Ben Schreiber, a spokes­man for Friends of the Earth Ac­tion, the polit­ic­al fun­drais­ing arm of Friends of the Earth. “Can­did­ates need to know that there are con­sequences to the way they vote.”

Landrieu was nev­er go­ing to be a darling of the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment. She rep­res­ents a state dot­ted with oil wells and re­finer­ies, and sides with the fossil fuel in­dustry more of­ten than not. She also backs the Key­stone XL pipeline at a time when op­pos­i­tion to the oil sands pro­ject has be­come the green move­ment’s call to arms.

The Louisi­ana Demo­crat also holds con­sid­er­able sway over en­ergy policy. She’s the chair of the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, and if an­oth­er bi­par­tis­an en­ergy bill comes out of Con­gress un­der Landrieu’s watch, it would be covered in her fin­ger­prints.

“Landrieu puts the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity in a dif­fi­cult situ­ation,” Schreiber said. “She’s been aw­ful on cli­mate change and she’s quite re­spons­ive to the oil and gas in­dustry. And she’s chair of the En­ergy Com­mit­tee. That makes things com­plic­ated.”

En­vir­on­ment­al groups have been will­ing to for­give oth­er mod­er­ates for their fossil-fuel em­brace as part of a broad­er cam­paign to keep their pre­ferred party in power.

NRDC Ac­tion Fund, the polit­ic­al fun­drais­ing arm of the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil, is already sup­port­ing Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina and Mark Be­gich of Alaska, two vul­ner­able Sen­ate Demo­crats who, like Landrieu, say the pipeline should be built.

“It’s not real­ist­ic to ask people to be with you 100 per­cent of the time. A pur­ity test doesn’t work in polit­ics,” Heath­er Taylor-Miesle, the fund’s dir­ect­or, said. “We look for people we can work with on a num­ber of is­sues. They don’t have to have a per­fect re­cord.”

So why has Landrieu been left out in the cold?

The real deal-break­er is the sen­at­or’s stance on cli­mate. Landrieu’s not a cli­mate change den­ier, but she sidesteps the is­sue every chance she gets. Be­gich and Hagan, on the oth­er hand, have been out­spoken in their calls to ac­tion on glob­al warm­ing. Landrieu also op­poses En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions to curb power-plant emis­sions, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s primary av­en­ue to counter cli­mate change and a key part of the pres­id­ent’s second-term cli­mate agenda. In the pre­vi­ous ses­sion of Con­gress, Landrieu voted in sup­port of a meas­ure to pre­vent the agency from reg­u­lat­ing green­house gases. Be­gich and Hagan did not.

The elec­tion year is young, and the en­vir­on­ment­al lobby is not a mono­lith, so it’s pos­sible that more mod­er­ate groups will shell out for the sen­at­or. The En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund partnered with Landrieu on Gulf Coast res­tor­a­tion — as did the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion.

But where greens have with­held their fund­ing, the fossil fuel in­dustry has more than filled the void. 

The oil and gas in­dustry is the second-largest con­trib­ut­or to Landrieu’s cam­paign com­mit­tee and lead­er­ship PAC com­bined. The in­dustry has also done more to give the sen­at­or a boost than her Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics, Landrieu’s cam­paign has so far raised close to $9.5 mil­lion with a cool $564,350 com­ing from the oil and gas in­dustry. Cas­sidy, in com­par­is­on, has raised just over $5.1 mil­lion and got­ten $180,750 from the in­dustry.

It’s un­clear wheth­er Landrieu would even want en­vir­on­ment­al­ists’ back­ing.

When Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate Ac­tion, an en­vir­on­ment­al group backed by bil­lion­aire Tom Stey­er, raised the pos­sib­il­ity last month of tar­get­ing the sen­at­or through an anti-Key­stone XL ad cam­paign, Landrieu said Stey­er’s ad buy would likely boost her pop­ular­ity in Louisi­ana.

The Si­erra Club’s stamp of ap­prov­al isn’t ex­actly a badge of hon­or in an oil state. “That’s something an op­pon­ent could seize and run with,” said Frank O’Don­nell, pres­id­ent of Clean Air Watch, an en­vir­on­ment­al or­gan­iz­a­tion that does not take part in elect­or­al polit­ics. “Nobody wants to waste money do­ing something that could back­fire.”

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