Senate Energy Committee Special Report

Obstacles and Opportunities

Senate Energy Chair Mary Landrieu and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski. 
©2014 Richard A. Bloom
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Ben Geman and Amy Harder
March 6, 2014, 4 p.m.

Mary Landrieu and Lisa Murkowski have a lot in com­mon.

Both sen­at­ors come from en­ergy-rich states. Both come from polit­ic­al fam­il­ies. Both have en­dured ma­jor polit­ic­al chal­lenges, only to emerge in lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions. It’s true that Landrieu is a Demo­crat and Murkowski a Re­pub­lic­an, but both have come to head the En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee amid the greatest en­ergy boom the United States has seen in a gen­er­a­tion.

Both want to be op­tim­ist­ic.

“I know some­times it’s hard for Wash­ing­ton to keep up with the times, be­cause they like to stay in the bubble, but there’s a big world out there, and we need to keep up,” says Landrieu, who took the gavel in Feb­ru­ary.

Yet mak­ing great strides on en­ergy is­sues won’t be easy right now. The truth is, Landrieu and Murkowski are policy-ori­ented law­makers at a time when Wash­ing­ton’s ap­pet­ite for le­gis­la­tion is near an all-time low. Con­gres­sion­al pro­ductiv­ity was ex­tremely weak last year. Novem­ber’s elec­tion is ex­pec­ted to sup­press it fur­ther still, as polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tions ec­lipse policy needs.

Add Wash­ing­ton’s min­im­al in­terest in big, com­pre­hens­ive le­gis­la­tion in the post-Obama­care era — the last ma­jor en­ergy bill Con­gress passed was in 2007 — and a fu­ture filled with le­gis­lat­ing on the mar­gins looks likely, at least for the rest of this year.

“So much has happened in seem­ingly such a short, ab­bre­vi­ated time span, and yet the op­er­at­ing rules, if you will — the stat­utes that gov­ern so much of this — are not only not cur­rent, they are an­ti­quated,” Murkow­ski says.

“If you look at the things that we should be tack­ling, the great meaty, weighty is­sues in the en­ergy sec­tor, and we are talk­ing but we are not ac­tu­ally le­gis­lat­ing,” she adds. “And so there is a frus­tra­tion there.”

MAN­AGING THE EN­ERGY BOOM

It is hard to over­state the seis­mic shifts in the en­ergy sec­tor in re­cent years. Today, the U.S. is pump­ing more crude oil than it has in two dec­ades, and is on track to out­pace Saudi Ar­a­bia and Rus­sia as the world’s largest pro­du­cer. Re­li­ance on im­por­ted oil has dropped sub­stan­tially. U.S. nat­ur­al-gas pro­duc­tion is at re­cord levels, and is already the highest in the world.

The res­ult is that the old nar­rat­ive — that the United States was run­ning out of oil and gas, and was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly de­pend­ent on for­eign re­sources — has been blown up. Now, the chal­lenge is man­aging the boom while also ad­dress­ing ques­tions about the en­vir­on­ment­al con­sequences of hy­draul­ic frac­tur­ing, wheth­er to ramp up gas ex­ports and ease the al­most total ban on crude-oil ex­ports, and how to ad­dress the ever-present specter of cli­mate change.

Fast-rising oil pro­duc­tion in North Dakota, the gas frenzy in Pennsylvania, and the Texas shale en­ergy boom have prob­ably re­ceived the most at­ten­tion in re­cent years. But Louisi­ana and Alaska, from which Landrieu and Murkowski re­spect­ively hail, are non­ethe­less huge en­ergy-pro­du­cing states where the oil-and-gas in­dustry is a cent­ral pil­lar of the eco­nomy. So after sev­er­al years of Demo­crat­ic chair­men spot­light­ing re­new­able en­ergy, the duo will likely shift the fo­cus back to tra­di­tion­al fossil fuels.

Landrieu is solidly to the right of her caucus when it comes to en­ergy is­sues. Murkowski is un­abashedly pro-oil, but the rank­ing mem­ber is also more mod­er­ate on en­ergy than some of her GOP col­leagues. For in­stance, when many Re­pub­lic­ans were bash­ing the En­ergy De­part­ment’s green-en­ergy loan pro­gram after the col­lapse of the fed­er­ally backed sol­ar-pan­el com­pany Solyn­dra a couple of years ago, Murkowski called for re­forms but sup­por­ted the pro­gram over­all.

The two wo­men have been friends since they were in­tro­duced by Murkowski’s fath­er, Frank Murkowski, a former sen­at­or who once chaired the En­ergy Com­mit­tee. “The Murkowski-Landrieu fam­ily [re­la­tion­ship] goes back lit­er­ally dec­ades,” Landrieu says. And Murkowski makes clear that she sees a kindred spir­it in her Demo­crat­ic coun­ter­part. “I have had a long work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Mary Landrieu. We have ex­ten­ded that re­la­tion­ship bey­ond the work­ing side. I have been to her state, she has been to mine; we have really worked to try and un­der­stand the sim­il­ar­it­ies and the dif­fer­ences between our en­ergy-pro­du­cing states.”

Moreover, the only oth­er time in re­cent memory that two wo­men have led a Sen­ate pan­el was when Landrieu chaired the Small Busi­ness Com­mit­tee and Olympia Snowe of Maine was the rank­ing Re­pub­lic­an, ac­cord­ing to the Sen­ate his­tor­i­an’s of­fice. This is the first time a wo­man has chaired the En­ergy Com­mit­tee.

“It’s really in­ter­est­ing that we have two wo­men run­ning the com­mit­tee,” says former Sen. Byron Dor­gan, a North Dakota Demo­crat who served on the pan­el un­til he re­tired in 2010. “The Sen­ate is chan­ging, the makeup is chan­ging, and we’ll be­gin to see this kind of thing, which I think is good for the coun­try.”

The res­ult could be that the com­mit­tee is in for a peri­od of bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion that is ex­ceed­ingly rare in today’s Con­gress, where it is not un­heard of for a chair­man and a rank­ing mem­ber to go weeks without a mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion.

“I sus­pect both of them will work hard to make the En­ergy Com­mit­tee rel­ev­ant,” Dor­gan says.

Lee Fuller, vice pres­id­ent for gov­ern­ment re­la­tions at the In­de­pend­ent Pet­ro­leum As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica and a former aide to the late Demo­crat­ic Sen. Lloyd Bent­sen of Texas, says the pan­el “has a his­tory of be­ing reas­on­ably bi­par­tis­an in the ac­tion it has taken.”

But will that bi­par­tis­an­ship trans­late in­to le­gis­la­tion mov­ing through the full Sen­ate?

“That,” Fuller says, “is an open ques­tion.”

THE ART OF THE POS­SIBLE

It’s not at all clear that there’s enough polit­ic­al space for the En­ergy Com­mit­tee — which has been around in one form or an­oth­er for more than 170 years — to re­turn to prom­in­ence.

The pan­el has played a ma­jor role in shap­ing U.S. en­ergy policy. It pro­duced a 1975 en­ergy law that, in re­sponse to the Ar­ab oil em­bargo, re­stric­ted crude-oil ex­ports and au­thor­ized the Stra­tegic Pet­ro­leum Re­serve. A mid-1990s law gran­ted roy­alty waivers for oil com­pan­ies ex­plor­ing the deep­wa­ter fron­ti­ers of the Gulf of Mex­ico. Le­gis­la­tion in 2005 and 2007 in­cluded pro­vi­sions that raised ap­pli­ance-ef­fi­ciency stand­ards and au­thor­ized the En­ergy De­part­ment’s green-en­ergy loan guar­an­tee pro­gram.

So what might the cur­rent chair­wo­man and rank­ing mem­ber get done?

Landrieu and Murkowski have teamed up on le­gis­la­tion to give Gulf of Mex­ico states a big­ger share of off­shore oil-and-gas rev­en­ues and ex­pand avail­ab­il­ity of rev­en­ue-shar­ing to Alaska and oth­er coastal states. Landrieu wouldn’t of­fer a timeline for push­ing that, however, and says she’ll en­sure that the views of all com­mit­tee mem­bers are heard.

“I’m go­ing to ac­tu­ally try my very best to meet with each of them over the course of the next few months to hear dir­ectly from them on what some of their views are, some of the chal­lenges be­fore us,” Landrieu says.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists worry that neither Landrieu nor Murkowski will pri­or­it­ize oth­er is­sues un­der the com­mit­tee’s jur­is­dic­tion, in­clud­ing re­new­able en­ergy, na­tion­al parks, forestry, and cli­mate change. At 51 per­cent, Landrieu has the second-low­est life­time score among Sen­ate Demo­crats on the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters’ score­card. Only Sen. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia has a lower rat­ing.

Landrieu says the cri­ti­cism is mis­placed.

“First of all, I be­lieve cli­mate change is real and that it’s a great chal­lenge,” she says, adding that she has a long his­tory of sup­port­ing ex­pan­sion of na­tion­al parks and coastal res­tor­a­tion. “I think a lot of those con­cerns, or some of them, are un­foun­ded,” Landrieu as­serts. “I would just ask people to look at my re­cord.”

Non­ethe­less, she is un­ques­tion­ably more pro-in­dustry that nearly all of her Demo­crat­ic col­leagues, in­clud­ing Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who is the most vo­cal pan­el mem­ber when it comes to con­cerns about in­creas­ing nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports. Yet Stabenow has only good things to say about Landrieu.

“I think she’ll be ter­rif­ic,” Stabenow says, adding that on nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports, “we’re hav­ing good con­ver­sa­tions about the bal­ance.”

Landrieu and Murkowski will cer­tainly use the com­mit­tee’s over­sight powers to shine the spot­light on what they feel are badly needed up­dates to U.S. policy.

For in­stance, Murkowski has been push­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­lax dec­ades-old lim­its on crude-oil ex­ports un­der its ex­ist­ing au­thor­ity, and she’s eager to move that de­bate for­ward.

But if past is pre­ced­ent, when it comes to ac­tu­ally mov­ing le­gis­la­tion, what Landrieu and Murkowski choose to fo­cus on may well not mat­ter. Former Sen. Jeff Binga­man, who once chaired the com­mit­tee, failed to get many sig­ni­fic­ant bills through the Sen­ate, in­clud­ing one that would have es­tab­lished a na­tion­al re­new­able-elec­tri­city stand­ard and an­oth­er that was aimed at strength­en­ing drilling reg­u­la­tions in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill.

Bi­par­tis­an lead­er­ship on a com­mit­tee, after all, isn’t much help when the over­all Sen­ate is stuck. “If grid­lock con­tin­ues, it won’t change much what can be passed,” Dor­gan says. He was quick to add, though, that Landrieu and Murkowski have the po­ten­tial to make pro­gress, giv­en their re­cords.

“The key thing about Mary and Lisa is that they’re not con­tent to be ob­serv­ers,” Dor­gan says. “They want to be act­ive. Their le­gis­lat­ive his­tory shows that they want to be act­ive on the things that mat­ter.” 

“AN UN­MIT­IG­ATED DIS­ASTER”

Of course, not every­one is thrilled by the Landrieu-Murkowski pair­ing, which will move the com­mit­tee to the right. Both wo­men sup­port open­ing more fed­er­al lands to drilling and ex­pand­ing off­shore oil and gas de­vel­op­ment. And while Murkowski has been far more will­ing than most Re­pub­lic­ans to dis­cuss the dangers of glob­al warm­ing, neither she nor Landrieu is a fan of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cli­mate-change reg­u­la­tions.

“It has the po­ten­tial to be an un­mit­ig­ated dis­aster,” says Bill Snape, seni­or coun­sel for the Cen­ter for Bio­lo­gic­al Di­versity, an en­vir­on­ment­al group. “Two blatantly pro-drilling sen­at­ors lead­ing both their parties in that com­mit­tee. It doesn’t get much worse.”

But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have a fire­wall: Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id. Snape is hope­ful that Demo­crats’ ef­forts to help Landrieu, who faces a tough reelec­tion fight this year, won’t tip over in­to mov­ing le­gis­la­tion to the floor that much of the Demo­crat­ic caucus op­poses. Still, “that is a con­cern,” Snape says. “We will watch that very care­fully.”

In­deed, Landrieu’s reelec­tion race — she is a top tar­get of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, who want to take con­trol of the cham­ber — will also af­fect the com­mit­tee’s pro­ductiv­ity. Murkowski is acutely aware of the polit­ic­al cross­cur­rents run­ning be­neath the policy dis­cus­sions as Landrieu battles for an­oth­er term and the Sen­ate nav­ig­ates an elec­tion. How much can be ac­com­plished, the Alaskan says, de­pends on “how much can be nav­ig­ated in a very polit­ic­ally charged en­vir­on­ment.”

“I don’t want us to be in a situ­ation where we are just kind of in a hold­ing pat­tern for a year,” she says, “that we waste a year as an En­ergy Com­mit­tee be­cause of the polit­ic­al pro­cess that goes on around here.”

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