Senate Energy Committee Special Report

Obstacles and Opportunities

Senate Energy Chair Mary Landrieu and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski. 
©2014 Richard A. Bloom
Add to Briefcase
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.

Like-Minded National Journal

“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.”


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.”


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?

Shared Interests National Journal

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.” 


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.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.