Will Senate Energy Panel Veer Right?

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) speaks while flanked by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) during a news conference on Capitol Hill September 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The bipartisan group of Senators announced new legislation for comprehensive surveillance reform. 
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Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Dec. 18, 2013, 3:43 p.m.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., a staunch ally of oil and nat­ur­al gas com­pan­ies, may soon take the chair­man­ship of the Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee.

White House plans to tap Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Baucus, D-Mont., as the next am­bas­sad­or to China will knock over lead­er­ship dom­in­oes that could pull the en­ergy pan­el right­ward.

The cur­rent En­ergy chair­man, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is widely be­lieved to cov­et the power­ful Fin­ance Com­mit­tee gavel when Baucus — who was not seek­ing Sen­ate reelec­tion next year any­way — steps aside.

That could leave Landrieu on deck to chair the En­ergy Com­mit­tee, which has over­sight over an ar­ray of oil-and-gas drilling, en­ergy-re­search, and con­ser­va­tion mat­ters.

Landrieu would get the chance to push pro-drilling bills and ad­vance a top pri­or­ity: le­gis­la­tion that ex­pands the amount of fed­er­al off­shore oil-and-gas roy­alty pay­ments giv­en to Gulf Coast states.

That plan, which she craf­ted with En­ergy Com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would also au­thor­ize off­shore roy­alty-shar­ing with Alaska and with oth­er coastal states if drilling is ever al­lowed in fed­er­al wa­ters off their shores.

More broadly, the Landrieu-Murkowski pair­ing would put two oil-state sen­at­ors atop the pan­el as the in­dustry pushes to make more fed­er­al lands and wa­ters avail­able for drilling, and battles ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to ex­pand reg­u­la­tion of oil and gas “frack­ing,” among oth­er goals.

“The sen­at­ors have a good re­la­tion­ship, and that would ob­vi­ously con­tin­ue if Sen­at­or Landrieu’s po­s­i­tion on the com­mit­tee was el­ev­ated. However, this is all just spec­u­la­tion at the mo­ment,” said Robert Dillon, a spokes­man for Murkowski.

Get­ting the gavel could also boost Landrieu’s reelec­tion cam­paign. Already, she was seen as Wyden’s heir to the chair­man­ship in the next Con­gress if she won her own 2014 reelec­tion race.

But now, with the chance for the gavel soon­er than ex­pec­ted, she could reap polit­ic­al re­wards ahead of the 2014 elec­tion.

“If Landrieu be­comes En­ergy chair in 2014, it will help her cam­paign since its more ef­fect­ive to say that she IS chair than she WILL be chair,” said one en­ergy ex­pert in an email ex­change.

Hav­ing Landrieu atop the pan­el would also make the En­ergy Com­mit­tee among the more con­ser­vat­ive in the up­per cham­ber.

Com­mit­tee mem­ber Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is also of­ten con­ser­vat­ive on en­ergy policy and has for years al­leged that White House policies are an as­sault on his home state’s coal in­dustry.

To be sure, all the lead­er­ship shuff­ling re­mains hy­po­thet­ic­al for the mo­ment.

“Sen­at­or Wyden looks for­ward to Sen­at­or Baucus’ com­ments on his fu­ture plans and will not com­ment fur­ther at this time,” Wyden’s com­mit­tee spokes­man said.

But here’s how the dom­in­oes might fall:

Landrieu is the third-most seni­or Demo­crat on the pan­el after Wyden and Sen. Tim John­son, D-S.D.

But John­son is also not seek­ing reelec­tion next year, and he already chairs the power­ful Bank­ing Com­mit­tee, so he’s seen as un­likely to want the En­ergy Com­mit­tee gavel, es­pe­cially on such an in­ter­im basis.

Sim­il­arly, re­tir­ing Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jay Rock­e­feller, D-W.Va., would be next in line be­hind Baucus on Fin­ance, but he in­dic­ated to re­port­ers Wed­nes­day that he’s not in­ter­ested in a cameo role atop Fin­ance.

While Landrieu was already seen as next in line for the En­ergy Com­mit­tee chair­man­ship be­fore the Baucus-to-China news sur­faced, her as­cend­ancy would have been de­pend­ent on Demo­crats hold­ing the Sen­ate in 2014, which is hardly a sure thing.

Now, if Baucus is con­firmed as am­bas­sad­or, Landrieu would likely get some time as chair­wo­man re­gard­less of what hap­pens in next Novem­ber’s elec­tions.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­por­ted de­cision to tap Baucus as am­bas­sad­or to China ar­rives the same day that Baucus floated a sweep­ing plan to over­haul en­ergy-tax policy — a long-shot pro­pos­al that now looks even less likely to ad­vance.

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