Houston business leaders lobby Congress on energy, health care

Houston business leaders visited Washington, D.C., last week to press energy proposals and seek changes in health care policy they say would benefit the city.

The two-day lobbying trip, organized by the Greater Houston Partnership, comes as Texas’ power on Capitol Hill has waned. A Texan no longer occupies the White House, and former House Speaker Tom DeLay is no longer in Congress.

“That era meant we could fight like cats and dogs and go to bed and get a good night’s sleep because someone in Washington would take care of us,” said Jeff Moseley, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. “Those days are gone. We are in a season of low seniority.”

Moseley said that puts extra pressure on Houston’s business community to do what it can to support the local delegation and assert themselves. The partnership now organizes regular, quarterly pilgramages to the nation’s capital to press its priorities with administration officials and lawmakers.

A major focus during this week’s trip was energy, though other issues — including free trade and health care — also were on the agenda.

Moseley said that in meetings with lawmakers, the group highlighted their support for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada to southeast Texas refineries. Their push came as the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, headed by GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, acknowledged that new jobs could be tied to the Keystone XL’s construction.

“We are very enthusiastic about that project,” Moseley said. “We believe it lines up very nicely with Jeff Immelt’s recommendations about how to create jobs.”

In Houston, “the energy sector is a vast engine” for economic growth, Moseley added.

The more than a dozen Houstonites also asked stressed their concern that the government is moving too slowly in permitting offshore energy projects in the wake of last year’s oil spill, even though a moratorium on deep-water drilling was lifted last October.

“We’re hoping the moratorium that has kind of phased into a permatorium will relax even more to allow job creation offshore and onshore,” Moseley said.

The group also stressed a top priority for energy producers based in southeast Texas: limiting new federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing, the technique being used to unlock natural gas from dense shale rock formations nationwide.

“Clearly there have to be guidelines to protect public health, but they need to be balanced and recognize that natural gas is the next step in the energy food chain in America,” Moseley said.

Moseley met with Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., one-on-one, but many of the meetings brought together the Houston business leaders-turned-lobbyists with members of the local delegation, including Reps. Gene Green, Michael McCaul, Ruben Hinojosa, Blake Farenthold, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Ted Poe, Kevin Brady, Bill Flores, Henry Cuellar, Michael Burgess and John Culberson.

The business leaders also spoke with staff members for Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Many of the Houston residents who made the trip are connected to Houston’s health industry, including representatives from the University of Texas Health Science Center, the Texas Medical Center and the Methodist Hospital System. Others who joined in lobbying included Kerrick Henny, the vice president of external affairs for AT&T, Shareen Larmond, a general counsel at West Gulf Maritime Association and Marvin Marcell, a Group 1 Automotive government affairs director.