Oil industry ally takes Senate committee helm

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mary Landrieu is taking over the top spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, giving the oil and gas industry ally a powerful role as she campaigns for re-election.

Landrieu, D-La., is set to wield the committee gavel alongside another senator from the oil patch — Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska — as a result of a leadership shuffle.

The Senate Democratic caucus voted to give Landrieu the job on Tuesday, but the change won’t be official until a full chamber vote expected Thursday.

Landrieu has not formally outlined her priorities for the panel, but she likely would seek to advance her proposal to give states a greater share of royalties for offshore oil and gas production near their coastlines.

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The former energy committee chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., convened a hearing on the Landrieu-Murkowski revenue-sharing bill last year, but the industry-backed measure is controversial and has a relatively high price tag, two big obstacles in an election year.

Landrieu stressed she would move an “inclusive, bipartisan” agenda, with a focus on creating jobs.

“Everything we do will be part of helping to build the middle class and expanding opportunities for entrepreneurs in the domestic energy sector,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Increasing domestic energy production and fortifying and expanding the infrastructure that connects producers, refiners and consumers will help us achieve this goal.”

Oil industry leaders were quick to celebrate Landrieu’s ascendancy.

“With her strong support, the people of Louisiana have played a major role in America’s energy revolution,” American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard said. “Her deep understanding of energy issues will continue to serve her well as chairman.”

Marty Durbin, head of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, agreed: “We look forward to working with her as she leads the committee through discussions on how to affordably and reliably power our nation’s growing energy demands.”

Oil money

The oil and gas industry has been a leading contributor to Landrieu’s campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, oil and gas interests have given Landrieu $456,300 so far this election cycle — her second-biggest donor by industry.

Oil Change International said Landrieu’s move “will ensure one of Big Oil’s closest Democratic allies is in a prime position to work in their interest.”

“Big Oil has been pursuing a ‘buy-partisan’ strategy, and it’s likely to pay off with Sen. Landrieu,” quipped the group’s executive director, Stephen Kretzmann.

Muted praise came from other environmentalists, including a coalition of conservation groups that champion Gulf Coast restoration. In a joint statement, the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation and other groups emphasized how Landrieu’s “tireless leadership” was key in enacting legislation directing Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 oil spill to Gulf restoration.

Tricky politics

Wyden is set to remain atop the energy panel at least through a Thursday committee vote on two high-level Interior Department nominees, potentially giving Landrieu some distance on the politically difficult question of whether to endorse them.

Landrieu’s leading Republican challenger, Rep. Bill Cassidy, on Tuesday urged her to vote against one of the candidates, citing the nominee’s previous criticism of natural gas development.

For Landrieu, the energy gavel could be a mixed blessing. In the short term, the high-profile role gives her a chance to leverage oil and gas industry priorities and emphasize her credentials as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat. That’s a boon to Democrats worried about keeping their hold on the chamber, which would change hands if Republicans picked up six seats in November.

But if Landrieu pushes too aggressively on oil and gas issues, she could face a backlash from environmentalists. Already, California billionaire Tom Steyer has promised to campaign against Keystone XL supporters, and Landrieu is one of his five possible targets.

Landrieu’s power also faces constraints from both Democrats and Republicans leading up to the Nov. 4 election. Democratic leaders are unlikely to advance controversial energy legislation that could anger environmentalists. And some Republican colleagues will be unwilling to help Landrieu score legislative successes, lest it undermine the GOP’s chance of winning her seat.

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