Mary Landrieu does not much care for the environment. During her three terms representing Louisiana in the U.S. Senate, she has amassed the lowest lifetime rating of any Senate Democrat from the League of Conservation Voters, just 49 percent.
And now she’s on the verge of taking over the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Last week, President Obama nominated Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chair of the Finance Committee, to be ambassador to China. There is no reason to think that Baucus — a centrist, pro-business Democrat — won’t get confirmed to the post. Once Baucus resigns from the Senate, Energy Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) will assume the chairmanship of the far more powerful Finance Committee.
At first glance, Wyden’s ascension might strike environmentalists as good news. Wyden has a strong environmental record, and the Finance Committee’s jurisdiction includes important energy policies such as our massive wasteful subsidies for oil and gas drilling, and our comparably meager — and constantly threatened — subsidies for renewable energy development. But Wyden’s move means Landrieu is next in line to chair the Energy Committee.
Holding a seat in Louisiana, which consistently votes Republican in presidential campaigns, is hard for a Democrat. Given the importance of offshore oil drilling to the Gulf Coast economy, Landrieu takes a pro–fossil fuel line on most issues in Congress. Paying Landrieu a compliment that should send a chill down your spine, Eric Wohlschlegel of the American Petroleum Institute told The Wall Street Journal, “She has a history of understanding the industry and the importance of delivering energy to the country.” If API is happy about the new Energy chair, you shouldn’t be — unless you work for ExxonMobil.
From a purely political perspective, Democrats see giving Landrieu the reins of the Energy Committee as a boon to her tough reelection campaign in 2014. This is perhaps foolish on their parts, as few low-information swing voters pay attention to committee chairmanships. Anyway, one might reasonably wonder what the point of being in the majority is if you don’t use it to address the biggest issue of our time: climate change and our dependence on dirty energy.
And Landrieu has not been friendly to climate action. In 2011, she voted in favor of an amendment sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reverse the EPA’s decision to label CO2 a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. This EPA move, which paved the way for regulation of major sources of CO2 pollution such as coal-burning power plants, was reached through rigorous scientific analysis carried out by civil servants. McConnell’s amendment would have done more than curtail our most significant efforts to combat climate change; it would have politicized the process of a federal agency carrying out its work under the law.
There are plenty more examples of Landrieu siding with polluting industries over the citizens who suffer from their pollution. In 2011, she voted against the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act, introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), which would have done exactly as its name suggests. She voted for an amendment to the 2012 transportation bill that would have opened up vast areas of coastline to offshore drilling, potentially damaging coastal industries and interfering with military activity. She voted for an amendment to the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 that would have prevented the EPA from using aircraft to monitor for Clean Water Act violations at industrial-scale livestock operations. Even farm-state Democrats such as Tom Harkin of Iowa voted against it.
Louisiana’s Gulf Coast is a major port area, and so Landrieu strongly favors measures to boost the supply of oil and liquefied natural gas being piped to the region for export — measures like building the Keystone XL pipeline.
In recent years, Landrieu has been fixated on increasing the share of royalties from offshore drilling that go to adjacent coastal states, such as Louisiana, instead of to the federal government. She has worked with fellow oil-state senator Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), the ranking Republican on the Energy Committee, to attach amendments for that purpose to unrelated legislation. Making common cause with the committee’s Republican members, Landrieu succeeded only in gumming up the works in the committee. Most Democrats oppose Landrieu’s plan because it would take money out of the federal Treasury.
There are two land-use bills coming up in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on which environmentalists worry Landrieu may side with extractive interests. The Southeast Native Corporation of Alaska, known as Sealaska for short, wants to log 70,000 acres of land that was protected by the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Although it is tempting to support the legislation on social justice grounds — Sealaska is owned by Native Americans — the Sierra Club says it will endanger fish, wildlife, and the communities that depend on them. “Residents of nine small communities in the vicinity of Sealaska’s proposed new selections oppose the bill, having witnessed what Sealaska’s highly destructive clear-cut logging did to its own lands,” notes the Sierra Club Alaska chapter in its newsletter. “These communities rely on intact watersheds to protect productive salmon streams that sustain their commercial and subsistence fisheries. … Other forest users — tour guides, lodge owners, air taxis, charter boat operators, wilderness visitors, etc. — also depend on healthy fish and wildlife.” Environmentalists argue that logging is a dying industry over the long run, while fishing and tourism are essential to the region’s economic future.
In another case, Congress is considering giving away land to a foreign-controlled mining company. Resolution Copper Mining, owned by the British firm Rio Tinto and the Australian company BHP, seeks to build America’s largest copper mine on federal land in southeastern Arizona. In addition to environmental reviews by the executive branch, this project requires congressional approval for giving up 2,400 acres in the Tonto National Forest in exchange for 5,000 acres of other land in Arizona. Resolution Copper would not, however, pay royalties for this bounty that it wants taxpayers to bestow upon it. As USA Today reports, “Opponents — including environmental groups and the San Carlos Apache Tribe — say it would damage sacred tribal land, harm recreation and rock-climbing areas and threaten the water supply for much of the state, including the Phoenix area.”
It is possible that Landrieu will be more responsive to environmental concerns on these issues than her record suggests. She is a loyal Democrat on many issues, and she will be under pressure from the Obama administration and the Democratic Senate leadership. Her affection for the oil industry may be just a product of her home state and its politics, not an intense ideological commitment to giving away public resources to extractive industries.
Still, Landrieu’s ascension is bad news for environmentalists. It might have happened anyway, after Baucus retired, assuming Landrieu won reelection and the Democrats kept control of the Senate — but neither of those last two outcomes are certain.
One thing that is certain is that Landrieu’s chairmanship couldn’t possibly be worse for the environment than Republican control of the Senate.