Washington Watch for Dec. 2, 2012

Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum
Washington Bureau writer Jordan Blum

She may not chant “Drill, baby, drill”, like former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and former GOP Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, or hold up a “Drilling = Jobs” sign like U.S. Rep. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, but U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was just about as pro-drilling.

So it is no surprise to see her co-headlining with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, at a “Natural Gas and Energy Issues in the New Congress” event last week that was sponsored by the America’s Natural Gas Alliance trade group.

Once considered nearing depletion domestically, natural gas production has taken off in the country thanks to technological advances primarily through the method of hydraulic fracturing, called “fracking.” Louisiana has benefited thanks to boons like the Haynesville Shale and Tuscaloosa Marine Shale.

With so much liquefied natural gas in production and prices very low, Landrieu and much of the Louisiana congressional delegation support allowing the oil-and-gas industry to utilize the “free market” and export natural gas to the rest of the world, even though doing so could drive up costs.

Exporting gives industry the financial inventive to continue producing, she said. “If the price drops too low, the production will cease,” Landrieu said.

Not so coincidentally, the first large-scale natural gas export facility in the country — the Sabine Pass LNG terminal — is planned for Cameron Parish by Houston-based Cheniere Energy Inc., despite the protestations of environmental groups. It should be noted that the U.S. Department of Energy is still reviewing the environmental objections.

Landrieu joked that the Gulf Coast has some “great spots” for the export facilities and the jobs they bring. She also remains a chief advocate for increased revenue-sharing with states and communities for oil-and-gas production.

Landrieu also backs Congress stepping in legislatively to assert that U.S. policy backs liquefied natural gas exporting.

“There’s some lack of clarity on whether we should export or not, and I think Congress should make that decision,” she said.

For instance, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is the incoming chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is skeptical of allowing LNG exporting because of the effects it could have on prices and the domestic manufacturers that depend on affordable natural gas.

Landrieu said chemical manufacturers in Louisiana oppose LNG exporting.

But Landrieu is not all in on allowing fracking anywhere or anytime either. “Yes, there are some environmental and land-use issues that we need to be cognizant of,” she said.

She noted, for instance, the recent fracking ban approved in Longmont, Colo. “There will be cities and there will be places that don’t want drilling rigs in the middle of town,” she said. “There should be drilling zones and there should be nondrilling zones.”

“There’s plenty of land,” Landrieu added. “Trust me. We don’t have to drill on every square inch.” She even added that the industry “can get a little overzealous on this.”

As a Democrat in an increasingly conservative state, Landrieu must politically walk a bit of a tightrope as someone who is both pro-drilling expansion and pro-abortion rights. She is one of the seemingly few politicians left who proudly wears the “moderate” badge.

And with re-election around the corner in 2014 — whether she is challenged by U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, or others — Landrieu wants to keep the oil-and-gas industry on her side, or at least neutral, and in her campaign war chest.

She’s the only statewide elected Democrat in Louisiana and it can be an uneasy position for any Democrat to be aligned with the industry, although she has managed it for years. After all, the topic where Landrieu is most vocally critical of President Barack Obama is on the expansion of domestic oil-and-gas production.

Supporting both the increased production of oil and gas and alternative energies, Landrieu said the natural gas boon can serve as the nation’s bridge of energy security until alternative energy sources can become more practical and widespread.

Jordan Blum is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email is jblum@theadvocate.com.