Sen. Max Baucus' ascension to a plum ambassadorship is weeks if not months away, but the reality of an oil and gas stalwart controlling a Democratic Energy and Natural Resources Committee began to sink in yesterday for both sides in the capital's environmental culture wars.
Although Baucus' likely departure from the Finance Committee chairmanship he first claimed in 2001 hinges on multiple political variables, the current Energy chief in the upper chamber -- Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) -- is poised to replace the Montana Democrat and hand over the ENR panel's gavel to Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in the spring. That leaves a champion of the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling expansion, whose re-election battle next November further heightens the value of industry support, in charge of a committee with outsize importance to the U.S. fuel mix.
Greens, unsurprisingly, are not excited.
"It seems like it's not worth trying to push back on -- this is definitely going to happen," one environmental group official said, speaking candidly about Landrieu on condition of anonymity.
While climate activists hope to find common ground on public land issues with the Louisianan who co-sponsored legislation blocking U.S. EPA greenhouse gas rules in 2010, the environmentalist added, "on the energy side, it is pretty alarming in our community."
One former Hill aide who tracks energy issues summarized Landrieu's coming move: "Is it something the environmental community would have hoped for? No. Is it a fundamental change, given the way things are going in Congress and the highest-profile aspects of the climate issue? I'm not so sure."
The source of greens' likely new headache stayed deliberately mum on any committee leadership changes that could remain purely hypothetical until as late as March, pending Baucus' confirmation.
Landrieu told E&E Daily yesterday that she has had "a brief conversation" with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about the gavel, "but until Senator Baucus' confirmation goes through, there is one chairman of the Energy Committee, and that's Ron Wyden."
The Oregonian joined her in declining to pre-empt a process that, as Reid reminded reporters yesterday, remains unofficial until Baucus' nomination.
"I won't be saying anything about this topic until after Chairman Baucus has made an official announcement," Wyden said. Asked about environmentalists' fears about Landrieu succeeding him, Wyden reiterated that response -- then praised her co-sponsorship of legislation on U.S.-Israel energy cooperation that cleared the committee yesterday.
Despite speculation that other senators could take the Finance or Energy gavels, given that Wyden's history of bucking his leadership on taxes and entitlements echoes Landrieu's right-leaning stance on energy, seniority remains the watchword for Senate Democrats, former Reid aide Jim Manley said in an interview.
"When she gets the gavel, that will be a huge boon for her election in Louisiana," Manley, now a senior director at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, added of Landrieu. "But being a chairman doesn't mean being a dictator. You have to get input not only from Republicans but also from those on your side of the aisle as well."
'I'd like to have the gavel'
Perhaps the biggest of Landrieu's energy policy priorities in recent years, her push for coastal states to share more of the profits from offshore oil and gas production, both unites her with ranking Energy panel Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and does not risk as great a rift with environmentalists as drilling expansion (E&E Daily, Dec. 19).
Murkowski's role in the post-Baucus Senate, however, depends on whether the chamber remains blue in 2015. If Democrats hold on to control, term limits would prevent her from remaining in the committee's top GOP spot.
Asked yesterday whether she would seek a waiver from those rules to remain alongside a Chairwoman Landrieu, Murkowski said "it's way too premature to think about" but offered her preferred alternative.
"I'd like to have the gavel," she said. "That takes care of that problem."
The Wyoming Republican who would succeed her as ranking member on Energy in 2015, Sen. John Barrasso, sounded a similar note when asked about his interest in the role.
"I'm doing everything I can to make sure Lisa Murkowski is the chair of the Energy Committee in the next Congress," Barrasso said yesterday.
The ideal political outcome for environmental groups in 2015 would be a Senate that stays Democratic even if Landrieu loses her re-election race against Rep. John Cassidy (R), which would leave Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) atop the Energy Committee.
But the current electoral math facing Senate Democrats suggests that Louisiana is pivotal to preserving their four-seat majority, making a Chairwoman Cantwell into the longest of long shots.
And some clean-energy advocates are not so apprehensive about Landrieu's empowerment.
"There's no doubt that ... clean energy is not nearly as high on her agenda as it was on Senator Wyden's," said one renewables lobbyist, who also spoke candidly on condition of anonymity. That said, the lobbyist noted, promoting clean energy hasn't been all that high on the panel's agenda even under Wyden, who has sought to focus on areas where more bipartisan agreement can be found.
So it is "safe to say it's not going to have much of an impact on us in the short term," the lobbyist said.
Cantwell, a member of both the Energy and Finance panels, praised Wyden's policy expertise and skill in mediating policy disputes.
As for Landrieu's likely move to the Energy chairmanship, Cantwell said she would be wise to find common ground among the panel's diverse membership.
"I would just advise, if Mary takes over, keep getting these things that we can agree on, getting them done and out of the way," Cantwell said. "And then you can see what's ahead of you. Instead of trying to shoot the moon on some big policy."
The White House yesterday remained mum on the timing of a Baucus nomination. Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that he does not "want to get too far down the road" on a still-unannounced nomination but promptly defended the Montanan's credentials for the job. "I want to generally respond that Senator Baucus has done certainly a substantial amount of work on U.S.-China relations over the past several decades."