‘He could be a real dealmaker’: Luján eyes energy’s future

By George Cahlink | 06/15/2021 06:02 AM EST

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) on Capitol Hill this month. Francis Chung/E&E News

A few summers ago, former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz was driving to his fly-fishing retreat when he found traffic stopped in the northern New Mexico village of Chama. It was the town’s annual parade. He pulled over to watch the festivities and spotted a familiar face walking the route handing out candy — then-Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

"It was a most unusual place for us to engage in a deep discussion about DOE, labs and fly-fishing — all of which he is very enthusiastic about," Moniz recently told E&E News.

The chance meetup underscores a key trait that Luján, New Mexico’s newest Democratic senator, brings to the chamber: He’s a relentless politician eager to engage with anyone anywhere on energy issues, particularly those that affect his state’s two massive Department of Energy laboratories, Sandia and Los Alamos.

"When I was secretary, Ben Ray Luján was a reliable ally for stewardship of this unparalleled resource. He’ll do even more now as senator from New Mexico, home to both Los Alamos [which was in his congressional district] and Sandia, while realizing that their vitality is tied to that of the entire system," Moniz said.

Indeed, Luján, a former six-term House lawmaker with a penchant for bolo ties, has already shown his legislative chops in the Senate by rallying support for attaching a bipartisan provision to recently passed innovation legislation that would direct $17 billion in new spending for DOE labs over five years.

He did so despite opposition from one of the bill’s main sponsors, Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), who argued such a carve-out would undermine the intention of the bill to dramatically increase the speed of technology deployment ( E&E Daily, May 17).

But the win on lab funding will likely prove far easier than the challenges Luján will face in making headway on his other energy and environmental goals, which he has worked on for nearly two decades — first as a state utilities regulator and then as a House Energy and Commerce Committee member.

Those challenges vary from creating a federal clean energy standard to preserving the lands around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

If he hopes to make progress on those issues, Luján will have to navigate the political realities of a 50-50 Senate and balance interests in a state known for its natural beauty, ancient heritage and energy production.

Jeanette Pablo, a resident senior energy fellow at the Clean Air Task Force who has worked with Luján on energy and climate change issues over the past decade, calls the senator a "progressive with an open door" who is willing to listen to both sides of an issue and try to find a middle ground, such as his proposal on a clean energy standard that seeks to straddle both moderate and liberal interests.

"He could be a real deal-maker if things progress with climate legislation," added Pablo.

Luján said his approach was honed as a regulator: He listened to all viewpoints, learned the policy and then used that information to guide his legislation.

"I like smart people to sit down around me and help me learn more and to better deliver for whatever that issue," said Luján, recalling meetings with actuaries and utilities experts before deciding rate cases.

Lawmakers, policymakers and advocates say Luján has the intelligence, drive and, perhaps most importantly, pragmatic style that could allow him to find openings on those issues. They say the combination of his significant experience and relative youth — he turned 49 last week — could allow him to have an impact on energy issues for years to come, a career trajectory similar to former New Mexico stalwarts Sens. Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D).

"I think people recognize that he has that combination of policy smarts and an understanding of the politics of the situation. In order to get the policy right, you have to get the politics right," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a former House colleague of Luján who proceeded him as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

How to handle an oil pause

Shortly after taking office, President Biden handed Luján his first political challenge as senator: the order calling for a pause on all new energy leases on federal lands.

The executive action was hailed by environmentalists as a crucial step toward a transition away from fossil fuels. But New Mexico officials warned it would lead to a loss of just over $700 million in federal drilling payments to the state. Those payments account for about a tenth of the state budget.

The response from Luján, who opposes a permanent ban, shows how he’ll try to position himself to support the administration’s climate goals without alienating his state’s energy industry. He’s pressed to end the pause and pleaded with the administration to focus on helping states and communities that stand to lose jobs and revenue under new energy transition policies.

Instead of traditional energy exploration, Luján argues that there must be "investments into these communities for job creation, job opportunity, workforce development, revenue replacement, and support for whatever" work replaces the energy jobs.

Luján introduced legislation in May, S. 1740, with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that would offer "energy transition payments" to soften the impact of a shift away from fossil fuels. Under the plan, the federal government would set a baseline for federal energy revenue payments to New Mexico, based on past data, and then require the government to cover any shortfalls if there are new limits on energy production ( E&E Daily, May 13).

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association praised Luján for recognizing "the federal leasing pause disproportionately hurts states like New Mexico the most and undermines the energy leadership and security earned through safe, responsible production in our state and across the country." It said it wants to work with him toward a "low carbon, low emissions" future.

But his approach has not alienated greens either — thus far.

"He probably, more than any other legislator in the state, has seen the need to drive innovation, to protect us from the worst consequences of climate change," said Camilla Feibelman, director of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter in New Mexico.

She said he understands the need to move way from fossil fuels but wants it "done well and right."

Feibelman noted Luján holds a 97% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

Not ‘flashy,’ but effective

While well-regarded by environmentalists, Luján only endorsed the Green New Deal after opting to run for the Senate.

He initially held off on backing the progressive plan that was not popular with House leaders but ended up doing so only after there was some talk he could face a Senate primary challenge from the left.

His support for the Green New Deal helped to quiet talk of a Democratic primary for the seat, and Luján had a clear path to the general election.

His signature environmental effort likewise is a balancing act: He aims for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, about two decades later than progressives have proposed in the Green New Deal.

Luján’s federal clean energy standard legislation would require electricity sellers to increase the amount of clean energy they sell with a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by midcentury. It would create a market among sellers for trading clean energy credits to meet the goal rather than requiring new federal taxes or investments.

The legislation builds off a model he spearheaded for New Mexico as a state regulator as well as a recommendation from last year’s report by the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, a panel he served on. He expects to again sponsor the CES bill with Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who introduced the Senate version of his House CES bill in 2019.

Aside from pushing for a CES, Luján has focused on expanding science and technology efforts at DOE laboratories aimed an accelerating the energy transition. For example, he won a provision in the Senate innovation bill to create a foundation at DOE that would make it easier for labs to leverage private-sector investments to jointly develop technologies like next-generation batteries.

"He has always really taken on the hard issues," said Jetta Wong, who worked with Luján as the director of DOE’s first Office of Technology Transitions under the Obama administration. "He’s doing the stuff that other people, one, don’t understand, and two, don’t really see as flashy."

Wong credits Luján with not only helping to secure the dollars needed for the office, but also working on complex legislation related to technology transfer and small businesses at DOE. She said some of his proposals made it into law as part of last year’s Energy Act update.

Luján did not land on either the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources or Environment and Public Works committees, the panels most closely associated with energy and environment legislation in the chamber. Heinrich serves on ENR.

But Luján said he can continue to influence the ongoing energy debate from his current committee assignments, including a seat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"In the Biden administration, we are going to see a restoration of the role that science is going to play in our national policymaking," said Luján, noting that he is a member of the Commerce subcommittee that oversees the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

He also points to his role as chair of the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband as a chance to weigh in on power grid resiliency and protection.

Seeking justice through conservation

Another priority for Luján is conservation, an issue he sees through the prism of environmental justice.

"Whether you are Black, Hispanic or Native American [in] all of the conversations surrounding infrastructure investments and energy, there needs to be a realization that the lack of environmental justice is leading to health care concerns in those communities and needs to be addressed," he said.

For years now, he has sought a permanent ban on drilling near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, land long held as sacred by Native Americans.

Luján successfully passed House legislation last Congress for a one-year ban on mineral development around Chaco, but it stalled in the Senate. He’ll try again this year with Heinrich, who backed last year’s Senate version, and will benefit from having a strong Chaco ally in Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the former New Mexican lawmaker.

In addition, Luján is pushing environmental justice legislation related to Cold War-era nuclear testing in New Mexico.

He wants to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to cover more of his state’s "downwinders" who were exposed to radioactive fallout during the tests as well Native American communities who were exposed to open pit uranium mining operations tied to weapons testing.

During the Obama years, Luján was also involved with successfully pressing the administration to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of public land in the state, now known as the Rio Grande del Norte and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks national monuments. Last Congress, he backed legislation that became law to protect wilderness areas within those monuments.

Demis Foster, the executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico, said Luján would often pore over maps of the lands. She said he was "instrumental" in winning the monument designations. Crucially, she said, he would regularly try to pull Republican-learning conservationists into talks about preserving lands, believing that it needed not be a bipartisan issue.

"He understands how important it is for collaboration in these huge efforts," she said. "It’s tough for people who are typically at odds to sit together and try to negotiate on something, and he was the one that really said you have to do it that way."

From the casino to the Senate

Luján was born into a political family as the youngest of four children of Ben Luján, a towering force in state politics. His father spent nearly 40 years as a state lawmaker, including the last 12 as speaker before his death in 2012.

Ben Ray Luján recalls wandering the statehouse halls as a child and still lives on his family’s farm in Nambe, just north of Santa Fe.

Heinrich, who worked for Luján’s father and has known the politician whom many simply call "Ben Ray" for two decades, said his New Mexican heritage is central to his political identity.

"He is the king of retail politics back home because he has such deep, long-standing relationships with so many people," said Heinrich. "He grew up watching how to advocate for people right in his own home. So he’s really good at working with people and finding a path."

(Luján is often assumed to be related to the state’s Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), but the two are not closely related. He said you have to go back several generations to find any shared ancestry.)

His powerful connection has been used as a weapon against him by political opponents.

When Luján sought an open seat on the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission in 2004, he had not finished college, and his only government experience was as deputy state treasurer, a post he had been appointed to a few years earlier.

Luján came to the commission as other states were beginning to develop renewable energy standards to move away from fossil fuels. He saw an opening for New Mexico to set its own regulatory rules for renewables, especially for solar energy, in a state that averages more than 250 days of sunshine per year.

Jason Marks, a fellow Democrat who served on the panel with Lujan, said the future senator was quick to reach out to and visit other states to learn about how they were moving ahead with their renewable energy standards. He said Luján was savvy enough to realize after a push to legislate a statewide standard failed that the best option would be to mandate it via the commission.

Marks said Luján spent a summer going to a judicial college in Nevada to learn about administrative law, a skill that would prove vital in moving a renewable fuel standard through the commission as its chair from 2005 to 2007.

"He didn’t have a clue about administrative law when he got in, but he learned," said Marks, who called Luján a "great commissioner" whose leadership on a solar standard has helped make it the cheapest form of electricity in the state and spurred numerous solar projects. Luján eventually finished college in 2007.

The next year, he would win a House seat being vacated by then-Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat who was making a bid for the Senate, but not before campaign opponents seized on his thin resume as a casino worker prior to joining the regulation commission.

Still, the attempt to label him a "blackjack dealer" without a college degree fell flat. As in his race for the commission, his family’s familiar name helped him win what has become a reliably Democratic district in the state’s northern tier.

In the House, Luján focused on science and energy issues from his seat on Energy and Commerce while developing a reputation for strong Democratic messaging and fundraising.

He broke into leadership when he won a race to helm the DCCC in 2016, making him the first Hispanic to lead the party’s campaign arm. Democrats made modest gains in 2016, but the New Mexican became a party star after he helped lead them to the House majority in 2018.

Shortly after the election, Luján was appointed assistant speaker, the party’s No. 4 leadership post, and was seen as a potential replacement someday for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

However, when Udall caught many by surprise in 2019 by deciding not to seek reelection, Luján cleared the Democratic field and won the general election by more than 5 percentage points.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), a former state utilities regulator who served in the House with Luján and is now sponsoring abandoned well and mine cleanup legislation with him, says his background in leading a commission is well-suited for the Senate, where consensus-building is vital.

Cramer also said it doesn’t hurt to have negotiated a rate case or two, adding "there is something to be said for the ability to dive deep on technical issues and regulations."