POLITICS

Behind a double play for Keystone XL and gas exports designed to make vulnerable Dems squirm

Making a fresh energy-security case for Keystone XL out of the same Ukraine unrest now powering calls for faster natural gas exports requires an intellectual leap across continents and fuel types. But its political value is as plain to see as a list of vulnerable Senate Democratic hopefuls.

Six of the eight Democratic lawmakers locked in challenging Senate races this year have a firm position on either the KXL pipeline or legislation that would boost liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports -- but not on both issues, according to member interviews with E&E Daily and voting records searches. In rhetorically linking the two debates, then, oil and gas industry advocates can double their pressure on an already jittery majority in the upper chamber, where Republicans need to flip six seats to seize control.

"People make the same connection" between Russia's use of its natural gas for geopolitical gain in the European Union and the United States' reliance on imported crude oil from less-friendly nations that KXL might displace, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said in an interview this week.

"Here we are getting oil from the Middle East and having to send soldiers into places like Iraq," Hoeven said, adding that the Ukraine tension "continues to strengthen our case and puts more pressure on the administration" over the Canada-to-U.S. heavy oil pipeline.

Hoeven said raising the profile of the $5.4 billion KXL, which President Obama may yet decide on before the November election, amid the focus on Russia's energy posture also forces Democrats to choose a side in the long-running oil pipeline battle.

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Perhaps the most closely watched vulnerable Democrat on KXL, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, is joining his opponent Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) in an embrace of expanded LNG exports as a show of support for his home state's shale gas producers (E&E Daily, March 26). But Udall is staying circumspect on Canadian crude imports.

A spokesman said that Udall voted "no" on two symbolic KXL amendments to last year's budget resolution -- one backed by pipeline supporters, the other its opponents -- as a statement "against injecting politics into the process" and that he is waiting until the current State Department review process runs its course, "allowing all parties to weigh in," before taking a position on whether the pipeline should be built.

Udall's Democratic colleagues in the toughest Senate races tend toward more settled views on KXL, now in the sixth year of review by State and lambasted by environmentalists as a fatal blow to U.S. climate change efforts.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who is seeking to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), opposes the pipeline, a spokesman said this week. That shift first emerged in his committee-to-floor turnabout last year on a pro-KXL bill and comes as billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer edges toward making Braley's campaign a beneficiary of his ample war chest for climate-conscious Democrats in the midterms (Greenwire, Feb. 18).

Braley is facing fierce attacks from the GOP this week after conservative activists posted video of a dismissive comment he made about his state's senior senator, Chuck Grassley, and his background as a farmer (E&ENews PM, March 27). Braley is still weighing his position on Gardner's measure expanding LNG exports ahead of an expected Energy and Commerce Committee vote on the bill, according to the congressman's office.

Pro-KXL Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) said in a brief interview yesterday that she has not yet looked at the LNG export expansion plans offered this week by Udall and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) during debate on a sanctions and aid package for Ukraine.

Pro-KXL Sen. Mark Pryor's (D-Ark.) office did not respond to a request for comment on his approach to the LNG export question in time for publication. Petrochemical processors in the state, however, benefit from cheaper domestic natural gas, and the state's junior GOP senator, John Boozman, raised concerns about a price spike to ArkansasNews.com this month.

Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), vying to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), is a longtime critic of the oil sands fuel that KXL would carry. His office did not respond to requests for comment on his stance on LNG exports.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who has voted against KXL, endorsed the notion of helping European nations "who are currently getting energy from Russia who are concerned about alternatives" in an interview yesterday.

"Now, what that means in terms of our own infrastructure and what we need to do, I think the devil is really in the details," she added.

Values vs. voters?

Two Democratic lawmakers targeted for defeat in their Senate races are unabashedly in favor of both KXL and unfettered LNG exports: Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who spotlighted the latter issue this week in her new role as Energy and Natural Resources chairwoman.

In an interview yesterday, Begich called on his fellow Democrats "to readjust our thinking" on the security benefits of energy exports.

The Last Frontier has exported fossil fuels for decades, he noted -- winning partial exemptions from the ban on overseas crude sales in 1985 and 1996 -- and no "dramatic disaster on the West Coast" has followed in the pricing department. "People need to look at this more broadly" from a jobs and energy security perspective, he added.

Rarely cited by Democrats in electoral jeopardy this year is the perspective that Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), whose term ends in 2018, offered on his opposition to KXL and his "strategic" stance on LNG exports.

"If the only thing you were concerned about was energy security, and climate change didn't exist, maybe that would be an argument," Kaine said in an interview about KXL boosters who invoke Ukraine's plight. "But climate change is happening, and that is a security issue. ... Anything goes, no matter how dirty it is, I think that's contrary to our national security."

Kaine said fellow senators interested in a more nuanced approach to advancing LNG export projects are looking at "what would be the appropriate vehicle" for such moves after a Ukraine aid package cleared Congress yesterday without any language on the issue.

Environmentalists working to slow both the pipeline and the growth of LNG export infrastructure view both as a spur for emissions-heavy fossil fuel growth. Ukraine-related KXL cheers like Hoeven's, for greens, are little more than fossil fuel backers heeding the advice of former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste" when it can be used to serve ideologically friendly ends.

"Oil industry has a long history of using global conflict to peddle their product, but it's still sickening to watch the KXL/Ukraine charade," 350.org Communications Director Jamie Henn wrote on Twitter this week.

Yet for Udall, whose wife is veteran conservationist leader Maggie Fox, campaign-trail prods to support oil and gas may pit personal values against home-state realities, particularly as his race for a second term tightens. Udall's "natural sentiment would be to be against" KXL, Denver-based independent pollster Floyd Ciruli said in an interview, as he is "fundamentally our most environmental senator."

Gardner is an ardent industry backer, however, and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is supportive of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas even as the issue sparks multiple local battles over banning the practice. Having to "weed through" the challenge of green support for fracking bans, Ciruli added, means Udall is likely "praying that the president will decide [on KXL] so he can move on."

Reporter Nick Juliano contributed.

Twitter: @eschor | Email: eschor@eenews.net

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