In 2007, when newly installed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was ushering a sweeping energy bill through the upper chamber, he frequently relied on Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell to monitor senators' feelings about the bill and guide Democrats' priorities.
Cantwell was key to the bill's successful increase to corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards and guided Democratic leadership on how votes were shaking out, information she tallied on a sheet of paper with her at virtually all times on the Senate floor.
"I went to her many times yesterday and said, 'What happens if this happens, and what happens if this happens? She knew right away,'" Reid (D-Nev.) recalled from the floor after the Senate passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in June 2007. "Words cannot describe how important Senator Cantwell was in our being able to pass this legislation."
Congress hasn't passed a sweeping energy bill since then and doesn't seem likely to do so again anytime soon. But energy policy is expected to remain a top focus of the Republicans who will take over the Senate's majority next year, and incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has pledged a return to "regular order" in which tough floor fights over amendments like the one Cantwell engaged in 2007 could become a common occurrence in the Senate.
Cantwell has generally avoided the spotlight during her 14-year Senate career, but an election next month nearly 2,000 miles from her home state could substantially raise her profile on energy policy.
If Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Mary Landrieu (D-La.) loses to Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy in their Dec. 6 runoff for the Louisiana Senate seat, it would clear the way for Cantwell, who is next in seniority on the panel behind Landrieu, to become ranking member. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has served longer than both, is expected to move from chairman to ranking member of the Finance Committee next year.
Cantwell, whose state is home to 13 national parks and zero active oil or natural gas wells, would bring a much different emphasis to ENR than Landrieu, who frequently defends the oil and natural gas industries that play an outsized role in Louisiana.
That difference in perspective made a prominent appearance on the campaign trail when fellow pro-industry Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia campaigned for Landrieu earlier this year. He called Cantwell a "very good friend" but said her "hard-line" environmental views would not be a welcome influence on the energy debate.
"Without Mary, we and those of us who come from energy states such as West Virginia and Louisiana, we're dead. We are absolutely dead," Manchin said.
Despite their policy differences, there is no personal animosity between the two, and Cantwell has been helping Landrieu in her re-election fight. She invited Vice President Joe Biden to Seattle last month to speak at a fundraiser for Landrieu and other Democratic women running for Senate and "has gone all out" raising funds for Landrieu around Puget Sound, the Seattle Post Intelligencer reported.
Cantwell's support notwithstanding, Landrieu faces a tough race to hold onto her seat. She took 42 percent of the vote in a three-way race Tuesday, to Cassidy's 40 percent, but recent polls have shown Cassidy maintaining a small advantage in the head-to-head contest (see related story).
While Cantwell would have less ability to shape policy in the minority, achieving seniority on the ENR Committee would still give her extra opportunities to influence federal agencies and provide a perch from which she could call attention to her priorities through letters, reports or investigations.
A formative experience for Cantwell was the Western energy crisis that bubbled over in her first years in office. She came to the Senate in 2001, as California's electric grid was experiencing frequent blackouts that would later be linked to market manipulation by the energy trading firm Enron, which would later declare bankruptcy. Cantwell dug into the investigation of Enron, whose operations extended into her home state, and was eventually instrumental in securing the release of audiotapes of traders joking about the havoc they were causing.
The Enron episode reinforced a skepticism toward energy markets and a belief in the need for rigorous federal enforcement she has carried throughout her career. One of her most significant legislative achievements came in 2005, when she successfully added language to that year's Energy Policy Act giving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission enforcement authority over market manipulation. She has remained one of FERC's leading defenders on Capitol Hill.
"That was hers," Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the advocacy group Public Citizen, said of the 2005 language. "And if you look at FERC's enforcement, that is their primary tool."
Cantwell's work on the Enron investigation and the 2005 energy bill raised her profile within the party. In 2006, as Democrats were plotting to retake the majority and partisan divides made energy legislation a difficult sell in Congress, Reid tapped her to help craft a bill to clarify the party's priorities.
"She dug in with her staff," recalled Chris Miller, who was Reid's top energy aide at the time. "I helped some, but she basically drafted the entire clean energy message platform that we had going into the 2006 elections."
The bill, dubbed "Clean EDGE," would have required the federal government to reduce its energy use, established a national renewable portfolio standard, cracked down on market manipulation and made gasoline price gouging a federal crime, among other provisions, some of which returned in the following year's energy law.
As cap and trade gained traction on Capitol Hill in the early years of the Obama administration, Cantwell's concern about potential manipulation of carbon trading markets led her in another direction. She joined Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins to introduce a "cap and dividend" bill in 2009 that would have rebated the proceeds from selling carbon credits back to Americans. It was the only bipartisan climate bill introduced in the Senate in the 111th Congress.
With Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress, there is no chance for any legislation that would impose a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, environmentalists and their allies are preparing for at least two years in which they will mostly be playing defense against attempts to undercut EPA's climate regulations.
Working with Murkowski
Incoming Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is expected to focus heavily on oil and gas issues, especially her calls to lift the ban on exporting crude oil and to expedite exports of liquefied natural gas.
While Cantwell is generally pro-trade on the grounds that exports tend to benefit the Northwestern economy, she is not nearly as enthusiastic as Murkowski or Landrieu about encouraging more oil and gas development, which would follow an expansion of exports.
Earlier this year, Cantwell joined then-ENR Chairman Wyden in requesting the federal Energy Information Administration study whether crude exports would increase gasoline prices, but she has not taken a firm position on the issue. Washington state also is home to several important oil refineries that serve the West Coast, and Cantwell has expressed worries about oil train traffic picking up in the state.
The Energy Committee has a reputation for bipartisan cooperation, and former aides are optimistic that Murkowski and Cantwell would be able to work well together, given shared interests between Alaska and Washington, such as an above-average reliance on hydropower and large fishing industries.
Cantwell also has been a vocal opponent of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- famously going to battle with former Sen. Ted Stevens and successfully blocking the Alaska Republican's attempt to open ANWR with an amendment to a 2006 defense bill.
More recently, she has criticized the proposed Pebble Mine near Alaska's Bristol Bay, a project Murkowski supports that has drawn the ire of environmental groups and Washington state's salmon fishermen.
The last time ENR Democrats were led by someone from Washington state, it was the legendary Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, who chaired the panel from 1977 to 1981 and was its ranking member for another session after that. Cantwell now sits in the same desk on the Senate floor once used by Jackson.
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