Les bons temps roulent for energy wonks and lawmakers at what Mary Landrieu calls her "bipartisan party house on Capitol Hill."
"That's really what we need to see more of in this town, and less bomb throwing," the former Democratic Louisiana senator said during a recent interview. "We're gonna have a little gumbo, a little bit of boiled shrimp, a couple of beers to kinda just help people get comfortable and start talking and developing trust and good working relationships."
After three decades in state and federal politics, Landrieu, 63, said climate change tops the list of issues she wants to tackle with the help of party guests, who've included members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Landrieu is the oldest of nine children born to Verna and Maurice Edwin "Moon" Landrieu, who served as New Orleans mayor, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a Louisiana state legislator and an appellate judge. Her brother, Mitch Landrieu, is a former New Orleans mayor and Louisiana lieutenant governor.
Mary Landrieu earned a bachelor's degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and worked as a real estate agent until she was elected at age 23 to the state Legislature. She was elected state treasurer in 1987.
After losing a bid for the Louisiana governorship, Landrieu was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996, becoming the first woman from the Pelican State to serve a full term in the upper chamber. While in office, she shepherded through the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, the single largest one-term environmental investment in the Gulf Coast.
She romped in Senate re-election bids in 2002 and 2008, earning the nickname "Landslide Landrieu," before losing in 2014 to Republican Bill Cassidy. Her career on Capitol Hill was punctuated by Hurricane Katrina, which decimated New Orleans in 2005, and by her role in energy debates, as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 2014 to 2015.
Today, she's a senior policy adviser at the law firm Van Ness Feldman LLP, where her clients include the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority of Louisiana and Noble Energy Inc., a large Houston-based independent.
Landrieu talked to E&E News about her career, the nation's legislative outlook and the reality of climate change:
Do you miss Capitol Hill?
I miss seeing senators and wonderful staffers that I worked with on a daily basis, but I don't miss the dysfunction and the seeming lack of civility and the gridlock. And having been elected and served for 34 years — at the state level and at the national level — I feel like it's just the right season for me to be out and in a different place.
Would you ever run for office again?
No, no, no, no, no. I would not run again. That is out of the picture. I'm really, really enjoying my advocacy work outside of being in elected office.
You threw a shindig focused on energy. Did you have any advice for Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, now that he's the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as you were?
Well, honestly, Joe does not need a lot of advice. Manchin is an amazing politician. He's served as governor, he's served as senator, he definitely understands the politics of West Virginia, but he also understands the politics of a big tent party, and Democrats have always been a big tent party.
Do you think Manchin and Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska] will be able to tackle issues like climate change? Will that be difficult for Manchin, coming from a coal state?
I don't think it's going to be easy, but he most certainly has not said anything publicly or given any indication that he's not willing to put his shoulder to the wheel and see what he can do to help. I mean, he most certainly has not been a denier. He accepts the science, he understands what's happening, and I think that he will be a very good partner with Sen. Murkowski and the other members and be a leader for the other members of that committee.
Sen. [Martin] Heinrich [D-N.M.], Sen. [Debbie] Stabenow [D-Mich.], I mean, Joe's got some Democrats that understand how to put deals together. There are others. I think Joe will rely on them.
President Trump expresses doubt about climate science. What effect does that have on U.S. action on climate?
Look, I don't underestimate the power of the White House. But as I said and stand by this, the majority of thoughtful leaders in the private sector and in the public sector — might not be true of the White House — but the vast majority of CEOs, of business leaders understand the science to be real and, you know, the president can keep his head in the sand.
That doesn't mean the rest of us have to do it.
What do you think of the Green New Deal?
I understand the concept, to move the country to low carbon and then eventually no carbon. I think it's a very admirable goal. It's just a matter of how long it will take to get there and the ways that we get there. But it's an outline. It's aspirational. The details all have to be worked out, and that's what the public debate is going to be about.
Do you think U.S. exports — crude, [liquefied natural gas] — are in conflict with tackling climate change?
No, I do not, and it's because the export of gas from the United States will help to diminish the use of coal around the world, which will have a direct positive impact. Let me give you an example: Do we need to make sure that we have tight methane rules in the production of gas? Absolutely. Do we need to make sure that we've got as tight a regulations on the facilities themselves? Absolutely. But the export of natural gas is part of, from the U.S., is part of the green solution.
What legislation can we expect on energy and climate?
One of the things that I'm hoping we could see in the next Congress, now that the Land and Water Conservation Fund has been permanently authorized, which is a major commitment in terms of theory and authorization for public lands and access to public lands, I'm hoping that a great coalition can come together to now put some permanent funding behind the land and water conservation, and sharing those revenues with coastal states, as well — states that are producing states and states, as well, that are non-producing states.
I'm also hoping to break through the gridlock and to start building the second phase of our liquefied natural gas facilities that are primarily located in Texas and Louisiana, but they are a few around the country to continue to build on the work of exporting our gas, which is part, I believe, part of the green solution.
Although the Trump administration has quashed [corporate average fuel economy] standards, I think there is a real understanding that efficiency in vehicles and pushing those limits out is an important component of reducing pollution in the U.S.
What about climate legislation — a carbon tax, say? Could you see something like that move in 2020?
Yes, I do believe that legislation will start to move. There is tremendous support among the Democratic caucus, but a rising, I think, interest in and acceptance among thoughtful Republican leaders. This Congress has already put a price on carbon, and people don't realize it, but it's already been done. This Congress has already moved, Republicans and Democrats, on pricing of carbon when they provided in the tax bill a credit for carbon sequestration. So it's not a question of, it's already been done.
And do you think conservatives' appetite is growing for climate action?
I wouldn't describe it as an appetite. I would describe it as a realization that it will be smarter to get ahead of this than to be dragged along with it. And if you want to help shape the debate, it's better to kind of get in the front of the parade so you can have a little, you can have some impact in the direction this parade might take.
And the kind of beat that you're going to either walk or march to, because there is a growing recognition among the business community, these large multinational corporations of who are in large measure in the Republican camp politically. That's not to say that that's true across the board. I mean obviously big tech companies, a lot of them tend to be Democratic.
This business community is getting very clear about their pending liabilities on this issue. And it's not just a group of "rogue trial lawyers." It's legitimate liabilities under current laws about the responsibility to shareholders and being stewards and having a social license to operate.
If you're just paying attention to it, you can see this C-level change that's occurring in the C suites, and when those C suites start talking to K Street and K Street starts talking to Capitol Hill, things start changing. And let me just say this, sometimes C suites don't have to go through K Street. They go straight to the leadership office. And I think some of that is starting to happen now.
Do you wish you had done more to promote climate action during your time on Capitol Hill?
When I was there, I did what I could do in my state at the time, and I think that the work that I did post-Katrina in helping New Orleans be probably one of the most resilient cities on the planet. Working on coastal issues and working with the Land and Water Conservation Fund. I shepherded the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, the first stream of revenue from offshore production from the Gulf Coast, and advocated for the RESTORE the Gulf Coast [States] Act, a bipartisan measure that directs 80 percent of the Clean Water Act penalties paid by BP following the Deepwater Horizon disaster directly to the Gulf Coast.
And on all the lands bills that I helped to pass. I mean, in ways that I could, again and with liquefied natural gas, promoting the use of gas as a substitute for potentially oil and coal. I mean, that was very helpful, I think. I most certainly was never a denier — most certainly never stood in the way, and most certainly tried to be helpful where I could, and I think the record will show that.
How have your views changed since you left the Hill?
Having gotten out of the Senate, of course — now it's been, what, five years — and been able to actually pay a little bit more attention. When you're in the Senate you're distracted by hundreds of things every day.
Being able to really focus on a couple of really important issues, I have to say that I've become more concerned and more committed and more on this issue, and more clear that the sooner America acts and leads the world, the better this is going to be for everyone, including ourselves.
Which Republicans will lead on climate?
There are a handful of Republicans that have tried to talk with the Republican leadership about this. They should get a lot of credit. And [former Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo] was top of my list, because he is so articulate and he put together one of the first bills. But I think more Republicans will begin to. I mean, there is a bipartisan caucus in the House, and that's led by [Florida Reps. Ted Deutch (D) and Francis Rooney (R)].
I know that Sheldon Whitehouse [D-R.I.] is actively looking for a partner in the Senate to stand with him on the Republican side and begin to lead. And who that leader is going to be, who emerges, it's going to be a historical figure.
And it hasn't quite emerged yet. It could be Lisa Murkowski. It could be I don't know. I don't know.
Do you have any nicknames beside "Landslide Landrieu"?
No, I guess that's what people in Washington call me because of my great, extraordinary victory when I first got elected. So they would refer to me, I guess, lovingly in that way. But no, I really didn't — I just didn't have a nickname, I don't think, that I know of. Like George Bush didn't give me a nickname, Trump hasn't given me — that might be a good thing. ... Landslide Landrieu is fine.
And in addition to house parties, what do you do for fun these days?
I spend a lot of time with my grandson, who's now 5 and just the most adorable little boy in the world.
We've got property along Lake Pontchartrain where we do a lot of fishing and crabbing and boating and spend time with family in New Orleans. And mostly just spending time with family, my many brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews.
This interview has been edited and condensed.