WASHINGTON — When U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was fighting desperately to keep her seat before the November elections, her tactics included turning fellow Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington into a political piñata.
Landrieu warned voters in Louisiana, one of the nation’s top oil-and-gas producing states, that ousting her would cost her chairmanship of the Senate Energy Committee and elevate Cantwell, whom Landrieu portrayed as favoring “windmills and alternative energy.”
Landrieu’s friend Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., pitched in on the campaign trail by accusing Cantwell of holding “hard-line” environmental views and predicting Landrieu’s defeat would leave fossil-fuel states like his “absolutely dead.”
Landrieu nonetheless lost her job in the December runoff election. Democrats also lost their eight years of majority rule in the Senate. And Cantwell in January will become the ranking Democrat on the Energy Committee — though hardly the green bogeywoman Landrieu and Manchin described.
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Tops among Cantwell’s priorities will be such issues as protecting cheap hydropower that girds the Pacific Northwest economy, supporting “smart grids” to transmit electricity more efficiently and enacting policies to help speed up advances in alternative energy.
Lower on Cantwell’s agenda, however, are bolder moves on climate change and the environment — such as the unsuccessful “cap and dividend” plan she and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, introduced in 2009 to cap carbon emissions and raise revenue by auctioning off pollution permits to fossil-fuel producers.
For one thing, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, not Cantwell, will take control of the Energy Committee in the next Congress. As ranking member, Cantwell will lead the committee’s Democrats. But her overall influence on legislation will depend largely on how much input Murkowski allots her.
For another, Cantwell and other pro-environment Democrats are facing an expanded GOP majority in Congress with many members who hold irreconcilably different visions for America’s energy future.
Against that backdrop, Cantwell said, she could “resurrect (the cap and dividend legislation) as far as introduce it again, but to get it passed” is probably futile.
Cantwell will be the highest-ranking Democrat from Washington state on the Senate Energy Committee since Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Jackson, who died in 1983, chaired what was then called the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and its predecessor committee for 18 years.
In a recent interview in her Senate office, Cantwell spoke at length about Jackson’s outsized legacy on that panel. Jackson’s list of landmark legislation includes authoring the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, shepherding the Wilderness Act of 1964 and helping create the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in 1976.
Cantwell said it would be difficult to emulate Jackson’s achievements when she doesn’t chair the committee. Rather, Cantwell expects to play more defense against Republican efforts to undo Democratic progress.
Most Republican lawmakers, for instance, object to rules proposed in June by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate state-level carbon emissions from existing power plants. The agency is relying on its authority under the Clean Air Act to target electric-power generation, the nation’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions.
“Many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle don’t want to deal with the fact that the Supreme Court said the EPA must enforce the Clean Air Act,” Cantwell said.
A signature Cantwell approach to legislation is to use mandates and incentives to shape behaviors and business investments. She has pushed for tax credits and research aid for biofuels and composite materials for aerospace. She has tried to set national standards for flexible-fuel cars to wean Americans off gasoline and to use more non-petroleum fuel such as ethanol or methanol.
Cantwell thinks the United States is at a critical juncture for rethinking its energy policies. She sees the transition to solar, wind and other renewable energy and new products like electric cars as being on the cusp of the same kind of transformative shift that the Internet unleashed on personal computers.
Deborah Gordon, director of the Energy and Climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, D.C., think tank, said it may be time to update Jackson’s 1975 energy act, which among other things established the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and set energy-conservation benchmarks for appliances and other consumer products.
Technology is making accessible previously untapped forms of oil that carry varying environmental and economic costs. Rising oil production is fanning debate once again about exporting U.S. crude after a four-decade ban.
Meanwhile, Gordon said, Americans’ gasoline consumption is rising with the plunge in fuel prices, reversing a decline for much of the past decade that many experts thought was permanent.
“This stresses how critical climate policy will be in the face of low oil prices,” Gordon said.
Come January, Murkowski is likely to renew her fight to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Cantwell is a leading foe of drilling and is trying to permanently ban it in the Arctic coastal plain as a federally designated wilderness.
Cantwell said she’s hopeful she and Murkowski can build on their mutual love of salmon and interest in fisheries health and maritime industry to forge bipartisan solutions.
“Let’s do the little things we can agree on,” Cantwell said.