Energy issues are at the forefront of many congressional races

July 5, 2014 By and    

The midterm elections are less than six months away, and members of Congress have largely abandoned any pretense of legislating. They’ve instead turned their complete focus to their campaigns.

Although it looked like the Affordable Care Act was going to be the dominant issue to flood the airwaves this year, energy and environmental issues are beginning to emerge. With the House of Representatives expected to remain in Republican control, control of the Senate is in play. As a result, the Senate is where both parties are spending money and exerting effort.

Democrats are trying to keep their 55-to-45-seat Senate majority (two independent legislators caucus with the Democrats), but the odds are stacked against them as they defend 21 of the 36 seats up for election. Making matters worse for Democrats is that half of those 21 Democratic-held seats are in red (conservative) or purple (turning red) states.

Generally, the political lines being drawn on these campaign issues are not new, nor are the players. But there is one relatively new, and possibly game-changing, face emerging in the debate: billionaire and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.

Through his NextGen Climate organization, Steyer has turned his focus and considerable wealth to turning out voters in support of candidates who want action on climate change.

As a relative newcomer to national politics, Steyer has pledged $50 million of his own money for the effort. He hopes to raise an additional $50 million to help combat conservative billionaire businessmen David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and their pro-oil development political funds.

In May, NextGen Climate highlighted four Senate races as key to help maintain the Democratic Senate majority and defeat Republicans who reject the science of climate change. In both Colorado and Michigan, Republican candidates Rep. Cory Gardner and Terri Lynn Land, respectively, are being criticized for questioning climate science. Iowa’s Democratic candidate is Rep. Bruce Braley, a big supporter of renewable energy. In New Hampshire, Republican candidate Scott Brown is being criticized for opposing elimination of oil industry tax breaks.

One state noticeably not on NextGen’s list is Louisiana. Democratic incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu is in a tough fight this year, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity is running ads against her for her vote on raising the debt ceiling. As a Democrat from a state with large oil and gas interests, she has worked hard to support the industries vital to her state and the nation’s economy. She is also sensitive to the environmental degradation along Louisiana’s coastline.

Adding to this political pressure cooker is the fact that Landrieu became the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year – a position with considerable influence for oil and gas interests.

Alaska, like Louisiana, has another moderate Democrat in Sen. Mark Begich, who’s running in a conservative, oil-rich state. Although the state is not on NextGen’s working list, Alaskan voters are hearing about climate change from Democrats on the campaign trail, and Republicans are talking about opposition to a carbon tax.

In Arkansas, Sen. Mark Pryor is a conservative Democrat in a red state facing considerable opposition. In the Senate, he stands out for his cosponsorship of a bill strongly supported by the oil industry to repeal the renewable fuels standard.

In coal-dependent Kentucky, both incumbent Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes support the coal industry and criticize the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to control carbon emissions. They also both support the Keystone XL pipeline.

Let’s hope that the more these issues are discussed, the more voters will be educated on the critical relevance that energy production and use have on our economy and the difficult decisions ahead for our future energy and economic security. It’s a tall order for American voters to understand the complexities of our nation’s energy economy.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics and can be reached at


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