A budding love affair between Democrats and the natural gas industry will face an important test after the midterm elections, when a lame-duck Senate will vote on whether to make it cheaper for commercial vehicles to run on the energy source.
Natural gas firms are lobbying Members for federal investment incentives such as the Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act, a bill that is scheduled for a Nov. 17 cloture vote.
Ahead of its new advocacy push, the industry has enlisted nontraditional political allies, such as Democratic Congressional leaders, and its companies have formed a new trade group. The industry has also been giving more campaign contributions to the majority party.
A Democratic lobbyist who works on energy legislation said new technological advances have “broadened the field” on the political front for natural gas companies. The companies have also been successful at playing up the commodity’s green reputation among Democrats.
“There has certainly been a lot more interest,” the lobbyist said. “There are a lot of Democrats who definitely think natural gas is a lot more environmentally friendly alternative.”
The American Gas Association has been more generous to the party, giving $120,000 to Democrats since 2009, including contributions to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Energy and Commerce Chairman Emeritus John Dingell (Mich.) and Senate Rules Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).
According to CQ MoneyLine, contributions to Democrats represented 46 percent of AGA’s overall political giving this cycle, a dramatic increase from the previous two-year period. In 2007-08, the trade group gave 36 percent of its campaign gifts to Democrats and gave 28 percent in the previous cycle, campaign records show.
The trade association represents large utility companies such as Ameren Corp. and Nicor Inc.
AGA lobbyist Charles Fritts said the industry is “lucky” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is putting so much attention on natural gas. The utilities lobby also is supporting the Nevada Democrat’s bill that would create incentives for developing natural-gas-fired vehicles, a product line that is unlikely to come to market without a federal government investment, Fritts said.
“The natural gas vehicle market hasn’t cracked into the big time,” he said. “It’s been a very hard sell.”
For the first time in 16 years, a trade group representing natural gas pipeline providers has shifted the majority of its campaign contributions to Democrats. According to CQ MoneyLine, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America has given $33,500 to Democrats this cycle, which is almost 60 percent of its total political giving.
Campaign finance records show the trade association gave 51 percent of its donations in the last cycle to Republican candidates and political action committees, the same ratio of contributions to the GOP that the organization’s PAC has averaged since 1980.
“We’re looking for allies on both sides of the aisle,” INGAA lobbyist Martin Edwards said. “In a Democratic Congress, it’s important to look for allies on the Democratic side of the aisle. We’ve certainly done that, and we tend to focus our contributions to folks who have been proven supporters on gas-related issues.”
Edwards also credited the “improbable relationship” between T. Boone Pickens and Reid as a major boon for the natural gas industry. In 2008, the Texas oilman launched his “Pickens Plan,” an energy blueprint that encourages lawmakers to move national energy consumption away from foreign oil in favor of natural gas and electric vehicles.
Once a prominent Republican donor, Pickens told reporters last week that he has pledged not to make federal campaign contributions and to work with Members of both parties. Pickens also said Reid will be able to move an alternative fuels subsidy bill during the lame-duck session, in part because of the promise.
Pickens declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed for this article.
Regan Lachapelle, a Reid spokeswoman, said in an e-mail Wednesday that “Democrats recognize that the responsible development and use of our significant domestic natural gas resources can make our nation more secure and provide a good bridge to a job-creating, clean energy future.”
Tapping Democrats’ Support
America’s Natural Gas Alliance, which represents independent producers, is also attempting to make its pitch to Members from both parties. The organization registered a PAC this summer but is not expected to make any contributions until after Election Day.
“We feel that the compelling benefits of natural gas have strong bipartisan appeal,” spokesman Daniel Whitten said in a statement. “So we feel that the advantages natural gas offers, not just for transportation, but also power generation and industrial uses, crosses partisan lines and is an essential component of any forward-looking energy policy.”
Unlike with oil and coal, environmental groups are tepidly blessing legislation that would encourage investment in natural gas facilities, undoubtedly making it easier for Democrats to offer their support.
Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, said the energy source “is cleaner, but it’s not clean.” Recent advances in natural gas exploration have created new environmental hazards that need to be addressed, but it’s a step in the right direction for both parties, Hamilton said.
“Any Democrat or Republican that wants to cozy up to that particular message, it’s a very compelling message,” he said. “There’s lots of reasons why people should be espousing natural gas as a cleaner fuel, but they shouldn’t wholeheartedly embrace it and sweep the problems under the rug.”