June 26, 2014

U.S. Gas Exports Flow Through DC Lobbying’s Revolving Door

U.S. Gas Exports Flow Through DC Lobbying's Revolving Door

Even as President Obama pursues an aggressive new public effort to fight global warming by regulating U.S. power plants, his administration is quietly advancing an energy policy — exporting America’s liquid natural gas (LNG) — that may well raise the volume of climate-increasing greenhouse gases even more than emphasizing coal, while at the same time polluting U.S. communities through increased use of the controversial practice of hydraulic fracking. (The American Petroleum Institute notes that “a government-industry study found that up to 80 percent of natural gas wells drilled in the next decade will require hydraulic fracturing.”) Worse, the policy also could hurt U.S. consumers by raising energy prices.

As awareness of the harms of LNG exports has grown, public protests are increasing.  Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) charged last week that gas exports may be illegal. But the gas industry is using highly-paid revolving-door Washington lobbyists, Democrats and Republicans, to push policymakers to accelerate these bad decisions. They also are using the Ukraine conflict as a hook, arguing that U.S. exports can reduce Europe’s dependence on Russia.

While the coal industry, once heavily bipartisan in its friendships, has increasingly deepened its love affair with the Republican Party, natural gas has become the Democrats’ fossil fuel of choice. White House senior adviser John Podesta earlier this year defended the decision to emphasize natural gas as a more-climate friendly source of power generation. But there’s a difference between producing gas for the U.S. market, which, despite all the environmental hazards, helps reduce energy prices for U.S. consumers and businesses, and shipping that gas overseas, which could produce a bonanza for big energy companies but potential harms to most everyone else in the U.S..

That doesn’t seem to concern the Democrats and Republicans alike who are cashing in as paid advocates for this gas rush.

The clearest example of how U.S. natural gas exports are flowing through the DC lobbyist revolving door is last week’s announcement that Heather Zichal, who until recently was President Obama’s deputy assistant for energy and climate change, was named to the board of directors of Cheniere Energy, Inc.  Cheniere, in 2012, became the first company to obtain the critical approval of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to export U.S.-produced natural gas overseas, from its Sabine Pass terminal in Louisiana.

Zichal’s background is in politics and policy work, not geology, construction of energy facilities, or other private enterprise activity. Part of her appeal for Cheniere, undoubtedly, is her knowledge of how to influence the Obama Administration, and her connections to Obama and his team; she is apparently highly regarded by Obama, who personally pressed her not to leave the administration. Cheniere’s statement of Zichal’s qualifications for board service is this: “Ms. Zichal has extensive knowledge of the domestic and global energy markets as well as the U.S. regulatory environment.” As an Obama official, Zichal already was advancing the cause of gas and fracking, and discussing the potential for LNG exports.

But a review of lobbying disclosure forms reveals that Cheniere is far from alone in hiring revolving door advocates for its cause.  Many of the Washington lobbyists who already have been pushing government to unleash the flow of LNG exports have high-level connections to the Obama Administration or to senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

The newest winner in the LNG lobbying effort is the giant natural gas holding company Sempra Energy, which last week became the second company to receive FERC approval, to export gas from its existing Cameron LNG terminal, located in Hackberry, Louisiana, and now used for gas importing.  Sempra, like Cheniere, already had cleared a separate hurdle from the Department of Energy to export LNG to countries such as Japan and nations of Europe.

Sempra has employed a battalion of DC lobbyists who, like Zichal, can take advantage of the connections they built working in government — a classic illustration of how ambitious people now use taxpayer-funded public service as a stepping stone to lucrative K Street careers where policy chops, persuasive skills, and DC connections are sold to the highest bidder.

Sempra’s lobbyists for LNG exports include:

  • A team at Ogilvy Government relations, whose website makes it easy for corporations to select the right lobbyists by color-coding their headshots, blue for Democrats and red for Republicans. Ogilvy took in $60,000 from Sempra for lobbying Capitol Hill and the Department of Energy on LNG exports and “general energy issues” in the first quarter of 2014. The Ogilvy lobbyists include: Moses Mercado, who is a former deputy executive director at the Democratic National Committee and 2004 campaign adviser to now-Secretary of State John Kerry and has donated about $248,000 to political candidates over the past 15 years; Dean Aguillen, a former aide to Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and donor of $175,000 to politicians over 15 years; Gordon Taylor, who worked as a House of Representatives staffer for both Democrats and Republicans and has donated over $200,000 to politicians in the past 20 years; Chris Giblin, former chief of staff to Rep. John Carter (R-TX) and donor of some $236,625 in the past 15 years; and Dee Buchanan, former chief of staff to Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX).
  • David Leiter, the president of ML Strategies, a former Senate chief of staff to John Kerry and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy. His firm got $30,000 from Sempra in the first quarter of 2014 to lobby the House, the Senate, the Energy Department, the Commerce Department, the White House and Kerry’s State Department on LNG exports. In the past 20 years, Leiter has contributed some $137,116 to politicians, almost all to Democrats, but also, in 2010, $1000 to Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), now the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
  • Lisa Epifani, a former Assistant Secretary of Energy and White House aide under President Bush and before that a senior GOP staff member for the Senate Energy Committee, who lobbied with the firm Van Ness Feldman before leaving last month for a position with Chevron. She received $20,000 in 2014’s first quarter for DC lobbying on LNG exports.
  • Sempra overall reported spending $470,000 in the first quarter of 2014 on lobbying on a range of issues, including LNG exports, and listed Scott Crider and Tim Ransdell as its in-house lobbyists on that issue. Another energy company with a stake in the Cameron export terminal, the U.S. unit of France-based GDF-Suez, reported spending another $110,000 on lobbying, including LNG exports.

Asked for comment, Sempra Energy responded to some of my questions in writing.  A message from company spokesman Art Larson stated, “Sempra Energy employs a low carbon strategy that is described in detail within the corporate responsibility report we released yesterday (June 25). We support reasonable rules and regulations to ensure that all natural gas producers are operating to an appropriate standard – one that protects consumers, the environment, the energy industry and our nation’s access to this abundant supply of domestic energy.” In response to my question about whether Sempra selects its Washington lobbyists in part because of their career connections to executive and legislative branch officials, Sempra’s response, not surprisingly, was some form of “duh”: “Developing major infrastructure projects of interest to our customers and shareholders and participating in the public debate over major public policy issues requires inside and outside resources that help advance an open dialogue with regulators, government officials and the local communities where we operate. Engaging with these stakeholders to make our views known and understand their concerns is an important part of the process.”

Neither the Ogilvy lobbyists nor Leiter responded to my requests for comment.  A Van Ness Feldman partner, responding to my query re Lisa Epifani, wrote to me, “Since you are a lawyer, I hope you’ll appreciate that our firm is not in a position to talk about the work we do for a client. We are required by the D.C. Rules of Professional Conduct not to discuss client information.” (You all might be aware, though, that lawyers frequently, with client authorization, speak about their clients’ interests.)

This article also appears on Huffington Post