US House oil state Democrats may seem caught in a dilemma at first glance. On one hand, their party leaders advocate energy solutions that do not include more domestic oil and gas production. On the other, many of their constituents work in that very industry or related businesses.
But three such members say it's easy to resolve that question. Their constituents' interests come first. What's more, they told me, the House's Democratic leadership understands.
When 15 House Democrats voted June 26 against H.R. 2615, the so-called "use it or lose it" bill which would have required federal oil and gas lessees to develop tracts they already hold more quickly, "we expressed how we feel. All of us want to do something substantive about high oil prices, but it's going to have to include additional domestic production," explained Gene Green (Tex.).
"People sometimes ask me why I'm so supportive [of oil and gas]. We have to represent our districts. In mine, we do everything. We still have producing wells. There are several service companies, refineries and petrochemical plants," he continued.
Soon after Democrats regained control of the House in the 2006 elections, Green and others in the party from producing states began to meet informally. "We're not a large group, so we typically coordinate quickly on the floor and in our committees. But we can come to a decision without taking much time because there aren't that many of us," he said.
Weren't in the room
One problem with H.R. 2615 was that House Democrats who understand the oil and gas industry weren't in the room when it was being discussed, according to Charlie Melancon (La.). If they had been, they would have mentioned factors ranging from rig availability to the time it takes to examine and evaluate a lease before starting to drill, he said.
The situation has improved recently, Melancon continued. "We've been meeting more with the leadership. They've been asking for more meetings, in fact. Will we move something? I don't know," he said.
"Earlier in 2006, there were several pieces of legislation from tax increases to new taxes which I opposed. Now, I feel as if both parties are going to come together over the next year and work on something that's palatable for everyone," said Dan Boren (Okla.).
"The leadership is always seeking new ideas. While my vote is not always in line with what it decides, it has been very opening to listening to new ideas. Frankly, when the Republicans were in control, they governed with more of an iron fist. The Democrats have been more open on these issues. The speaker has made this her No. 1 priority. She's going to try to find a solution to the problem of high oil prices," he added.
'A complex question'
"It's a complex question, a worldwide problem with domestic elements. I understand where the leadership is coming from, but we need to get past punitive actions and provide more incentives for increased domestic production, for conservation and for alternatives," said Melancon.
"As an energy Democrat, I want to do everything [about high oil prices]. We need to look at the commodities market and see if the system is being gamed. I'd support more regulation if it is," said Green. Melancon co-sponsored a bill with Jim Matheson (D-Utah) in June dealing with foreign commodities exchanges trading US energy contracts.
Oil state Democrats in the House are particularly active in committees, where they also work with leaders. Boren said that Jim Costa (Calif.), who heads the Natural Resources Committee's Energy and Minerals Resources Subcommittee, and Rick Boucher (Va.), who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee, are particularly knowledgeable.
The three lawmakers said they still spend time educating other House members about the modern oil and gas industry. "I think some of them still see it as it was in the 1940s and '50s when there wasn't much concern for the environment," said Melancon. Others are more receptive, such as Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.). "She's a very good listener and makes decisions based on what she thinks is right for her state," Boren said.
"The leadership always has met with us and sought our advice. We're obviously in the minority so we've tried to shape policy around the edges by sharing our concerns. I've been in discussions with our entire leadership team on multiple issues. Even though I've voted against several bills, there's always been an open line of communication," he said.
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