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Begich, other incumbent Senate Democrats in energy spotlight

Jennifer A. Dlouhy

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps no one outside of Shell had more riding on the company's Arctic drill bits than Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat fighting for his political life.

Representing a state that lives and dies by the oil industry -- and quite literally is funded by it -- Begich has pledged to be a bridge to President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill, working to ensure more oil drilling in the region and the prospect of more state revenues tied to the activity.

But a federal court ruling undermining the government's 2008 sale of drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea and Shell's subsequent decision to hold off on Arctic exploration another year have dealt a serious political blow to the first-term senator.

Similarly, the politics of oil will play a big part in other critical midterm races, as a Democratic administration loved by neither industry nor environmentalists struggles to keep its political allies in Congress.

Begich is one of a trio of vulnerable Senate Democrats running for reelection in conservative states -- the others are Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- who are distancing themselves from the White House on energy issues. In the narrowly divided Senate, their seats are critical to deciding whether Democrats keep their hold on the chamber. Republicans would retake the Senate if they pick up just six seats.

In 2012, Obama lost Alaska, Lousiana and Arkansas by 14, 17 and 24 points respectively.

With Landrieu, Begich and Pryor breaking with the national Democratic Party on energy issues, the oil industry has a chance to win a critical vote on Keystone XL. A bipartisan coalition -- with Landrieu the leading Democrat and Begich and Pryor as members -- is trying to find 60 votes of support for legislation that could endorse the controversial oil pipeline or force a deadline for the Obama administration's final decision on the project.

The oil industry can also expect Landrieu and Begich to fight any moves to remove tax deductions valued at $40 billion over 10 years. Pryor has supported removing those tax breaks in the past.

And as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a role she is expected to assume as soon as Thursday, Landrieu will be able to leverage oil industry priorities, including her legislation to give states a greater share of royalties for offshore oil and gas production near their coastlines.

Her support for exporting natural gas -- in contrast to the skepticism of the outgoing committee chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. -- also could spur the Energy Department to move more quickly to approve foreign sales of the fossil fuel.

And on offshore drilling, both Begich and Landrieu have roundly criticized the Obama administration's approach, complaining of limited access and slow permitting.

Begich's positions fit with the oil politics of Alaska, where natural resource issues reign supreme, said University of Alaska-Fairbanks professor Gerald McBeath.

Residents of the Last Frontier are acutely aware that crude flowing through the Trans Alaska Pipeline System has been slowing down, along with oil revenue paid into the state's permanent fund. In addition to paying for an annual dividend check to Alaskans, the fund supports schools and essential services across the state. More oil development -- be it in the walled-off Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve or the U.S. Arctic -- could reverse the trend and keep the crude and money flowing.

Begich has "been right to cast himself as an outlier in the national political system -- as an independent who is Alaska's advocate and an independent voice in the Senate for Alaska," McBeath said.

It's key for Begich to "distance himself from a Democratic national agenda, showing his relevance to Alaska's development needs and how he is best prepared to deal with the continuation of Democratic control of the Senate and the last years of the Obama administration," McBeath added. "These are things he can do."

Immediately after Shell's Jan. 30 announcement that it would not drill again this year, Begich's campaign yanked a radio ad in which he touted his pro-drilling credentials and promised a new era of Arctic oil exploration.

"Even though Washington keeps trying to stop Alaska from developing our natural resources, I'm pushing for more oil drilling and mining because it means thousands of new jobs that you can raise a family on," he said in the 60-second radio commercial. "Shell Oil is coming back to the Arctic Ocean ... so we can finally start drilling after decades of waiting."

Begich's hold on his Senate seat has always been tenuous. He won it by just 4,000 votes in 2008, one week after incumbent Republican Ted Stevens was convicted of corruption.

Three Republican challengers are vying for a chance to take Begich on in November, including Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, former Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan and Tea Party favorite Joe Miller.

Recent polling confirms a close race. Surveys released Feb. 7 by the conservative group American Crossroads show Begich trailing both Treadwell and Sullivan by six points, but Feb. 4 results from Public Policy Polling have the former Anchorage mayor leading his two major GOP opponents by similar margins.

Begich has cast himself as a "different Democrat" from day one -- departing from the national party on gun control as well as energy policy. Begich pressed regulators to allow ConocoPhillips to build a bridge over Alaska's Colville River, despite environmental objections, so the company could access its drilling lease in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. That milestone in late 2011 paved the way for production expected to start late next year.

"He's been good in the energy industry, and I think that's smart," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in remarks reported by Alaska Dispatch. "That's where we're getting most of our income in the state."

Begich has not been shy about criticizing the Obama administration. After President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, Begich said the administration needed to be "more aggressive on natural resource development."

"The president said he wants to focus on 'fuels of the future,'" Begich added, "but we should be focusing on the fuels we can develop right now, and that's Alaska oil and gas."

Landrieu's position atop the energy panel is viewed as a key enticement for oil- and gas-minded voters in Louisiana, but if she fails to live up to their expectations, they could abandon her on Election Day.

It's also unclear how much latitude Landrieu will have. Some Republican colleagues will be unwilling to help Landrieu score legislative successes, lest it undermine the GOP's chance of winning her seat. Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid is unlikely to advance controversial energy legislation that could anger environmentalists.

That would make it impossible for Landrieu, Pryor and Begich to "escape the fact that their friends in Senate leadership and the administration really do not mean Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska well," said GOP strategist Michael McKenna. "That is why all three of them either have or will try mightily to get some distance from the sinking ship."


By JENNIFER A. DLOUHY
Hearst Newspapers