Energy issues let Louisiana shine as campaigns focus on Saturday presidential primary

03 23, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

The political sun is shining on Louisiana. The state's presidential primary is Saturday. All four remaining candidates will be campaigning in the state Friday. And the only issue anyone, from President Barack Obama on, seems to be talking about is energy.

The questions that preoccupy Louisiana day in, day out, year in, year out, are now front and center for every American, and might dominate the 2012 presidential election.

"Suddenly it's on everybody's doorstep," said Samuel A. Giberga, senior vice president and general counsel for Hornbeck Offshore. And so it is that what in times past might have sounded like the special pleading of oil-patch politicians for a home-state industry are now articles of faith for every Republican candidate.

President Obama's protestations notwithstanding -- "so we are drilling all over the place, right now; that's not the challenge, that's not the problem," he said Thursday in Cushing, Okla. -- for the Republican field, it is about drilling and increasing domestic production.

It is the "silver bullet," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has rebranded himself the candidate of $2.50-a-gallon gasoline, during an appearance Wednesday in Pineville.

"Drill, baby, drill. Mine, baby, mine," said Rick Santorum, the grandson of a coal miner, at a rally the same day in Mandeville.

What separates the Republican candidates more than anything is the messianic passion that Santorum brings to the issue, identifying himself as the only genuine climate-science denier in the bunch.

"Global warming and climate science convinced many, many Republicans, including two running for president on the Republican ticket -- Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney -- but there was one who said, this is not climate science, this is political science," Santorum said Tuesday night before departing from Gettysburg, Pa., for Louisiana.

In 2008, Gingrich famously sat on a sofa with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for an ad produced by the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonprofit organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore, calling for action to deal with climate change. He has since expressed his regrets for that.

Romney has also not been one to deny that human activity contributes to global warming, though he doesn't particularly advertise that.

Aaron Viles, deputy director of the Gulf Restoration Network, said, to his regret it now seems de rigueur for Republicans to "pander to the anti-science within the Republican Party." But he said, "Santorum is head and shoulders above the rest in the vitriol of his anti-environmental rhetoric."

The opprobrium of Viles and other environmentalists will not harm Santorum in Saturday's vote, which is open only to registered Republicans.

But criticism from Don Briggs, head of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, is another matter.

What caught Briggs' eye was a bullet point in Santorum's energy plan. It reads: "Eliminate all energy subsidies and tax credits. This will prevent the federal government from picking winners and losers in our effort to unleash all of America's domestic energy sources."

"That doesn't sit well with me," Briggs said. "First of all, these are not subsidies, they are tax credits, incentives."

In his weekly column Friday, Briggs wrote that "Rick Santorum is calling to end what he and President Obama call 'energy subsidies.' The oil and gas industry is presently in direct opposition to President Obama on this very issue."

Asked about this, Hogan Gidley, Santorum's national communications director, replied, "Rick's plan will be a significant benefit to the energy industry, especially in Louisiana, because it starts with regulatory relief and lifting drilling moratoriums. Sadly, this president would rather raise taxes on energy so he can give taxpayer dollars to his friends in the green energy industry like Solyndra.

"Rick's plan would phase out alternative energy subsidies so the government won't pick winners and losers -- and at the same time, would provide tax relief to all in the energy industry by cutting the corporate tax rate in half and cutting the tax rate to zero for all U.S.-based manufacturing activity," said Gidley. That answer did not satisfy Briggs.

"Eliminating industries' tax credits falls in line with the president's policy," said Briggs. "I don't believe he understands the importance of these credits to the independents that drill 90 percent of the wells in the U.S."

Assaying the other candidates, Briggs said, "Newt wants to get rid of the EPA. I'm all for that." Ditto Ron Paul. "Romney wants to do some regulatory streamlining, which is a good thing."

Briggs said some of the more conservative members of his association in North Louisiana are "warm and fuzzy" for Santorum, while "I have friends that really support Mitt and just like the hell out of him, just really like him."

Romney "would turn around the energy policy of this country," said Scott Sewell, a past head of the former federal Minerals Management Service, who is co-chairing and directing the former Massachusetts governor's campaign in Louisiana. "Absolutely, no question that Mitt Romney is viewed as the strongest business mind we've had run for president in memory."

Like Sewell, Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta said he believed the Obama administration was bent on driving up the cost of traditional energy in favor of more costly alternatives.

"I feel very comfortable about supporting Mr. Romney," said Skrmetta. "If he wins, great. If he doesn't, I will vote for whoever is nominated."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the top choice of many energy executives during his short-lived presidential campaign. Of the remaining candidates, Romney has gotten the lion's share of donations from industry bigwigs, but Santorum has benefitted from the single largest donation from any individual associated with oil and gas in Louisiana, and that is the $1.5 million that William Dore, a Lake Charles energy executive, gave to the Red, White and Blue Fund, the super PAC backing Santorum.

However, Dore, who has been mum about the reasons for his generosity, has not said whether energy issues are what drew him to Santorum.