published Saturday, July 5th, 2014

Lamar Alexander's energy policy influence poised to grow

Texas gas earnings

Wealth disclosures filed by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander list several real estate holdings in Victoria, Texas, held by his wife through partnerships. According to records maintained by the Texas Railroad Commission, two of those properties have produced natural gas in recent years.

One set of wells produced more than 427 million cubic feet between 2001 and 2005. Another well that remains active has produced nearly 734 million cubic feet since 2007.

Alexander's office says earnings from the wells has been small. The Alexanders took in $3,103 in oil and gas royalties in 2013 and $2,045 in 2012.

NASHVILLE — A year ago, just as he was beginning his bid for a third term, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander stood before an audience at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to deliver the keynote address at a summit called "Securing America's Future."

A "big part" of the answer, the Republican senator said, would be natural gas.

"The United States ... has pursued a different track, the most conspicuous example of which is finding gas and oil by unconventional means," he said. "This has created for our country a remarkable phenomenon: a large amount of cheap, clean energy."

What Alexander says he didn't know at the time was that 900 miles away, on the outskirts of a South Texas town, he and his wife were benefiting in a small way from the very phenomenon he touted.

Last year, the Alexanders took in $3,103 in oil and gas royalties through their stake in a family partnership, and records in Texas and Washington, D.C., show the senator and his wife have been collecting similar amounts of natural gas revenue for years.

By Texas standards, their earnings do not amount to much. They also amount to little more than a rounding error for a couple with a personal wealth of at least $9.3 million.

But they could be poised to grow along with natural gas production. And Alexander, who could become one of the nation's most influential lawmakers on energy policy next year, has made it clear that one of his goals is to spur more natural gas production.

"Natural gas will be a big part of where we get our clean energy," he said.

Influence growing

Alexander has a long history of speaking up about energy policy. Five years before his Oak Ridge speech, Alexander delivered a similar address in which he talked about the need to encourage technologies -- such as electric cars, biofuels and green buildings -- that will reduce the United States' reliance on oil.

He also has been a consistent skeptic of wind energy and a fierce advocate for nuclear -- as might be expected of someone representing a state that's the home of both Oak Ridge and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

His thoughts could take on added importance after November. If he wins re-election and if Republicans retake the Senate, two scenarios many political observers see as likely, Alexander would become the chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, a position from which he could steer government policy on energy.

Alexander says he would use the position to cut subsidies to mature industries -- such as wind and oil -- and encourage research in other sectors.

Natural gas has benefited from such policies, he says. A federal tax credit in the 1990s encouraged firms to rethink where wells could be drilled economically. Government research also demonstrated that gas could be extracted from unconventional sources.

Texas has been one of the places where natural gas production has boomed. In May 2013, when Alexander spoke at Oak Ridge, regulators in Texas listed 1,443 natural gas wells under production in the Eagle Ford Shale formation, a 300-mile band of rock that runs under South Texas.

Just outside this formation sits Victoria, the hometown of Alexander's wife, Honey. Her family continues to own ranch land and other real estate investments there, and some of those investments include gas wells.

Four wells near the Victoria airport produced more than 427 million cubic feet between 2001 and 2005. Another well, north of town, has produced nearly 734 million cubic feet since 2007 and was still producing as recently as April.

Records also show a sixth well has been approved, but production has not started.

Honey Alexander's family, the Buhlers, may have other natural gas investments in the area. Though not part of the Alexanders' assets, Texas regulatory records show 40 other leases have been issued under that name.

Stakes are small

The Alexanders' share of the revenue from these wells has been small, said spokesman Brian Reisinger. In addition to the $3,103 earned in 2013, they earned $2,045 the year before.

Wealth disclosures filed by Alexander show the couple's best year came in 2008, when they collected about $10,000 in oil and gas royalties.

Reisinger said Alexander's support for natural gas has not been shaped in any way by his wife's earnings from the sector or her ties to South Texas. The senator owns no direct investments in energy, does not sit on any boards and does not trade in stocks or bonds.

Honey Alexander does hold stocks and bonds, Reisinger said, but she has delegated management of those assets to a Nashville investment firm. They are not involved in trading decisions, he added.

"The answer to whether assets listed in Sen. Alexander's personal financial disclosure impact his policy positions is no," said Reisinger.

This isn't the first time the Alexanders' real estate interests have collided with the senator's energy policies. Nearly a decade ago, Alexander began speaking out against subsidies for wind turbines.

Some questioned at the time whether Alexander's thinking might have been influenced by his real estate holdings near the Great Smoky Mountains and his ownership of property on Nantucket, where U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and others were fighting an offshore wind farm.

Alexander denied the connection to his policy stance but sold the Nantucket property in 2010. And as his speech in Oak Ridge made clear, his feelings about wind energy have not changed.

"People talk about Big Oil, but the big, unnecessary subsidy is Big Wind," he said, "and a much better place to spend our money would be energy research."

If the elections shake out as he hopes, Alexander will be able to influence where money for energy research is directed. Natural gas producers are almost certain to benefit.

Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 and on Twitter @chassisk.

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