Former US Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana), who while in congress was highly active in promoting the interests of two American oil and gas companies operating in Israel, has recently been hired by these companies as lobbyist and advisor.
These same firms, Noble Energy and Genie Energy, donated campaign money to Landrieu, who lost her Senate seat in December 2014.
Noble is involved in offshore natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean, while Genie is exploring oil shale formations southwest of Jerusalem and liquid crude in the Golan Heights. Both projects are highly contentious and have sparked massive protests by members of the Israeli public.
As a representative of an oil and gas producing state, Landrieu’s enormous industry backing was well known throughout her political career. Her frantic – and failed – attempts to pass the Keystone XL pipeline through legislation in 2014 have forever earned her the scorn of North American activists.
But much less recognized are Landrieu’s substantial efforts while in Congress to strengthen the energy ties between Israel and the United States, and, in particular, advance the interests of American fossil fuel companies operating in the Holy Land.
As Senator, she was in a critical political position to make a substantial impact. Throughout her nearly two decades in the Senate, Landrieu had served on the crucial Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and in her last year in Congress even chaired the committee.
Israel’s Oil and Gas Boom
Between 2009 and 2010, two huge natural gas fields were discovered off the Israeli coast by an international exploration and production consortium of private corporations led by Houston-based Noble Energy. Israel, a small country that traditionally imported most of its fossil fuel energy, was suddenly thrown into a political whirlwind over regulatory and ownership rights.
Noble, the majority owner of the fields’ licenses, along with several minority Israeli companies, demanded the Israeli government cease antitrust procedures against the consortium, allow it to flexibly set gas prices for retail, and permit the company to export a great deal of the gas rather than provide it solely to local consumers.
But many in the Israeli public, who realized they’d be getting fleeced by such a brazen privatization of a newfound common resource, would have none of it. A major outcry ensued, culminating in mass mobilization, large street protests, and a protracted legal battle against the deal.
Expectedly, Noble fought back. The company took a page out of the playbook of the fossil fuel industry worldwide and used its sheer economic power to pull strings at the highest political levels.
Exerting enormous pressure on the Israeli government to cede to its demands, Noble employed through its local subsidiary the services of several figures with strong government connections, former regulatory agency officials, and ex-politicians.
Meanwhile, Newark-based Genie Energy was attempting to fulfill its own business interests in Israel. Owned by New Jersey telecom mogul Howard Jonas through his IDT Holdings, Genie set its sights on another unconventional drilling spot, this time onshore. Through its oil and gas subsidiary, Genie Oil & Gas, and its Israeli subsidiary, Israel Energy Initiatives (IEI), the company embarked on an exploratory project to recover oil shale from Israel’s Ha’ela Valley region, a pristine and verdant swath of land south of Jerusalem.
Oil shale drilling, a risky and largely untested method, seeks to extract oil locked up in kerogen rock by dramatically heating up shale formations several miles below the earth’s surface.
Under the nose of the valley’s local inhabitants, Genie workers clandestinely set up its rigs, at times even masking as “water drillers” when quizzed by puzzled residents. When the locals finally realized they were unwitting subjects in an experiment that had disaster written all over it, they fought back through protests, direct action, and court battles.
American Political Involvement
Critics of the Noble gas deal had long suspected that the Obama administration directly intervened on behalf of Noble to force the Israeli government’s hand over the interests of its people. They recently cited the curious fact that several members of the Israeli parliament received phone calls from officials at the US embassy in Israel on the eve of a crucial vote on the proposed gas plan, urging them to support the deal.
Others alarmingly revealed that Secretary of State John Kerry held $1 million of Noble’s stock as late as 2013.
For his part, Genie owner Howard Jonas, a religious Jew, also sought to sway the Israeli political system in his favor by making a contribution to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s primary campaign.
But not many have heard of Senator Mary Landrieu’s crucial involvement.
In October 2011, shortly after the unprecedented gas find, Landrieu organized and led the first-ever official US Energy Mission to Israel.
After securing funding from the US Department of Commerce and the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Alliance, Landrieu took several executives from 12 Louisiana oil and gas companies on a trip to assess exploration and production options in Israel. The Senator met with Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructure, Uzi Landau, and with executives from Noble energy.
As Landrieu admitted in a press conference during the visit, she was there to show the Israeli government “the right framework of taxation and regulation so that this industry can really flourish.”
Six months later, Landrieu hosted a reciprocal mission of Israeli officials, academics, and business people to Louisiana. The group visited with several local oil and gas companies, witnessed an oil and gas lease, and toured an LNG facility in Cameron Parish.
Astonishingly, hardly four months had passed and Landrieu traveled again to Israel with the second US Energy Mission. This time she arrived with representatives of 15 US fossil fuel companies and research universities.
During the visit, Landrieu attended an energy conference, met again with representatives of Noble Energy and Genie Energy, and vowed to help their cases in Israel. Accompanied by Noble executives and US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, Landrieu even received a private tour of one of the company’s offshore rigs west of Haifa. Afterwards she met with leading Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, Noble continued to tighten its intimate connections to Landrieu. Two weeks after her visit to Israel, the company hired Louisiana lobbying firm Sabiston Consultants.
Norma Jane Sabiston, the firm’s founder and owner, is Landrieu’s longtime friend and former Chief of Staff in the Senate.
According to Senate lobbyist filings, Noble hired Sabiston to engage in “(F)oreign and domestic issues related to oil and gas exploration and production.” Sabiston also advised Landrieu’s brother and mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, during his election campaign.
Noble’s lobbying began to pay off. Landrieu’s pressure on the Israeli government soon intensified, when in 2013 she sponsored and eventually passed in Congress the US-Israel Energy Cooperation Bill. The bill promotes a variety of commercial and research cooperation mechanisms between the two countries in the realm of energy.
It includes two sections especially devoted to “natural gas” and “conventional and unconventional oil and gas technologies.” The bill clearly sought to incentivize the Israeli government to strengthen its ties to American oil and gas companies. Several months later, Landrieu’s flurry of activity was capped with the hosting of the inaugural U.S.-Israel Energy Summit at Tulane University in New Orleans.
During all these years, Landrieu was receiving political contributions from both Noble and Genie. According to Federal Elections Committee records, she was amongst the top beneficiaries of donations from the Noble Energy Inc. PAC in both 2012 and 2014.
In 2013, then-CEO of Noble, Chuck Davidson, contributed $2,500 to Landrieu. In 2014, Genie owner Howard Jonas donated $5,000 to Landrieu’s campaign, and since 2011 he had contributed a total of $21,500 to the pro-Israel political action committee NORPAC, which endorsed Landrieu.
Interestingly, the Netanyahu government needed to secure Landrieu’s allegiance as well. As US talks with Iran over a nuclear deal were heading towards fruition in 2014, Israel was counting on sympathetic members of Congress, such as Senator Landrieu, to actively oppose the impending deal. Landrieu, a staunch opponent of the agreement, recently joined the Advisory Board of the newly formed Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran, an organization created by the Israel lobby group AIPAC to hinder the deal.
Following her defeat to Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy in a run-off election, Landrieu left Congress in January 2015. Yet the door she took on her way out revolved quickly. Very quickly.
Only four months after leaving the political world, Landrieu was hired as Senior Advisor by Washington legal and lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman, which specializes in the energy sector. Amongst its various fossil fuel clients, the firm represents TransCanada in its battle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.
And who did Landrieu score as her first client at Van Ness Feldman? Noble Energy.
Landrieu on Noble Energy’s offshore rig with the US ambassador and the head of Noble in Israel. Photo credit: Maimonides.org
Then, just this past September, Landrieu’s door revolved once again. This time she was hired by Genie Oil & Gas to serve on its Strategic Advisory Board.
The Board’s original lineup, formed by Genie in August 2010, consists of such bigwigs as former US Vice President Dick Cheney, conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and British billionaire and banking heir Jacob Rothschild – with the latter two also purchasing equity in the company.
Critics had previously blasted Genie for assembling such obvious top guns as a blatant attempt to put irresistible pressure on the Israeli government. Yet Genie remains unfazed, and recently bolstered its dream-team of advisors/investors. In September 2015, the company announced that the following individuals will be joining Cheney et al on its Advisory Board: Larry Summers, former Harvard President and Secretary of Treasury under President Clinton; James Woolsey, Former CIA Director; Bill Richardson, former Governor of New Mexico and Energy Secretary under President Clinton. And of course, Mary Landrieu.
And there are clear signs that all the intense lobbying, political purchasing, and revolving doors have paid off.
In December 2015, the Israeli government announced the final approval of the gas deal. It provides Noble with tremendous leverage in ownership and usage rights.
Despite the backing of Prime Minister Netanyahu, Genie’s oil shale adventures have recently been halted by a district planning and building commission, which cited the potential for serious environmental damage.
Yet Genie is unrelenting. Until it finds new avenues to revive its oil shale gamble, the company has shifted its main attention elsewhere in search for black gold in Israel.
Through its second subsidiary in the country, Afek Oil & Gas, Genie has recently announced the discovery of “significant amounts” of oil and gas in the Golan Heights, a contentious piece of land Israel conquered from Syria in 1967.
The announcement comes – again – amidst fierce opposition to the project by local residents, who refuse to be guinea pigs for the fossil fuel industry.
Given that current and former US politicians are stirring Genie’s pot at the highest levels, they face an uphill battle.
Image credit: Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an annual Democratic fundraiser in New Orleans. ©2015 Julie Dermansky