By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Poised to take the reins of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and backer of the oil and gas industry, said on Tuesday the United States is "on the brink of something extraordinary" in energy development.
In a game of political musical chairs, Landrieu would take over the energy panel from Oregon's Ron Wyden, who will lead the Senate Finance Committee after its chairman, Max Baucus of Montana, was confirmed as the U.S. ambassador to China.
The full Senate is expected to confirm Landrieu as the new chair after Tuesday's vote by the Democratic caucus.
Landrieu's pending move was cheered by energy industry groups, especially since the top Republican on Senate Energy is another oil-state lawmaker, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski.
The committee has oversight over U.S. energy development, research and development, although to the chagrin of some of its members Congress has not passed a comprehensive energy bill for several years.
The panel is currently mulling some hotly contested issues, including whether to relax or end a decades-old ban on most U.S. crude oil exports and how to potentially speed the pace of approving liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.
Outgoing chairman Wyden tried to strike a middle ground on exporting part of the new U.S. energy bounty.
He sought a "sweet spot" for LNG exports in which shipments would be allowed, but not in large enough quantities to risk raising fuel prices for domestic users.
And in January, Wyden said the impact of a policy change to gasoline prices at the pump risked being drowned out by "influential voices" keen to export crude oil.
Landrieu, 58, expected to have a close race for re-election in November, has recently said she is open to both.
"We on the brink of something extraordinary in our country," Landrieu told state utility regulators attending a conference in Washington on Tuesday. "Let's not squander this moment."
Landrieu told the regulators that she "recognizes the tensions" between states and the federal government on energy and environmental regulation.
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) praised Landrieu for opposing stricter pollution regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"She has been an outspoken critic of EPA's misguided carbon regulations, often breaking with party lines in order to voice her concerns about the rules' devastating economic consequences," said Laura Sheehan, senior vice president of communications for ACCCE.
The American Petroleum Institute also praised the three-term senator.
"With her strong support, the people of Louisiana have played a major role in America's energy revolution and her deep understanding of energy issues will continue to serve her well as chairman," said API President Jack Gerard.
TARGET OF GREEN GROUPS?
Environmentalist groups, however, have voiced concerns about Landrieu's pro-industry track record.
"Big Oil has been pursuing a 'buy partisan' strategy and it's likely to pay off with Senator Landrieu," said Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, a group that advocates for clean energy.
Landrieu may also be targeted in a new ad campaign that billionaire climate activist and Democratic fundraiser Tom Steyer plans to launch soon, aimed at lawmakers who support the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.
Steyer's political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, placed a survey on its website this month asking supporters to vote on which candidate should be the subject of an upcoming Keystone-linked campaign.
Landrieu was the lone Democrat nominated among a group of five lawmakers that have been strong proponents of the Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline.
The League of Conservation Voters, which scores politicians on their environmental record, has given Landrieu a lifetime score of 51 percent, the lowest of any Democrat currently serving in the Senate.
In another shift, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey will join the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, taking a spot vacated by Baucus.
Markey "has shown great leadership on the issues that the EPW Committee is working on right now," including addressing climate change and investing in transportation infrastructure, said committee chair Barbara Boxer.