HOUSTON — Of all the industries thrown into question by President Trump’s promise to upend free trade with Mexico, natural gas is easily one of the most important.
More than a quarter of Mexico’s electricity is powered by American natural gas, leaving it especially vulnerable to any upheavals from a trade battle with the United States.
But selling natural gas to Mexico is also a godsend for the American energy industry, which is lobbying the White House to emphasize just how crucial the relationship with Mexico is.
With billions of dollars at stake and zigzagging administration stances on trade, American energy companies are taking no chances. They are also setting their sights on an old friend in a unique position to help: Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, who recently served on the board of a pipeline company that ships natural gas to Mexico and who is now Mr. Trump’s energy secretary.
“What we will do is reach out to our own Texan, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and bend his ear,” said Steven H. Pruett, chief executive of Elevation Resources, a Texas oil and gas company. “And say, ‘Please, please get the Trump administration to back off of the Nafta cancellation rhetoric and enable us to continue to have the economic boom that natural gas has created for Texas.’”
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Mr. Trump has threatened to terminate unless he can get a “fair deal” for the United States, the authorization of natural gas exports is virtually automatic.
But if the United States pulls out of the agreement, it will be up to the Energy Department to approve future gas exports considered to be in the national interest.
That places Mr. Perry in a pivotal role at a tense time, and there is good reason to consider him a friend of the industry. As governor of Texas, he defended contentious practices like fracking to promote his state’s oil production and natural gas exports. Under his watch, production of natural gas in the state soared 50 percent.
After he left office, Mr. Perry joined the board of Energy Transfer Partners, a company that has completed four gas pipelines to Mexico in the last two years.
And when he ran for president in 2016, the company’s chief executive became the single biggest contributor to Mr. Perry’s ill-fated campaign.
Kelcy Warren, Energy Transfer’s chief executive, donated more than $6 million of the $16.7 million raised by the 2016 Perry presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of the money was then returned to Mr. Warren when Mr. Perry dropped out of the race.
“Rick Perry is a really good friend of mine and he is a bright guy,” Mr. Warren said. “He understands the energy business quite well, and it gives me great comfort that he is in that position.”
Last month, the Trump administration gave Congress official notice that it planned to renegotiate Nafta, a pact that the president has called “the worst trade deal ever.”
Then this month, the American Petroleum Institute, one of the strongest lobbies in Washington, made its position unmistakably clear in an open letter to the administration stating that “the current Nafta agreement works for the oil and gas industry.”