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U.S.: Climate Policy Derailed by Corporate Interests

Adrianne Appel* - IPS/TerraViva

BOSTON, Dec 6 2009 (IPS) - As the U.S. climate delegation arrives in Copenhagen nearly empty-handed, watchdog groups back at home say they know why: a political system gone astray due to the influence of huge amounts of corporate cash.

“The bottom line is our method of private financing of campaigns is a disaster,” Tyson Slocum, director of energy at Public Citizen, an NGO, told IPS.

From the start of a congressional campaign, to the drafting of legislation, to the launching of an ex-congressman’s, lucrative lobbying career, big business is at work, they say.

“The special interests pay for our political campaigns. They in a sense are buying access,” Mary Boyle, spokesperson for Common Cause, told IPS.

“They have a very strong voice and a very strong role in setting our political agenda,” said Boyle, whose group is proposing an overhaul.

Among corporations with influence in the U.S. Congress, oil and gas companies wield particular power, and they came out in force to shape the climate bill that passed the House in June.

That bill proposes reducing U.S. carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This is roughly four percent below 1990 levels, not the 40 percent reduction called for to keep the planet from warming 2 C. A similar measure is sitting before the Senate.

President Barack Obama, expected in Copenhagen on the final day of the climate talks, said the U.S. will rely on the 17 percent formula as a starting point for negotiations at Cop15.

“There are thousands of corporate lobbyists courting [Congress], way outnumbering our side. What we ended up with is a climate bill that is more of an industry-friendly bill,” Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace U.S.A., told IPS.

The next election isn’t until Nov. 2010 but oil and gas special interests are already giving campaign cash to members of Congress. Since Jan. 1, 2009 these industries have handed out 4.4 million dollars.

Chevron has given the most campaign cash, 328,000 dollars, followed by Koch, which owns the Koch Petroleum Group, at 308,000 dollars, Valero Industry at 289,000 dollars, and Exxon Mobil at 273,000 dollars.

“Seven of the 10 largest corporations in the world are oil companies, based on revenues. Their cash on hand gives them a huge voice in the political system in the U.S.,” oil industry expert Antonia Juhasz told IPS.

Serious candidates have little choice but to accept the cash, because campaigns are too expensive for voters alone to sustain. In 2008, the average winning House candidate spent 1.4 million dollars during the campaign, while a Senate seat “cost” 8.5 million dollars, according to analyses by the Center for Responsive Politics, an NGO.

“BT and Shell don’t have as great influence in Europe as in the U.S. We need help from the world, for the world to say to us, ‘You have to change your climate policy,”‘ Juhasz said.

Oil and gas special interests are targeting their cash to legislators who have jurisdiction over energy-related legislation, like the climate bill before the Senate.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, took 210,000 dollars in oil and gas cash this year. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican on the Committee on Environment and Public Works accepted 157,000 dollars, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski took 139,000 dollars. Murkowski is the lead Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The oil and gas special interests who are financing lawmakers’ re-elections next year are also sending lobbyists to the lawmakers’ offices to convince them to include or exclude provisions of the climate bill, and other legislation of interest to them.

To a lawmaker, “their presence is a constant reminder of how much the industry will fight against you in the next election, or support you in the next election. The oil industry says, ‘This is the bill you have to follow. You are going to follow our position on this or you will face our opposition’,” said Juhasz, a former congressional aide.

The lobbyists fund raise for the lawmakers, raising huge amounts of corporate-insider cash for the next election, Boyle said.

“They are raising money from all their corporate friends and colleagues,” Boyle said.

Oil and gas companies spent 121 million dollars to dispatch 745 lobbyists to Congress between Jan. 1, 2009 and Oct. 26. They also poured money into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has increasingly lobbied on behalf of oil interests, on the climate bill and other legislation, Juhasz said.

BP America spent 11.3 million dollars, Chevron spent 15.5 million dollars, ConocoPhilips spent 13.2 million dollars and Exxon Mobil 20 million dollars, among dozens of gas and oil companies that have lobbied so far in 2009. Last year, Exxon Mobil spent 29 million dollars lobbying Congress. Electric power companies spent 108 million so far this year, while the coal industry spent 10 million.

“The oil industry is unified in its opposition to the climate legislation. The [American Petroleum Institute], led by Exxon Mobil, has played a key role in trying to influence Congress, embarking on a very sophisticated Astroturf campaign and discrediting the signs of climate change,” Slocum said.

“The special interests have gotten hold of the bills, and the bills give away tens of thousands of dollars to polluters,” Slocum said. “This is not an effective strategy for climate change,” he said.

A ray of hope is that the Obama administration, through the Environmental Protection Agency and its Clean Air Act, has the authority to sharply reduce the emission of some greenhouse gases, without the approval of Congress, Slocum said.

The climate bill that passed the House, however, attempts to limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority, in a clear giveaway to industry, Slocum said. The bill will not become law unless approved by the full Congress, next year.

An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism centre, found that the number of special interests lobbying Congress surged from 880 entities to 1,150 as the House took up debate on the climate bill in spring ’09. The groups lobbying were very diverse, from food associations, to clothes manufacturers to religious organisations, it found.

Corporate and special interests spent a total 2.5 billion dollars lobbying members of the U.S. Congress during the first nine months of 2009, says the Center for Responsive Politics.

Many lobbyists are former federal officials or former members of Congress. Lisa Barry, for example, is a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Today she lobbies for Chevron, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Vic Fazio, a former Congressman, now lobbies for Royal Dutch Shell and other corporations.

Patrick Von Bargen was a chief of staff to Democrat Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Von Bargen is a lobbyist for the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, through the firm Quinn, Gillespie and Assoc. The QGA firm was co-founded by Jack Quinn, former legal advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton, and chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore.

The QGA firm spent 260,000 dollars lobbying on behalf of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an industry group known for its non-stop television ads promoting coal, and its back-door campaigns against greenhouse gas regulation.

“Patrick provides strategic counsel to QGA’s energy clients representing the coal and electricity industries as well as startup firms using venture capital to develop clean energy technology. He has an acute understanding of the various, complex aspects of the new public policy proposals that will shape the nation’s energy future,” the QGA website brags.

At last count, 321 former members of Congress and staff now make their living as lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“The fact that we still have an energy system based on fossil fuels and haven’t transitioned to alternative fuels is due to the fact that there is a huge fossil fuel lobby in the United States. It has kept us from going down a path that is more sustainable and climate friendly, and in the interest of national security,” Nick Nyhart, president of Public Campaign, told IPS.

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