Energy Economy

How the Oil and Gas Industry Buys Members of Congress

Paul Ausick

What’s the most effective way for an oil and gas company to get what it wants from U.S. Senators and Representatives? Assuming that what the company wants is less stringent environmental laws and regulations, there are (at least) two possibilities. First, companies can contribute to a Congressperson who has a proven record of voting against environmental legislation. Second, companies can contribute to a Congressperson in order to influence the legislator to vote against environmental laws.

Which is better at achieving the desired outcome (i.e., less stringent environmental laws and regulations)?

According to research published this week in the Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, rewarding a Congressperson with a campaign contribution for casting a vote favorable to the oil and gas sector is about 10 times more effective. For a Congress member with a 100% favorable voting record on the sector’s interests, that can amount to real money.

The model resembles training a dog to sit. Say the word (“Sit!”), push Buster’s butt down to the floor to show him what you want and then reward him with a bit of kibble. Eventually, Buster figures it out and obeys the command. More kibble is dispensed.

The researchers, four from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and one from Cambridge University, reviewed 28 years’ worth of congressional voting records as compiled by the League of Conservation Voters alongside oil and gas company campaign contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

In 13 of 14 election cycles between 1992 and 2018, lower environmental scores in one cycle “predicted significantly increased contribution in the following election cycle.” Between the election years of 2014 and 2016, for every 10% in additional votes against the environment, a legislator received an additional $5,400 in contributions from oil and gas companies in 2016.

The researchers commented: “This is an especially strong relationship considering that many elected officials vote against environmental policies nearly 100% of the time, thereby compounding the cycle of antienvironmentalism and increasing rewards in the form of contributions.”

Spending for future influence only paid off for the oil and gas companies in two of the 14 election cycles reviewed, and the effect was small. The strongest showing came in 2004 when, for every $10,000 in contributions, a legislator only voted against stronger environmental policies an additional 1% of the time in 2006.

The researchers also noted that between 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporate speech was protected by the U.S. Constitution, and 2018, oil and gas companies raised their contributions to congressional candidates from a total of about $35 million to $84 million. That’s about $13 million in each of the five elections cycles during the period. And it represents just one sector of the energy and natural resources industry. As a whole, according to OpenSecrets.org, the entire industry contributed more than $141 million to the congressional elections of 2018.

The researchers’ conclusion: “[I]nstead of attempting to sway undecided or opposing legislators’ votes, oil and gas companies seem to provide financial rewards to members of Congress after they have voted against legislation to protect the environment.”

Woof!