After what seems like months of alleged corruption and pompous disregard for the rules of decorum for public servants, Scott Pruitt has finally landed in hot water. The Environmental Protection Agency Chief’s slick real estate deal with a (former) energy lobbyist’s wife, and other ethically questionable actions, have caught the attention of lawmakers, watchdogs, and the general public.
This latest example reminds us yet again that the Trump Administration has been captured and the ‘revolving door’ has been knocked off its hinges. The head of the EPA appears to be in bed with the oil and gas sector (for the low, low price of $50 a night), and is just one sign of how pervasive Big Oil’s hijacking of our government has become.
Early in 2017, an anti-regulatory putsch began as lobbyists flocked to the Hill to demand that Republican allies repeal as many Obama-era regulations as possible. Using an obscure and seldom used provision called the Congressional Review Act (CRA), lawmakers successfully repealed 15 regulations.
There has been a lot of talk from pundits and politicians about the power of the CRA since that flurry of repeals. (In fact, lawmakers are now looking to expand the reach of the CRA well beyond its original intent.) But an important element of that conversation has been missing. Why did Republicans target the laws for repeal that they did? And which companies got the lion’s share of the benefits?
The victims now lying in the CRA’s regulatory graveyard leave no doubt about whose wish list was prioritized: Big Oil’s, with a little help from Big Coal.
Some notable victims of the CRA include:
A regulation that would have protected streams and drinking water from mining waste run-off, which was adamantly opposed by Big Coal;
A land-use rule that would have required extractives companies utilizing federal land to ensure there was “no net loss” of environmental assets due to their operations - a regulation opposed by frack-happy oil and gas companies; and,
A bipartisan anti-corruption safeguard that required oil, gas and mining companies to disclose their payments, like taxes and royalties, in every country where they operate, including the United States.
Without specific Congressional authorization - with the exception of the anti-corruption rule which is backed by a legislative mandate and subject to different rules under the CRA - all of the repealed regulations, and the years of work and taxpayer dollars spent on developing them, will likely have been wasted.
Out of the 34 rules targeted for repeal using the CRA, at least 40% had to do with issues impacting extractive companies. Of the 15 that were passed, more than 20% were oil, gas and mining company priorities. No other industry can claim that success rate under the CRA.
How did these companies and industry associations curry such special favors?
Easy. They bought it.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the American Petroleum Institute - the oil and gas industry’s lobbyist - doled out big money in the 2016 elections - more than $5 million, $2 million, and $2 million respectively. In total, energy companies spent over $172 million during the 2016 election cycle, with over $34 million spent on presidential candidates alone. Over 75% of these contributions went towards Republican candidates, which helped prime the pump for these regulatory rollbacks early on.
Since then, the Trump Administration has continued to hand the oil, gas, and mining sector a number of important wins. Secretary Zinke’s Department of Interior is systematically opening up public lands to extraction, including by shrinking Bears Ears National Park, an area of cultural and historical significance to many Native American tribes. Interior has also proposed a rollback of the safety regulations enacted to prevent another BP oil spill, which caused the deaths of 11 workers in 2010. But the most significant win came with last year’s passage of Trump’s deeply unpopular corporate tax give-away by Congress.
The 2017 tax bill, widely viewed by economists as a boon for big corporations and a bust for the average American, was especially kind to extractive companies. ExxonMobil spent more than $11 million lobbying in 2017, on the tax bill and other priorities, and is estimated to save $5.9 billion in taxes alone thanks to the new law. Oil and gas companies spent over $125 million in total lobbying last year and can expect a $190.4 billion benefit in increased asset values from the tax bill - an eye-popping return on investment.
While the above numbers make it easy to illustrate the benefits accruing to the sector, these numbers don’t take into account the value of rampant deregulation, relaxing of industry standards, and the opening of new land for federally subsidized extraction. The windfall return on investment is almost incalculable, and some of those arguably ill-gotten gains will surely be used to influence future government policies and elections.
With enormous sums of money on the line - both in profits and campaign contributions - it’s no wonder that when these companies say “jump” Mitch McConnell asks “How high?”
But when the government responds to the wishes of corporations and societal elites, that’s not a democracy - that’s an oligarchy.
Conflicts of interest and entanglements between officials and the industries they are supposed to regulate undermine our democracy, and violate our right to a government ‘by the people, for the people.’ The corporate bottom line is being prioritized at the expense of people’s rights to clean drinking water, a healthy environment, and safe working conditions. And millions of dollars spent on lobbying has unfairly and unevenly shifted the nation’s tax burden from corporations onto the public. The revolving door needs to be sealed shut and elected officials must start acting in the best interests of the American people - not Big Oil.
It’s time to separate oil and state.
Jana Morgan, Campaigns and Advocacy Director