Over the last few years, the Northwest has been embroiled in an increasingly heated debate over its participation in fossil fuel exports. Energy companies’ plans to build coal terminals, oil depots, and gas pipelines are drawing out protestors, grabbing headlines, and earning plenty of attention from elected officials.
So to get a better sense for how these companies are playing the political game, we combed through campaign contribution data published by the Center for Responsive Politics in the OpenSecrets’ online database. To our surprise, we could identify very little money coming from the coal companies with a stake in Northwest export proposals. Yet we did find that the well-heeled oil and gas industry pumps plenty of money in the coffers of the region’s candidates for federal office.
We picked five electoral contests that we believe illustrate the breadth and depth of fossil fuel money in Northwest politics. Whether in highly contentious well-publicized races or predictable landslides, fossil fuel interests can be major players.
Here’s a closer look at how fossil fuel interests spent money on each of these races.
Congress: Washington District 2
Covering most of Bellingham, the San Juan Islands, and Anacortes, Washington’s second Congressional district is a hotbed of controversy about plans for coal exports and oil train terminals.
The district’s incumbent, Democrat Rick Larsen, has raised over a million dollars for his re-election campaign even though he does not face a serious challenger. His financial backing includes $29,000 in contributions from the oil and gas industry, including from both oil refiners in his district:—$10,000 from Tesoro ($5,000 from the company directly plus $5,000 from its PAC) and $2,000 from Royal Dutch Shell (half directly and half from Shell’s PAC)—along with $5,000 from BP ($2,000 directly and $3,000 from the BP PAC). He has also taken $10,000 from BNSF Railway (major backers of Northwest coal exports and the nation’s leading hauler of oil-by-rail), $13,000 from Berkshire Hathaway (the Warren Buffet investment group that has full ownership of BNSF), and $17,500 from Union Pacific Railroad (also supportive of coal and oil trains).
Larsen is something of a rarity. He is the only Democrat in our analysis who raised more money in oil and gas sector contributions than the Republican in the race. Although he has made some missteps with respect to Northwest fossil fuel export proposals, his record on climate change is basically solid. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has awarded Larsen a lifetime score of 89 percent, the best single gauge of elected officials’ environmental voting records.
Challenger B.J. Guillot has raised a mere $6,000 in total. As his website design suggests, he is not a serious contender. With his re-election all but guaranteed, Larsen’s fossil fuel money is unnecessary. The question, then, is how will these funds play into his future decisions?
Congress: Washington District 3
Southwest Washington’s Congressional District includes one of the most contentious fossil fuel projects planned in the region: a huge oil-by-rail terminal on the Columbia River at the Port of Vancouver. Incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler (R), who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has raised a total of $1.6 million, including $21,000 in oil and gas PAC money. Notable contributions include $4,000 from Chevron, $6,000 from Exxon Mobil, $4,000 from Koch Industries, and $5,000 from Tesoro, the company with oil train designs in her district.
In addition to these oil and gas contributions, Beutler has taken money from other Northwest fossil fuel players. These include $2,000 from SSA Marine (lead proponent of a planned coal terminal in Washington that would be the largest in North America), $8,500 from BNSF, and $1,000 from Union Pacific.
Depending on how you look at it, the oil money either influences or reflects her voting record. The League of Conservation Voters has awarded Buetler a lifetime score of 9 percent for her votes on environmental issues.
By contrast, challenger Bob Dingethal (D) has raised far less money: $183,000 in total. Of that, $500 can be attributed to the oil and gas industry (gas station operators to be precise) and none from the rail industry. Dingethal has staked out an admirable position on climate change and he addresses “dangerous oil trains” as a major campaign strategy.
Congress: Washington District 5
Although Washington’s easternmost Congressional district does not include any planned fossil fuel projects, it would be severely impacted by coal and oil trains traversing the district that could close streets in the Spokane area by up to 4 hours each day.
Sitting Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R) has brought in $2.4 million in campaign contributions, including $82,500 in oil and gas PAC money plus $9,000 directly from companies, including $10,000 from Exxon Mobil, $4,000 from Chevron, $4,000 from Koch Industries, $3,000 from Conoco Phillips, $2,000 from British Petroleum, $2,000 from Phillips66, $2,000 from Halliburton, and $1,000 from the American Petroleum Institute. Tesoro has also been giving big to Rodgers, making a direct gift of $5,000 plus another $5,000 from its corporate PAC.
On top of that, Rodgers has taken $1,000 from Arch Coal’s PAC (a company that aims to export coal from Longview, Washington), as well as $28,500 from railroads including $9,000 from BNSF and $7,500 Union Pacific.
Rodgers has an LCV lifetime environmental score of 4 percent.
Challenger Joe Pakootas (D) has raised a total of $173,000. He enjoys strong support from tribal communities and it appears he has received no money from the oil and gas industry, none from the rail industry, and none from major backers of fossil fuel exports in the Northwest. On his campaign website, Pakootas stakes out a strong position on the environment, stating that he previously sued a corporate polluter and “won a landmark decision.”
Congress: Oregon District 4
Occupying a large swath of southwest Oregon, District 4 is home to lively debate over a natural gas liquefaction and export facility at Coos Bay, the same community where the coal industry proposed and then abandoned an export terminal.
Incumbent Peter DeFazio (D) has raised $1.1 million this election, with $4,500 coming from oil and gas interests, mostly from truck stop operators. As a member of the US House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, DeFazio has developed a much stronger bench of funders from the rail industry. Railroads have donated $48,450 to his re-election campaign, including $10,000 from Union Pacific, $8,000 from BNSF, and $9,500 from Berkshire Hathaway.
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DeFazio has a 90% lifetime LCV score.
His challenger, Art Robinson, has raised $540,000 with $4,750 from the oil and gas industry but none from major fossil fuel exporters. Yet Robinson, who is chair of the Oregon Republican Party, has been “outspoken in his belief that humans are not the root cause of global warming.” The majority of his funding is from out of state and from mysterious unspecified donors.
US Senate: Oregon
Senator Jeff Merkley (D) has amassed a war chest totaling $11.3 million, of which about 0.1 percent, or $6,600, can be attributed to oil and gas interests, with apparently no money coming from major Northwest fossil fuel exporters. He did however take $5,000 from Union Pacific and $31,500 from Berkshire Hathaway, owners of BNSF.
Merkley’s reelection is a major focus this season for environmentally focused political action groups. He has a lifetime score of 100 percent from the League of Conservation Voters who have also given him $83,000 in campaign contributions.
Although less well-funded, Republican Monica Wehby (R), his challenger, has still managed to net an impressive $3.5 million. At least $42,650 comes from oil and gas interests, including $10,000 from Exxon Mobil, $10,000 from Koch Industries, and $5,100 from Tesoro.
According to the Oregonian, Wehby believes that “climate change is real” but that “it’s being adequately addressed now.” She is staunchly opposed by the League of Conservation Voters, which named her to their Dirty Dozen lists.
What we don’t know
While these numbers do give us some insight to who is backing (and perhaps influencing) elected officials, there are oceans of money that come in different forms—and it’s money we cannot track easily. For example, “soft money”—funds donated to political parties rather than individual candidates—can make it all but impossible to link candidate to donor. And lobbying funds are also notoriously hard to follow, though they can exert a powerful influence on politicians.
Still, we believe that our accounting, however partial it may be, sheds some light on the way that big fossil fuel interests engage in the Northwest’s democracy.
Nick Abraham lives and works in Seattle, where he does research, writing and communications consulting for businesses and nonprofits making the world a better place.