The 2015 Washington legislative session promises to be one of the more contentious in recent memory. Governor Inslee is advancing bills to reduce carbon emissions and better regulate oil transport, while the Republican-dominated Senate vows to obstruct his agenda. Both issues will pit fossil fuel companies—and especially Big Oil—against the governor.
It is, then, an opportune time to daylight the fact that the major opponents of the proposed legislation are also the state’s biggest recipients of dirty energy money. We analyzed records from the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, as well as several national political funding online databases, to track campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry to every elected official in the state during the last election cycle.
The top three recipients are all members of the state Senate, the chamber best positioned to block the governor’s bills. They are:
- Democrat Timothy Sheldon (District 35) – $19,300
- Republican Andrew Hill (District 45) – $19,100
- Republican Douglas Ericksen (District 42) – $17,600
Who are these legislators?
Senator Tim Sheldon represents portions of Mason and Thurston Counties in the southeast Puget Sound region. Although he calls himself a Democrat, he caucuses with the Republican majority in the Senate and serves in Senate leadership positions with GOP support. He even received over $80,000 from the state’s Republican Campaign Committee. Sheldon is vice-chair of the Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee, which will oversee both carbon pollution and oil transport legislation.
Representing the northeast suburbs and exurbs of the Seattle metro area, Republican Senator Andy Hill chairs the Senate Way and Means Committee, which exercises authority over tax policy and revenue increases.
Senator Doug Ericksen is probably the legislature’s most vocal climate policy opponent. Representing northern Whatcom County, his district is home to a pair of oil refineries and a coal export terminal proposal. Ericksen is chair of the Senate Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee, where he works closely with Sheldon and has proven to be an intractable opponent to legislation supported by the environmental community.
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While direct donations paint a picture of whom contributors support, there are several other ways the fossil fuel industry funds their surrogates in the legislature.
They often funnel substantial funds through lobbyists who then contribute the money on the firms’ behalf out of sight of the prying eyes of public records. For example, Sightline has previously documented that the Tesoro oil company handed out $117,350 to state legislators through its lobbying arm in 2014 alone. Contributions like this are very difficult to track from source to recipient, and we don’t know which legislators received coal, oil, and gas money by way of lobbyist handshakes.
We can, however, draw inferences about contributions funneled through political action committees, or PACs, another method of paying legislators. Companies often use PACs to pool their money and effectively launder funds to candidates without having the donor names directly attached. Technically, the PACs themselves decide where the funds go, but the donor and recipients often agree upon the money’s routing and final destination ahead of time.
Public records show that fossil fuel companies donated to four PACs that subsequently donated substantial sums to Washington’s legislators:
- The Leadership Council got $57,400 from the coal, oil, and gas industry. This PAC subsequently handed out $1,900 apiece to Hill and Ericksen.
- The Whatcom County Republican Party pocketed $50,500 in fossil fuel money. The party donated $20,924 to Ericksen.
- The Reagan Fund took in $19,500 from dirty energy companies. Hill later received $950 from this PAC.
- The Senate Republican Campaign Committee claimed $5,650 in fossil fuel funding. In turn, the committee contributed varying amounts of money to every Republican candidate in the state, including Hill and Ericksen, as well as a hefty sum to Sheldon, as we noted above.
Notes and methods: To track these funds, we combed through records from the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, as well as the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Responsive Politics, and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. By “direct donations,” we mean money collected from fossil fuel companies and their industry associations, as well as the state’s largest movers of coal, oil, and gas, such as the state’s export terminals. For example, we counted funds from major oil companies like BP and Chevron, from industry associations like the Natural Gas PAC, from would-be coal exporters like Pacific International Terminals (the company created by SSA Marine to ship coal from a planned site in Whatcom County), and from railroads like BNSF that have been major public advocates for fossil fuels.
To tally funds directed through PACs, we tracked every contribution that these companies made to PACs in the state. We then tracked all of the contributions from these PACs to state level candidates.