Washington state legislators have a lot on their plates. A state Supreme Court mandate to increase education funding dramatically hangs like an ominous black cloud over this year’s session. It’s a problem that is only compounded by dire transportation system maintenance needs—the state transportation commission calls for a mind-boggling $175 billion in transportation funding over the next 20 years.
Governor Inslee’s flagship bill, the Carbon Pollution Accountability Act, aims to address both budgeting issues. By capping emissions statewide and charging polluters for what they release, the law would generate just under a $1 billion the first year. (For a full breakdown of the bill check out Kristin Eberhard’s excellent piece.) The funds would then go directly to transportation and education funding, as well as low income tax relief.
For many, it’s a win-win. But polluting fossil fuel interests are anything but excited about the prospect of paying for the free lunch they’re getting now. They are accustomed to getting their way, and they spend millions each election cycle to specifically influence the state’s political process. In fact, tallying funds from major oil companies like BP and Chevron, from industry associations like the Western State Petroleum Association, and from would-be coal exporters like Pacific International Terminals, we calculate that during the last election cycle, fossil fuel interests injected more than $3 million of political spending into Washington.
It worked out to $3,055,929.28 to be exact. Here’s how it breaks down.
In the 2014 election cycle, fossil fuel companies spent $805,198 on donations to candidates for public office.
Firms often donate directly to candidates—the easiest sort of political spending to track. We count that obvious spending here.
We also count certain kinds of targeted Political Action Committees (PACs). In order to skirt some donation limits, many firms set up PACs in order to pool money and donate as a bloc. These include broader industry associations like the Natural Gas PAC, as well as groups representing a specific company’s interest, such as the Shell Oil PAC and the BP North American Employees PAC.
In addition, candidates for elected office set up their own PACs, such as Republican Dave Reichert’s Sheriff PAC and Democrat Rick Larsen’s Puget PAC. Designed the same way as corporate PACs, these organizations become another avenue for companies to donate more, albeit indirectly.
State legislators took home $439,350 while Washington’s federal delegation pulled down $365,848. At the state level, the top recipients were Tim Sheldon (D-35), Andrew Hill (R-45) and Doug Ericksen (R-42). (We explored these three in some detail here.) Not surprisingly, each opposes Governor Inslee’s legislation to reduce carbon emissions and increase safety and requirements for oil transport.
At the federal level, Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-5) took home far and away the most, netting $134,800 from fossil fuel interests. Rick Larsen (D-2) was next with $56,000. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-3) was third with $32,600.
As we mentioned, donors often set up their own PACs in order to contribute to candidates alongside other like-minded groups, just as candidates also set up PACs to take in extra campaign funds. We highlighted these two flavors of PAC above because they directly link companies and organizations to Washington politicians. But there’s more.
In addition to the PACs we’ve already described, fossil fuel interests sometimes route their money by yet another avenue: donating substantial sums to third party PACs that focus on Washington State politics—to the tune of $242,040 in 2014 alone.
For example, oil refiner Phillips 66 sent $50,000 to the Whatcom County Republican Party. (Whatcom County is home to one of their major refineries.) Somewhat surprisingly—at least to those uninitiated to the peculiarities of Washington state politics—the Whatcom Republicans gave $80,000 to Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who actually represents another region of the state entirely. (Sheldon runs with a D next to his name, but he caucuses with Republicans in the legislature.) Other oil companies with local interests like Tesoro and Chevron, donated more than $60,000 to the Enterprise WA JOBSPAC, which has been accused of failing to disclose the donors and candidates who receive funding and of using polarizing political tactics.
What constitutes a “lobbying” expense is notoriously ambiguous. It can be something as simple as buying a legislator lunch or it can refer to the salary of a well-paid professional representative stalking the halls in Olympia. Lobbyists are, of course, hired by an array of industries, companies, and interest groups to influence candidates on key issues. The biggest spenders will often hire professional lobbying firms to build influence with legislators. In 2014, fossil fuel interests spent $1,981,892 on lobbying.
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Of that sum, $509,050 went to “lobbying contributions,” a particularly duplicitous form of influence buying. Like other political donations, these contributions pass from a firm or interest group to a candidate, but because they are routed through lobbyists the linkage is effectively shrouded in secrecy. Records of this spending typically show up simply as a line item on the firm’s balance sheet, and the contributions are not clearly disclosed to the public. So we can see the total amount of spending, but it’s very difficult to figure out exactly where the funds went.
The 2014 election cycle was not unique. During the prior election cycle, for 2012, fossil fuel interests shelled out roughly $2.6 million. In fact, over the past five years, companies like Tesoro, Koch Industries, BP, and organizations like the Western States Petroleum Association have spent more than $7.3 million on lobbying in Washington alone.
Year in and year out, these same companies and groups pour millions into local elections. Those looking to curb pollution, promote alternatives, or increase safety standards swim against not only the current of a single year, but against decades of spending that floods our democracy.
Nick Abraham is the lead contributor of oilchecknw.com, where this piece has been cross-posted.
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. These numbers were collected on 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 Western State Petroleum Association, 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.
This article is a continuation of our exploration into the role of fossil fuel money in state politics In previous installments we’ve looked at oil refiner Tesoro’s political meddling, the three state legislators raking in the most fossil fuel money, and five recent races that illustrate the stark contrast in how fossil fuel interests award their money.