The last few months have been a wild ride in Oregon politics. Governor Kitzhaber, the state’s only Governor to serve four terms, resigned amid allegations of ethical violations. Then, over vociferous opposition from the oil industry, the state legislature almost immediately lifted a sunset provision on the state’s first clean fuels standard, one of the first bills signed by newly inaugurated Governor Kate Brown.
Many observers now believe that Oregon’s lopsided Democratic majority is positioned to ramp up renewable electricity standards and perhaps even enact a price on carbon emissions in the next legislative session. These are meaningful changes to law that would have a tremendous impact on the state’s pollution levels for decades to come by reducing fossil fuel consumption.
Needless to say, these reforms are not well liked by the coal, oil, and gas industries that benefit from business as usual. In an attempt to tip the scales in their favor, they injected nearly $2 million—$1,972,783, to be precise—into Oregon’s political system in the most recent election cycle. This money came from the usual oil suspects like Shell, Tesoro, and Chevron as well as related organizations like the Western States Petroleum Association. A hefty portion also came from major movers of fossil fuels, including railroads like BNSF and Union Pacific, and Global Partners, which owns of the oil terminal at Port Westward.
In the 2014 election cycle, fossil fuel interests spent $868,769 on donations to candidates for public office. (That’s even more than they spent in Washington, which has a 44 percent larger population.) These direct donations are the most straightforward kind of political spending to track.
The “winners” for netting the most fossil fuel money?
Oregon Senator Bruce Starr (R-15), who represented a Senate District west of Portland, took $57,000 in the last election. Despite this influx—and raising more than any state-level legislative candidate—Senator Starr was narrowly defeated by Democrat Chuck Riley.
Among Oregon’s federal delegates, Congressman Greg Walden (R-2) took far and away the most fossil fuel money in 2014. Walden, who enjoys a measly 11 percent environmental score from the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (OLCV), received $118,250 from the coal, oil, and gas industries in 2014. Behind him, oddly enough, are two candidates who were actually pitted against one another: Monica Wehby and Sen. Jeff Merkley, who received $46,000 and $28,250, respectively, while competing for a spot in the US Senate. Senator Merkley, the incumbent, won, and it should be noted that fossil fuel money hasn’t seemed to affect his voting: he has a lifetime score of 98 percent from OLCV.
Oftentimes, when companies or industries want to contribute to a group of candidates or hope to mask their involvement in politics, they will donate to political action committees (PACs). PACs are basically just funds that pool contributions from various donors to support a given ideological strategy. In 2014 fossil fuel companies spent $176,094 on funding PACs in Oregon, donating to groups like the I Will Vote Like a Republican Should Committee, the Oregon Family Council, and the Leadership Fund.
“Lobbying” contributions are a notoriously vague category that can refer to activities as straightforward as buying coffee for a legislator or to paying the salaries of well-heeled and well-connected professionals in Salem. 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.
Oregon saw $927,920 of lobbying expenditures from the fossil fuel industry in 2014, led by $357,339 from the Western States Petroleum Association. The notable second-biggest contributor, at $126,868, was Global Partners. The company’s facilities at Port Westward, a biofuel plant turned oil depot, is arguably the Northwest’s largest oil train destination. Global Partners operated the site in clear violation of its state air quality permits. And even when the company’s misdeeds came to light, state regulators opted to allow operations to continue until they could issue new permits.
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As the most recent election-cycle spending figures show, coal, oil, and gas companies routinely make multimillion dollar bets that they can stand in the way of progress. And while the political landscape in Oregon looks favorable for action on key environmental issues at the moment, we can be certain that the fossil fuel industry will play politics with big money.
Nick Abraham is the lead contributor to oilchecknw.com, where this article is also posted.
Notes and methods. To track these funds, we combed through records from the Oregon Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance Disclosure, plus 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, industry associations like the Western States Petroleum Association, owners and operators of fossil fuel transportation centers like Global Partners, and railroads like BNSF that have been major public advocates as well as the largest haulers of fossil fuel in Oregon.
This article is a follow-up to a parallel analysis in Washington and a continuation of our exploration into the role of fossil fuel money in state politics. Previous installments have included 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.