With no statewide races or federal level races, 2017 is supposed to be an “off” year election. But for the fossil fuel industry and their allies it’s proving to be a spending bonanza. Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races: a Vancouver port commission seat, a state senate race in suburban King County, and a Spokane city ballot initiative.
Coal, oil, and railroad shippers have dumped a jaw-dropping $1.5 million into three relatively small caliber Washington races.
The big media story this election has been at the Port of Vancouver, where the oil company Tesoro aims to build a 360,000 barrel-per-day oil train facility called Vancouver Energy. Two of the three port commissioners back the project, but the outcome of the election could change that. Candidate Don Orange is likely to join current port commissioner Eric LaBrant in opposing Tesoro’s plans, and they could end the project by declining to renew the company’s lease.
Running against Orange is Kris Greene with heavy backing from the company he would be responsible for permitting. So far, the project’s backer has contributed a staggering $370,000 to Greene, far and away the largest corporate donation in the history of Vancouver’s port and the largest direct donation to any candidate in all of Washington in 2017. This princely sum comes on top of a $162,000 independent expenditure from Enterprise WA Jobs, a political action committee (PAC). The biggest donors to the PAC this year are none other than Tesoro to the tune of $200,000 and BNSF with $215,000, the two companies who profit from the terminal’s operations.
Reports from the Columbian newspaper have also revealed a shocking degree of coordination between Greene and his oil business sponsors. In effect, Tesoro has operated Greene’s campaign, doing everything from writing his press releases to speaking for the campaign to hiring DC-based communications firms with connections to some of the worst anti-environmental campaigns in the nation. (Tesoro is no stranger to big spending for right-wing spending in Washington, but 2017 marks a new level of aggression for the Texas oil company.) In September, one of Greene’s former campaign strategists, Robert Sabo, even quit because of Tesoro’s outside influence on the campaign. He told the Columbian in an article earlier this month “Big Oil is completely dictating where every penny is going.”
Meanwhile, a state senate race on the eastside of Lake Washington is setting new spending records. The match in the 45th district pits Republican Jinyoung Englund against Democrat Manka Dhingra in a contest that could have major implications for the state legislature. If Dhingra wins, the Senate will flip to the Democrats, giving them majorities in both houses along with control of the governor’s office. Democratic control would likely take action on long-stalled environmental priorities like oil transportation safety requirements, funding for toxic waste cleaning up and prevention, or statewide clean energy investments.
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A trio of right-wing PACs are spending big to support Republican Englund with a combined $820,000. The same Enterprise WA Jobs PAC playing in the Vancouver race is also spending big in the 45th. Beyond the hundreds of thousands from Tesoro and BNSF, the PAC has another $100,000 from Chevron and $25,000 from Koch Industries (the fossil fuel company of Koch Brothers notoriety). Meanwhile, the Citizens for Progress Enterprise WA PAC is registering another $350,000 from Texas oil company Phillips 66. And the Leadership Council PAC shows yet more oil and railroad money: $25,000 more from Tesoro, $20,000 from BNSF, and $10,000 from Union Pacific.
Backing Democrat Dhingra are the New Directions PAC and the Working Families PAC, with funding from State Democratic Campaign Committee, The Leadership Council, state unions, the Washington Conservation Voters, and big national names like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer.
In Spokane, a citizen’s ballot initiative, Proposition 2, proposes to levy fees on coal and oil trains that pass through the city. It has garnered predictable opposition from fossil fuel companies, as well as the railroads that ship their products. So far, the industry’s PAC has $180,454 worth of contributions, including an eyebrow-raising October contribution of $39,500 from Lighthouse Resources, the struggling company behind a Longview coal terminal development that was effectively killed by state permitting agencies in September. Lighthouse had previously given $25,000 to the PAC, an amount that was matched by Cloud Peak, a company that exports modest volumes of coal via a terminal in British Columbia, as well as Tesoro, and the railroads BNSF and Union Pacific.
The Northwest is proving to be the graveyard of ambitions for coal, oil, and gas schemes as a region-wide groundswell of opposition has fought back project after project. Now, stymied at every turn, the fossil fuel industry is deploying what may be its most dangerous weapon: piles of cash and a willingness to overwhelm democratic institutions, even at a local level. If the “off” year elections of 2017 prove successful for Big Oil, there is every reason to think the industry will play hardball in the big ticket races of 2018.