Will Big Oil’s money win in 2015, or the people?


The future of our planet’s environment — and, thus, our species — is facing something of a tipping point as we look forward to the start of the new year in just a few days. Let’s pause and look at a few hopeful signs at the end of 2014. In New York, we’ve seen Gov. Andrew Cuomo listen to his voters — with an assist, perhaps, from low oil prices — and make his state the first in the nation with large energy reserves to ban fracking. That has provided hope and encouragement to anti-fracking activists in other states. At the same time, President Obama and even Pope Francis have vowed that 2015 will finally be the year that the world turns a corner to reduce climate change.

Even in my home state of Louisiana, one of the most oil-friendly destinations around, I’ve watched environmentalism gain a very tentative toehold. In the town of Mandeville across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, citizens have been battling a company’s plan to frack for oil and gas through the highly sensitive aquifer that provides water for much of southern Louisiana. They didn’t win — state regulators in the Jindal administration issued a key approval when most residents were getting ready for the holidays last week. But the state officials also attached environmental safeguards by requiring a wetlands permit, something that never would have happened if citizens had not made their voices heard. This is the direction that grassroots environmentalism is heading as 2014 winds down, and it’s a very positive direction indeed.

But there’s one thing that can trump the will of the people, at least when it comes to politics, and that is the almighty dollar. On the national level, a more conservative Congress has vowed to do more for Big Business, at the expense of a healthy environment. How did those folks get elected, when public concern about problems like fracking and climate change are at an all-time high? The answer is simple: The industry’s billion-dollar profits bought and paid for the government they need:

Taking into account direct contributions to individuals and groups, spending on television ads and lobbying, the energy industry spent more than $721 million during the 2014 election cycle, according to an analysis released Monday by the Center for American Progress.

That analysis — conducted with data from the Center for Responsive Politics and Kantar Media Intelligence — found that the industry as a whole gave $84 million to candidates, political parties and Political Action Committees (PACs), spent $163 million on television ads, and paid nearly $500 million to Washington lobbyists in the two years leading up the elections.

 Environmental organizations also spent a great deal of money during the 2014 midterm elections. However, the money was spent differently, and altogether amounted to a fraction of energy industry contributions.

According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, environmental groups spent about $43 million on lobbying, while individual candidates and PACs received a combined $11.7 million since 2012. Unregulated “soft money” contributions made up the bulk of donations, with those groups receiving a combined $87 million from environmentalists. It is unclear how much the environmental movement spent on television ads this year.

The Center For American Progress’ report on fossil fuel industry donations did not include soft money. However, the Center For Responsive Politics estimates the coal, oil and gas, mining, and electric utility industries gave about $55 million in soft money donations since 2012.

In 2014, the oil and gas industry represented the fifth-largest lobbying interest in Washington.

It’s interesting to note that spending by environmentalists did increase in 2014 — helped by a few wealthy donors, like the climate-change activist Tom Steyer. Even so, spending by progressive, eco-friendly groups is a virtual drop in the bucket compared to the amount of campaign cash at the disposal of Big Oil. The truth is that environmentalists will never be able to outspend these large corporations. In the long run, of course, the solution is to ban corporate dollars from U.S. politics. In the short run, though, what matters is for people who care about issues like fracking or climate change is, quite simply, to vote. Your ballot is one of the only things Big Oil can’t buy…yet.

Read the Advocate for the latest on the proposed fracking rig in Mandeville, St. Tammany’s Parish: http://theadvocate.com/news/11158930-171/helis-working-to-clear-next

Here’s the ThinkProgress report on Big Oil’s massive political spending in 2014: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/12/23/3606630/fossil-fuel-spending-midterm-elections/

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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