Elizabeth Pines: Lobbying and Political Contributions in the Oil and Gas Industry

The oil and gas industry has tremendous political power due to its size, the public’s reliance on oil and gas, and the influential of trade associations and political action committees with which they partner. Lobbying efforts and political contributions in the oil and gas industry have been exorbitant on the national and state levels and have drawn both support and criticism. Oil and gas interests are among the top sectors for lobbying spending, with over $359 million in 2013 (Center for Responsive Politics, Ranked Sectors). Exxon and Chevron are the top lobbyists, with over $13 million and $10.5 million, respectively, in 2013.

The largest multinational oil and gas companies, including Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Koch Industries, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips cumulatively spent over $51 million in lobbying efforts in 2013, ranging from tax provisions and policy, to natural gas exploration, to specific hydraulic fracturing bills. However, Chesapeake and Range Resources cumulatively spent $1.9 million in 2013. The energy and natural resources sector as a whole has a significant party split in terms of political contributions to Congress. In 2012, political contributions were over $60 million to Republican congressional candidates and $17 million to Democratic congressional candidates (Center for Responsive Politics, Energy/Natural Resources).

The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan aggregator of data about money in politics, reports information from various sectors and companies about lobbying spending dating back several years, and breaks down its information by political party and even individual congressional candidates. Additionally, companies themselves report spending on their websites. For example, Chesapeake includes lists of 2012 political contributions and trade associations to which it paid over $50,000 in dues in 2012 (see list below).

Overall annual lobbying in the oil and gas industry has been steadily increasing since 2007, reaching a peak of approximately $170 million in 2009, then steadily declining and stabilizing around $140 million annually since then (Center for Responsive Politics, Oil & Gas Annual Lobbying). Although lobbying efforts are diverse and data compilations include lobbying efforts for interests that are not directly related to hydraulic fracturing, the nature of the exorbitant amount of money spent demonstrates the influence corporations have on policy. Major questions and debates remain about the impact political contributions have on public policy and the level of transparency corporations should adopt.

My personal viewpoint is that the political process is too far influenced by large corporations with deep pockets and strong influence and that a large principal-agent problem exists, in which both corporations and politicians act on behalf of themselves rather than their constituencies. I applaud those individuals and organizations that have pressured corporations to disclose the risks of fracking to investors but remain skeptical of the impact this will have. Because a corporation’s primary concern is to create a return for shareholder investment, I worry the current level of transparency is purely beneficial on an economic level, but does little to address the concerns of communities in which fracking occurs and people who are directly impacted by fracking. I urge individuals and groups to continue placing pressure on corporations to act socially responsibly, but wonder how much impact can be made without billions of dollars in investments as leverage for social and economic change.