How big oil warps our energy debate
By Rob Perks, NRDC
In a recent story for the Washington Post, Steve Mufson put the lie to bed that President Obama is to blame for the nation’s higher gas prices. “There’s not much the president can do about gas prices,” he wrote in a thoughtful, straightforward analysis. (TIME magazine also busted this myth in its cover story, “The Truth About Oil.”) Be that as it may, the president’s political opponents won’t stop banging the “drill, baby, drill” drum any time soon. Which brings me to the most recent published piece by Mufson, his profile of Big Oil’s biggest champion, Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute.
Mufson’s opens his article thusly:
“If Gerard loves a fight, he must be a happy man. Energy is one of this year’s biggest and most divisive political issues. Drilling. Fracking. Tax breaks. Soaring gasoline prices. Even pipeline permits have become front-page news. Ever since taking the helm at API in November 2008, the pugnacious Gerard has worked to reshape the political landscape on energy issues. From the outset, he told API staffers that the group, founded in 1919 in part to promote industry-wide standards, needed to be run more like a political campaign. He ordered up newspaper and television ads targeted at the districts of lawmakers out of step with the oil industry. ‘I want to hang their feet to the fire,’ one former senior employee recalls him saying.”
A few numbers of note in the article:
- $6.4 million: Gerard’s salary in 2010 made him one of the highest paid trade association heads in D.C.
- $63 million: Amount API paid a PR firm in 2010 for ad campaigns, roughly one-third of the organization’s annual budget.
- 70%: Percentage of API’s campaign donations that go to Republicans, which is roughly 90% of oil company PAC contributions.
One surprising aspect of the profile was the fact that apparently some of API’s own board members think Gerrard is too aggressive. “A trade organization should not adopt party loyalty,” an oil analyst adds. “It should be much more constructive instead of just blaming the president.” [my emphasis added]
That last point about corporate capture of a major national political party happens to be the basis of a feature story in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article — entitled “Gusher” – is well worth reading (only the abstract is available online). The story is “about how ExxonMobil became a finance arm of the Republican party.” [my emphasis added] The abstract continues…
“The contest between the Democrats and Big Oil this year will be reciprocal, and the other side will be led by ExxonMobil, by far the largest and most profitable oil corporation headquartered in the U.S. In recent election cycles, the corporation has directed more of its political-action-committee spending to Republicans than any other of the largest American public corporations. The evolution of the country’s biggest and most powerful oil company into a finance arm of the Republican Party is a story of both energy economics and style…During both the Bush and Obama Administrations, ExxonMobil has focused its PAC donations on Republican legislators who can try to assure that no damaging laws go through.”
With friends like these, it’s no wonder that GOP lawmakers in Congress recently shot down legislation that would have ended billions in oil industry tax breaks and directed new revenues — about $2 billion each year — toward reducing the deficit and supporting clean energy.
Amid sky-high gas prices, most Americans believe that continuing to give tax breaks to oil conglomerates is ridiculous. Just ask anybody on the road over the holiday weekend. But tax breaks for Big Oil is unfortunately just a small part of how some in Congress continue to coddle the petroleum industry and support its monopoly on our fuel supply.
Here are some of the other steps Republican leaders in Congress are taking under their comprehensive “oil-above-all” strategy:
STEP 1: CREATE MISINFORMATION TO DEFEND BIG OIL
The GOP is launching is a major push to discredit clean energy and make constituents believe the only way to address high gas prices is to keep letting oil companies drill everywhere, anywhere, with total disregard of environmental, health or safety issues. As has been repeatedly shown, more drilling won’t reduce gas prices.
Just before leaving Washington for a two-week recess, House Republican leaders armed their rank-and-file troops with a 21-page “House Energy Action Team” playbook detailing how to dispel any “myths” about the oil industry – and offers up misinformation strategies on how to vigorously defend oil companies and their enormous profits.
One example: If we cut oil subsidies, Republicans say, gas prices will go up because oil “companies must pass taxes to customers in order to stay in business.” Never mind that the biggest oil companies made $137 billion in profits last year – a 75 percent increase – and are among the most profitable companies in the world.
Then, read an analysis of the misleading claims in the playbook here to understand why the GOP’s plan more drilling and more oil industry tax breaks won’t make gas prices go down.
STEP 2: KILL OIL COMPETITION BEFORE IT GETS GOING
House Republicans are pushing for a federal budget that slashes funding for clean energy research and deployment while mandating continuation of oil industry tax breaks.
The plan from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wi.) would cut energy programs by $3 billion next year alone. Over the next five years, it would spend a total of $150 million on clean energy programs – barely 20 percent of what the government invested in clean energy last year, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.
As NRDC energy policy analyst Cai Steger puts it, the Ryan budget doubles down on fossil fuels at the expense of clean energy.
STEP 3: EVISCERATE FUNDING FOR TRANPORTATION OPTIONS
In addition to eliminating programs that could deliver more clean energy transportation choices in the future, House Republicans apparently want to ensure that Americans commuters have no other choice than to drive more and buy more gas.
House GOP transportation proposals threaten to dramatically slash public transit funding and completely upend the way we’ve paid for public transportation for 30 years. They also would also eliminate bicycle and pedestrian program funding, including the popular Safe Routes to School program.
As Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood – a Republican and a former House member puts it – the GOP’s transportation bill is the worst he’s ever seen.
When they couldn’t pass their own transportation bill, and after refusing to consider a bipartisan bill the Senate has already passed, GOP leaders passed a 90-day extension – the ninth such extension – for road funding just before leaving for vacation.
They’ll try to push new versions of their oil-centric transportation bill when they return to Washington.
STEP 4: REMOVE ALL HURDLES FOR OIL COMPANIES
GOP leaders also are now trying to eliminate environmental, safety or health hurdles that might stand in the way of their oil industry partners.
In addition to passing legislation that would dramatically increasing drilling off of our shorelines, Republicans want to allow oil companies and other big polluters to circumvent Clean Air Act requirements. The GOP’s so-called “Gasoline Regulations Act” would derail clean air safeguards even before they’re proposed.
GOP leaders plan to take up the legislation when they return to Washington.
STEP 5: ADDING INSULT TO INJURY
House Republicans are using congressional investigations to create controversy where it shouldn’t exist, just to support their oil-above-all plans.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings just this week issued a subpoena for documents related to the long-expired five-month ban on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The GOP and its oil industry partners audaciously claim the moratorium created an unnecessary hardship for the Gulf region and for the oil industry.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, meanwhile, has spent months investigating federal clean energy programs, to no avail. Rep. Issa even launched investigations into widely praised vehicle mileage standards and new electric cars – options that consumer want, but the oil industry doesn’t want.
GOP STEP BY STEP: CONTINUED OIL DEPENDENCY, MORE OIL PROFITS, LESS TRANSPORTATION CHOICES
Connecting the GOP’s steps on oil and energy shows how Republican leaders in Congress are keeping us on a path that ensures we’re dependent on oil; ensures their oil industry supporters stay flush with profits and ensures Americans remain limited in their choices for transportation options.
It’s a path we need to change. Instead of staying shackled to oil and the high gas prices and the environmental, health and the economic problems that come with it, lawmakers ought to be pushing for alternatives that give Americans more choices in transportation, not less.
Rob Perks is NRDC’s Deputy Director and serves senior advisor to the NRDC Action Fund.