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Oil, gas firms give more cash to Democrats resisting carbon fees

Contributions so far in 2021 are higher than they were in 2020, when the climate and social spending bill was not in play

Rep. Henry Cuellar, who raised objections to some energy-related provisions of his party's budget reconciliation package, has been a top recipient of campaign cash from oil and gas interests this year.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, who raised objections to some energy-related provisions of his party's budget reconciliation package, has been a top recipient of campaign cash from oil and gas interests this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Oil and gas interests this Congress have increased their giving to House Democrats who have worked to stop or weaken restrictions and fees their party’s $2.2 trillion climate and social spending bill would place on their industry, according to an analysis of campaign contributions.

Using lists and federal data compiled by nonpartisan watchdog OpenSecrets of the biggest corporate donors to Congress from the oil and gas industry, CQ Roll Call reviewed campaign donations made during the first three quarters of the year, focusing on donations from political action committees: 10 that represent companies and four that represent different segments of the petroleum supply chain, from drilling to refining to distribution.

The review found the 14 political action committees, or PACs, representing oil and gas companies and industry trade groups have given $352,500 to 40 House Democrats’ campaigns.

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Although those contributions are a small fraction of the $6.5 million worth of campaign checks the industry has so far cut for the 2022 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, more than two-thirds of which has gone to Republican candidates, they increased from the previous campaign cycle and flowed largely to members vocal in their opposition to climate elements of their party’s centerpiece legislation, which awaits a Senate vote.

A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said its donations reflect its support of “leaders from both parties who align with our policy priorities and who advocate for the millions of jobs supported by the natural gas and oil industry.”

The American Gas Association’s PAC reduced its contributions in 2021, a spokesman said.

“GASPAC has contributed $153,500 to campaigns and political committees this Congress,” the spokesman said. “This is down from the $177,000 donated at the midpoint of the previous Congress. This difference is due to a pause in donations for the entirety of the first quarter of 2021 due to the events on January 6th.”

Representatives of the IPAA and AFPM political action committees did not respond to requests for comment.

Of the total contributed by the 14 PACs through the first three quarters of 2021, $247,000, or roughly 70 percent, went to seven House Democrats, most of whom are from Texas: Henry Cuellar and Vicente Gonzalez, of South Texas; Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia R. Garcia, who represent Houston; Marc Veasey, whose district is in Dallas; Kurt Schrader, who represents Oregon; and Jim Costa, who represents an inland district in central California.

Each of those seven members eventually voted for the climate and social spending bill when it passed the House, 220-213, on Nov. 12. The legislation will be considered in the Senate, where it is expected to undergo changes that could further weaken the climate-related provisions before it goes back to the House.

The corporate PACs analyzed represent Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Energy Transfer, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, Koch Industries, Marathon Petroleum, Occidental Petroleum, The Williams Companies and Valero Energy. The trade group PACs are those of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

More in 2021

Cuellar topped the list of all House Democrats from these 14 PACs, receiving $66,500 for the three quarters, followed by Fletcher ($36,000), Schrader ($36,000), Veasey ($34,500), Costa ($30,500), Gonzalez ($28,500) and Garcia ($19,000).

Comparing campaign contributions the same 14 PACs made to the same House Democrats for the same period of the 2020 campaign cycle — the first three quarters of 2019 — CQ Roll Call found contributions to the seven members grew from $197,500 in 2019 to $247,000 in 2021, or 25 percent. The group also received more donations, up from 90 to 98, and each of these seven members saw the sum of donations increase.

From those 14 PACs in the 2020 cycle, Cuellar received 17 donations for a total of $50,000. This campaign cycle, he’s gotten 23 donations worth a sum of $66,500, a 33 percent gain.

A member of the centrist-to-conservative Blue Dog Caucus, Cuellar has vocally opposed federal steps to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, including an Obama-era rule to limit the release of methane gas. In 2017, Cuellar was one of three House Democrats to vote against the rule.

This cycle, oil and gas is the top industry donating to Cuellar’s reelection campaign, according to OpenSecrets data.

He said in a Nov. 4 interview with CNN that he was banking on the Senate to weaken climate elements of the legislation. “Anything that affects the energy industry I do have a problem with,” he said.

A spokesperson for Cuellar declined to provide an on-the-record comment about campaign contributions relative to the legislation. 

Representatives fo Costa, Fletcher, Gonzalez, Schrader, Veasey and Garcia did not respond to requests for comment. Cuellar defeated Republican Sandra Whitten in the 2020 general election with 58 percent of the vote, after a closer primary race in the district that includes Laredo. 

In a March 2020 primary, Cuellar beat Jessica Cisneros, a political newcomer in her 20s who challenged him from the political left, 51.8 percent to 48.2 percent. Cisneros is running again this cycle.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Schrader’s and Cuellar’s races Likely Democratic.

Falling in Inside Elections’ Solid Democratic category of races are the reelection efforts of Fletcher, Garcia, Gonzalez and Veasey. Gonzalez is running in a district that abuts the one he represents in the 117th Congress.

Elections forecasters are waiting to handicap California’s House races because the state’s electoral map is not complete.

In a Sept. 24 letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Cuellar, Gonzalez and Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, who also represents South Texas, said they opposed the inclusion of a fee on methane emissions, saying it would “regress onto consumers” and may “duplicate or conflict with” methane regulations from the EPA or Transportation Department.

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They criticized a clean electricity program in part because it would limit the use of gas. “The U.S. is the largest and cleanest producer of natural gas in the world,” the letter said. “Obstructing the power sector from utilizing natural gas would deprive us of the opportunity to lead world innovation to reduce emissions while increasing reliability.”

Vela is not running for reelection, but campaign contributions from energy PACs of all kinds to Cuellar jumped in the days after they sent that letter. Vela, who is retiring from Congress, said in a Nov. 18 interview he would vote with his Texas colleagues.

“I’m not running again. My focus is to protect them and our three South Texas districts. And so I’m going to follow their lead. I don’t know what they’ve decided to do,” Vela said, adding that Cuellar and Gonzalez have met with Pelosi on the methane fee. “My primary objective here is to protect them in their districts back home, especially since Gonzalez is running in my district.”

Federal election records show, beyond the 14 PACs CQ Roll Call analyzed, Cuellar’s reelection campaign committee has received at least $107,500 from oil, gas, coal, pipeline, nuclear and other energy industry PACs this year.

His biggest haul was the third quarter, when he brought in $57,500 from PACs linked to energy companies and industries; $43,500 of that was after he and Gonzalez wrote their letter. For the first and second quarters this year, Cuellar received $8,500 and $41,500 from energy companies and industries.

In a different September letter to House leadership, Fletcher, Garcia, Veasey and Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, who represents the northern side of Dallas, joined Cuellar, Gonzalez and Vela to criticize pieces of the sweeping climate bill they said could “cost thousands of jobs” and harm the American oil, gas and refining industries. 

“We firmly believe that the budget reconciliation bill should not unduly disadvantage any industry, and oppose the targeting of U.S. oil, natural gas, and refining with increased taxes and fees and the exclusion of natural gas production from clean energy initiatives,” the members wrote.

At a markup of the budget legislation in mid-September, Schrader was the lone Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee to vote against the energy and environmental portions of their bill, including a fee on methane emissions.

Trade groups including API, the IPAA and AFPM began a public campaign to block methane fees from the climate legislation.

After Schrader voted against the methane proposal in committee, his campaign received $1,500 from AFPM and $1,000 from API, along with $1,000 donations apiece from PACs representing oil companies ConocoPhillips, Valero Energy Corp., Occidental Petroleum and Covanta Energy.

Lindsey McPherson and Joseph Morton contributed to this report. 

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