The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: The oil sector's political spending is down during the pandemic

Placeholder while article actions load

with Alexandra Ellerbeck

The oil industry is packing less of a financial punch this election cycle than it did during the last presidential race.

Political spending from petroleum producers, besieged by the coronavirus pandemic, has dipped as President Trump and other Republicans try to retain control of both the Senate and White House.

The drop-off is yet another sign of how fewer Americans driving their cars or flying in planes during the pandemic has crushed demand for gasoline and other petroleum products.

The economic slump, in turn, has left oil executives and other employees with less cash on hand to give to President Trump and other petroleum-friendly politicians — all while polling shows a potential blue wave mounting that could put Joe Biden and other Democrats into power.

The oil and gas industry has spent about $71 million between January 2019 and June 2020 — roughly 7 percent less than it did four years prior.

That's according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that tracks political donations. The totals include donations to campaigns, party committees and outside spending groups such as super PACs.

The drop in money from the oil and gas sector comes even as political spending overall has reached new heights, as the prospect of Trump getting four more years in the White House animates both Democratic and Republicans donors to open their wallets.

Out of more than 80 industries tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics, the oil and gas sector dropped from being the ninth-highest in political giving to the No. 12 spot between 2016 and 2020. As in years past, the vast majority of the money from the oil industry — 85 percent — is flowing to Republicans. 

Even though the oil sector is spending less overall on politics, it is still rewarding Trump handsomely.

Since 2017, the Trump campaign and outside groups supporting him have raised $12.7 million from the oil and gas sector through the end of August — 18 times as much as the sector gave Trump and pro-Trump groups through the same point in 2016, when he faced a large Republican primary field that divided the oil sector's dollars.

Obviously he's gotten a lot more support from the industry this time around, said Andrew Mayersohn, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics.

While Biden, unlike other Democrats, has promised not to ban fracking, the president has proven to be one of the staunchest political allies of the oil industry, having rolled back drilling regulations and reversed stoppages to pipeline construction put in place by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Biden's plan for tackling climate change, meanwhile, could weigh on demand for gasoline if his administration succeeds in giving car buyers big incentives to buy electric vehicles.

One of Trump's energy policies is paying off particularly well. Kelcy Warren, the chief executive of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access oil pipeline, contributed $10 million alone to America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, according to Mayersohn.

Among the president's first actions in office was giving the greenlight to that controversial pipeline running from North Dakota to Illinois. Trump's order undid a major decision by Obama to block the oil conduit after protests from the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and other Native American groups. Warren's company declined to comment.

Still, there have been disagreements between the Trump administration and the industry. 

Oil companies, like many other corporations, have balked at Trump's trade tariffs. And although Trump was able to stabilize oil prices this past spring by getting Russia and Saudi Arabia to agree to cut production, some in the industry would have liked to see more financial support from the federal government after the novel coronavirus took root in the United States. 

“I feel like they could have helped more during this downturn,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor. “There was a lot of listening but they never threw us a life raft.” 

Eberhart's oil-field services company, Canary, laid off 400 workers after its revenue was slashed in half, he said, though he added he is spending more money on politics during this cycle.

“The level of political giving is fairly robust” given the pandemic, Eberhart said.

Perhaps no one in the oil industry has Trump's ear like Harold Hamm, founder of Continental Resources, who pressed the administration to shelve protections for endangered species and migratory birds that make drilling more difficult. 

But the billionaire, whose fracking firm's stock is down more than 60 percent over the year, has spent only around $190,000 during the 2020 election cycle through the end of August. So far, that's down from the $559,000 he dished out in 2016 and $638,000 he spent in 2018. Hamm's company did not respond to requests for comment.

Overall, the oil sector's drop-off is slight — a sign that it is down but not out as a force in American politics.

Even with just a month left in the race, that total can still increase. “All it could take is one oil billionaire to give $50 million to a super PAC,” Mayersohn said.

Even so, the industry's candidate at the top of the ballot, Trump, is consistently trailing Biden in polls nationwide and in several key swing states. 

Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based political consultant who has worked for both Republican politicians and energy companies, said the “perception that Biden is likely to win” may be weighing on fundraising.

“This race is still very competitive. I still think Trump can win,” Mackowiak said. But he added, “I do think that's part of it.” 

Power plays

ExxonMobil plans to expand greenhouse gas emissions, according to internal documents.

Leaked documents obtained by Bloomberg News show that the corporation aims to expand fossil fuel production, increasing its own emissions by 17 percent by 2025, according to a company assessment. This comes even as some of Exxon’s competitors, such as BP and Royal Dutch Shell, have announced commitments to reach net-zero emissions over the next three decades.

The increased emissions projections, however, represent emissions only from direct operations by the company and do not include end-use emissions, such as those produced by a vehicle burning gasoline.

“That means the full climate impact of Exxon’s growth strategy would likely be five times the company’s estimate — or about 100 million tons of additional carbon dioxide,” Bloomberg reports. “If its plans are realized, Exxon would add to the atmosphere the annual emissions of a small, developed nation, or 26 coal-fired power plants.”

A collapse in oil demand has hit Exxon hard during the pandemic, and the corporation was removed from the Dow Jones industrial average earlier this year. Exxon indicated over the summer, however, it intends to merely delay growth plans rather than cancel them, while highlighting recent efforts to curb its methane emissions from its operations.

The Trump administration is fast-tracking approvals to conduct seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

After an application to conduct seismic surveys of potential oil reserves in the refuge was submitted to the Interior Department in August, sources familiar with the process told Politico that the agency is trying to complete its work in half the usual time. One of the sources said that the applicant Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation hoped to get surveys underway before the end of the year.

“Oil companies have long sought access to the pristine region on Alaska’s northern slope, but seismic surveys can cause lasting environmental damage to the tundra and pose risks to polar bears, a federally protected species,” Politico writes.

Critics have suggested that the expedited timeline is an attempt to begin seismic surveys before a possible Biden win. An earlier application for seismic surveys was stalled over concern for polar bears, but the new surveys would cover a smaller portion of the coastal plain.

The Biden campaign is airing a new climate change ad in Michigan.

The 1-minute spot features Michigan fruit farmers who say that they have been negatively impacted by changing weather patterns due to climate change.

The EPA granted the state of Oklahoma control over a wide range of environmental issues on tribal lands.

“This strips from 38 tribes in Oklahoma their sovereignty over environmental issues. It also establishes a legal and administrative pathway to potential environmental abuses on tribal land, including dumping hazardous chemicals like carcinogenic PCBs and petroleum spills, with no legal recourse by the tribes, according to a former high-level official of the EPA,” TYT reports.

The decision came after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) requested greater authority over a range of environmental issues, including hazardous waste dumping, fracking, and pollution standards. An amendment surreptitiously added to a 2005 federal transportation bill by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (R) allows states to seek environmental oversight over Indian country.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is scrambling to salvage a bipartisan energy package.

The Republican chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee was working last week with ranking member Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, to secure floor time advance the bill. On Tuesday, however, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blocked a unanimous consent procedure that would have allowed for lawmakers to resurrect the bill and vote on amendments, E&E News reports.

“Murkowski said it's unlikely the bill will see a vote through regular order before the Nov. 3 elections, which would require either Paul to yield or [Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell to jump through multiple procedural hoops that would likely consume a week of precious floor time,” E&E News writes.

Murkowski has said that she hopes to negotiate a compromise package with the House, which passed its own energy package last month, and push for passage after the elections.

The union for Environmental Protection Agency workers says the agency’s reopening plan puts them at risk.

A chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees that represents EPA workers voted unanimously over the weekend to express a lack of confidence in the agency’s reopening plans amid the ongoing pandemic. While the agency has reopened offices around the country, many employees continue to telework on a voluntary basis, the Hill reports.

The union criticized “EPA’s determination to force workers back into EPA facilities for no mission-driven reason, despite agency employees successfully tele-working for months during the pandemic. Unnecessarily forcing EPA workers into offices will inevitably result in the spread of the virus, illness and possibly death."


Wildfires in California have burned more than 4 million acres.

The figure sets a “record for the most acres burned in a single year” and “is more than twice the acreage burned in the state’s previous record-worst fire season, in 2018,” our colleague Andrew Freedman writes.

“The 4 million mark is unfathomable. It boggles the mind, and it takes your breath away,” Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, told the Associated Press. “And that number will grow.”

This year was also the first time on record that California has experienced gigafire, a term that refers to a blaze that burns more than 1 million acres. The August Complex has burned that much land and forest around the Mendocino National Forest and is only 54 percent contained.

Hotter days are linked to worse performance in schools both in the United States and around the globe.

An article published in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that for every day over 80 degrees, students saw a decline in standardized test scores, a trend that held across 58 countries, the New York Times reports

“But when the researchers looked specifically at the United States, using more granular data to break down the effect on test scores by race, they found something surprising: The detrimental impact of heat seemed to affect only Black and Hispanic students,” the New York Times reports.

The researchers behind the study have suggested that this could be because children in minority communities in the United States are less likely to have access to air conditioning or good ventilation systems both at home and at school.

Energy transitions

The Trump administration promised to save coal, but instead saw its fastest decline.

A three-year intensive effort by the Trump administration to save an Arizona power plant and the Kayenta coal mine that fueled it was no match for economic forces that have decimated the coal industry. Despite close connections with coal executives and lobbyists, the Trump administration oversaw the fastest decline in coal-fuel capacity of any single presidential term, the New York Times reports

“To some degree, Mr. Trump was defeated by powerful market forces, primarily, low natural gas prices that made coal a less attractive fuel for power plants and the increasing economic viability of renewable energy sources like solar and wind,” the Times writes. “But an examination of the administration’s efforts to support coal in Arizona and elsewhere, including a review of thousands of pages of emails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also raises questions about whether the president had any realistic prospect of saving the industry or whether he mostly wanted to be seen as trying.” 

It's not all bad

Today is the last day to vote in Fat Bear Week.

The annual competition seeks to crown 2020’s chubbiest bear on the Brooks River in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve. The bears are packing on pounds to prepare for winter hibernation, and the single-elimination contest includes 12 heavyweight contenders.

Today’s final, championship round pits 747, a truly gargantuan bear tipping the scales at an estimated 1,400 lbs, against Chunk, another large male bear with a big belly who commands a top-spot in the bear hierarchy but sometimes exhibits playful behavior, uncharacteristic of such a dominant bear.