From Money to Burn published in Earth Island Journal:
The American energy industry is at a pivotal moment. New technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) have opened vast deposits of petroleum and methane that were previously inaccessible. While the glut of natural gas has helped to drive coal’s share of US electricity generation to an all-time low (and, in the process, has flattened out the country’s carbon dioxide emissions), it has also put drilling companies in a financial squeeze. Caught between low gas prices and the high costs of shale gas extraction, many companies are looking for ways to either cut corners or increase prices via a rise in demand. Natural gas producers are pressing hard for gas exports, increased reliance on natural gas for electricity generation, and subsidies for trucks and buses that run on natural gas. Oil companies, meanwhile, are demanding more shale drilling on public lands. And environmentalists, of course, are pushing back against these efforts, arguing that the drilling rush is endangering water quality and wildlife habitat and reducing the market incentives for creating the kind of renewable energy system that will further reduce CO2 emissions.
The high stakes translate into a political battle royale as the fossil fuel industry commits to spending whatever it takes to influence voters and elect politicians who are sympathetic to its interests.
The oil and gas industry has been a political juggernaut since the days of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, and few sectors of society can match the industry’s influence in Washington. Since the 1970’s, when the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws were set in place, the oil and gas industry has again and again won major exclusions from environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Drillers’ waste is exempt from many standards on handling hazardous waste, and the so-called “Halliburton loophole,” passed in 2005, ensured that fracking lay outside of the purview of federal rules designed to protect the nation’s aquifers. The industry’s political clout is perhaps best demonstrated by the largesse it continues to receive from taxpayers – more than $55 billion in federal subsidies between 2011 and 2015 – even in an era of austerity.
In recent years, oil and gas companies have put their political machine into an even higher gear. In 2009, the American Gas Association spent more than $1.1 million on federal lobbying, nearly double the $581,000 it spent in 2006. According to a report from Common Cause, federal campaign contributions from fracking industry employees and their political action committees (PACs) have skyrocketed since the drilling rush began. In 2006, the fracking industry made about $1.6 million in campaign contributions; by 2010 that figure had grown to $4.5 million. So far in this election cycle, the oil and gas industry as a whole has made more than $30 million in campaign contributions to members of Congress and to fossil fuel PACs, putting the industry on track to break the record $37 million it spent during the 2008 election.
By comparison, as of late July alternative energy companies had made less than $1.4 million in contributions to federal campaigns.
The industry is also focused on speaking directly to voters to try to sway the outcome of the fall election. Just two industry associations – America’s Natural Gas Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute – have poured well more than $125 million into multimedia ad campaigns over the past three years. In January, the American Petroleum Institute (API) launched a saturation-style ad campaign dubbed “Vote 4 Energy.” The campaign by API features mainstream-looking people proclaiming that they are “energy voters” who support American jobs and drilling for domestic oil and gas. Jack Gerard, president and CEO of API, said during a January 4 speech: “API worked to ensure that energy issues were prominent in policy discussions in several early primary states last year, and we will ensure they remain front-and-center in all states.”
As a result of such paid media campaigns, television viewers are far more likely to see commercials extolling the benefits of natural gas than they are to see news reports on the controversy, according to an analysis by the media watchdogs at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Five broadcasters – ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox – produced a total of nine news segments focused on fracking between January 2009 and November 2011, amounting to less than an hour of coverage. By contrast, 530 ads for “America’s oil and gas industry” or “America’s natural gas” aired on those stations during the same time period. Those 500-plus ads total four and a half hours of broadcasting.
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