5 Most Toxic Energy Companies That Are Controlling Our Politics
Editor's note: This article was first published in November 2011.
Four days after the April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, the 300 family members keeping vigil finally learned that the last of the missing miners had been found and there were no survivors among them. The explosion killed 29 men, and severely injured one. The mine was run by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. Massey's Chairman Bobby R. Inman called it a "natural disaster," but it was anything but natural.
Like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf that would steal the nation's attention (and 11 lives) just two weeks later, Upper Big Branch was the inevitable outcome of regulators turning a blind eye to a greedy corporate culture that puts profit above human lives. But this is nothing new. Coal, oil and gas companies in the U.S. have been getting away with murder for years. Sometimes it is just less obvious -- the slow poisoning of our air, water and food; the deterioration of human health, the loss of homes and jobs, the obliteration of whole communities and ecosystems.
Even as the burning of fossil fuels pushes the planet toward the brink, these energy companies continue to rake in massive profits. They use this wealth to leverage elections, write legislation, scale back regulations and escape accountability. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has found that, "Individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties since the 1990 election cycle, 75 percent of which has gone to Republicans." Although Republicans have won big from the industry, CRP found that Obama received $884,000 from the oil and gas industry during his 2008 campaign for the presidency.
In 2010 the oil and gas industry shelled out more than $145 million on lobbying and the mining industry spent nearly $30 million.
Which energy companies are the worst offenders? We'll look at how much they spend on lobbying, how many lobbyists they hire, how many "revolving door" personnel pass between government and industry, how much they contribute to political campaigns (whether through individual donations, their political action committees, or "soft money" to support the party), and the effect of their greed on human lives and the environment.
While the list of energy companies that could be included is long, here are five whose egregious actions deserve national attention.
5. Massey Energy
As you'll read below, there are energy companies that are far bigger than Massey, that throw around hundreds of millions more in lobbying and have more political muscle. But Massey does have something that has earned it a spot on this list: a track record of environmental abuse and safety failures that rival the big players. And it is not afraid to jump into playing politics either, including buying off a judicial election to ensure a win in court.
At the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010, Massey was the fourth largest coal company in the country and the largest operating in Appalachia. While Upper Big Branch was the most deadly mining accident in the U.S. in the last 40 years, it was not the only time Massey's negligence has resulted in fatalities. Two miners were killed in a fire in the company's Aracoma Alma Mine in January 2006. It was later determined the men lost their lives because of Massey's "reckless disregard" for safety, according to a report. In fact, an investigation afterward by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) doled out more than 1,300 citations for violating safety regulations.
Upper Big Branch and Aracoma were not isolated incidents for Massey; simply business as usual. A study done by American University found that between 2000 and 2010 Massey had the worst fatality record of any U.S. coal company. During that decade 54 miners lost their lives, compared to just six miners who died between 2000 and 2009 at Peabody, the largest coal company in the country. Massey earned over 62,000 violations during that decade, 25,000 of which were deemed "significant and substantial." The company also raked in the most fines at nearly $50 million.
An investigation ordered by then-governor Joe Manchin after the Upper Big Branch disaster found Massey's culture of profit over people was entirely to blame for the loss of 29 lives. Investigators found that Massey's modus operandi was the "normalization of deviance." It was not one single thing that went wrong on April 5, 2010 resulting in fatalities of such a magnitude. A whole number of things had to fail -- and did fail on that day. Here is what the investigation found:
Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm. ... The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image to mislead the public, community leaders and investors -- the perception that the company exceeded industry safety standards. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety. It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices make sense.
Behind every money-hungry CEO and his corporate machine are public leaders willing to be bought and regulators willing to bend. As the Upper Big Branch investigators found:
As the largest coal producer in the Appalachian region at the time of the disaster, Massey Energy used the leverage of the jobs it provided to attempt to control West Virginia's political system. Through that control, the company challenged federal and state oversight agencies, including MSHA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Many politicians were afraid to challenge Massey's supremacy because of the company's superb ongoing public relations campaign and because CEO Don Blankenship was willing to spend vast amounts of money to influence elections.
It's not just the people who work for Massey who've suffered their abuses; everyone and everything nearby has been threatened as well. In an interview for "Living on Earth" Michael Shnayerson, author of Coal River, explained, "Massey routinely racks up far, far more violations than any other coal companies in the region--and there are some large companies in the region, like Peabody or Consol. Massey just doesn't seem to care about the environment, frankly."
In 2008 Massey agreed to pay $20 million after years of Clean Water Act violations. Reporting for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, Ken Ward Jr. wrote that the lawsuit, "alleged more than 60,000 days of violations over a six-year period, or about 10,000 days of violations per year."
It was thought the record $20 million fine and the threat of more penalties would help Massey clean up its act, but just the opposite proved true -- Massey's pollution increased after the settlement.
Massey has drawn the ire of many Appalachian residents for its practice of mountaintop removal mining which uses explosives to blow the tops of off mountains, dumping the waste into rivers and streambeds. The sludge waste from the practice is often stored in makeshift lakes that can leak, contaminating groundwater, or worse, rupture entirely. One such containment pond sits just above the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia.
"If that lake happens to bust through its earthen barrier, it can just roll down a hillside and there's a distinct danger ... that the 240 children of the Marsh Fork Elementary School could be drowned," Shnayerson told "Living on Earth." In fact Massey had the exact same thing happen in Kentucky and the spill was roughly 30 times the magnitude of the Exxon Valdez spill, says Shnayerson.
So how does Massey do it? Unlike the big oil and gas companies, Massey has actually spend little on direct lobbying at the federal level, shelling out just $20,000 on lobbying in 2004 and little since then. Although, the company does have some overlap between government and industry. According to a 2010 report in the Washington Post, former Massey CEO Stanley C. Suboleski served on the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission during the George W. Bush administration only to return to Massey as a board member. In all, the Post found "nearly a dozen former MSHA district directors who recently took jobs as executives and consultants with Massey or Murray Energy" -- two companies with among the worst safety records in the industry.
An analysis done by the CRP before the 2010 midterm elections found that Massey has also been shuttling money to federal politicians.
In all, people associated with Massey Energy, along with the company's political action committee, have together contributed more than $307,000 to federal political candidates since the 1990 election cycle, the Center finds. Of that money, 91 percent went to Republican candidates.
People and PACs associated with Massey Energy have collectively donated five-figure sums to three federal-level candidates since the 1990 election cycle: failed 2008 Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gilmore of Virginia ($17,600), Senate Minority Leader and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell ($13,550) and failed 1998 Democratic U.S. House candidate James MacCallum of West Virginia ($13,500).
In 2010 Massey gave $112,700 to federal candidates -- all of which went to Republicans. In fact, beginning in 2000, CRP found that donations to federal candidates from people or PACs affiliated with Massey have gone exclusively to Republicans.
According to Follow the Money, which tracks money in state politics, Massey Energy has given $344,200 in state elections from 2003 to 2010, and employees have added another $261,450 -- 99 percent of which has gone to Republicans, including climate denier Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli III.
And during the last decade CEO Don Blankenship himself has given $60,000 to Republicans and GOP-related organizations at the federal level. But the CEO is most notorious for tipping a state judicial election. After losing a $50 million lawsuit filed by Harman Mining which alleged that Massey forced the company out of business, Massey appealed. But not for four years. In the interim, Blankenship funneled $3 million to help elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Two years later Benjamin was the deciding vote on the appeals court that ruled in Massey's favor.
In December 2010, Blankenship grabbed his golden parachute and left Massey to a host of lawsuits, many relating to the 2010 disaster. About six months later, the company was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources for $7.1 billion. ANR has invested $174,449 so far in the 2012 election -- the second highest of any coal company in the country. Over 90 percent of its money has gone to Republicans. ANR spent $600,000 in lobbying during the 2010 election and it's shelled out nearly $400,000 so far this year.
Despite being housed under ANR, Massey is still kicking and it is unclear if the culture of greed will change. Considering its track record of environmental and human health abuses, critics are calling for the revocation of Massey's charter. How much, really, does a company have to do wrong in order for it to be shut down?
4. Koch Industries
By now you likely already know about how the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have their fingers in just about everything, from funding union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to trying to take down public education to insider dealings with Iran. The brothers run one of the largest privately held companies in the world, Koch Industries, and one of its key business targets is energy. The company's crude refineries can process up to 800,000 barrels of oil per day; its pipelines stretch 4,000 miles, carrying oil, natural gas and chemicals; and it's in the business of supplying and burning coal as well -- all under a variety of subsidiaries.
As a privately held company, there is much we don't know about the Kochs -- like exactly how much money their empire pulls in. Estimates are somewhere around $100 billion in annual revenue and Forbes estimates the brothers' worth at $43 billion. But what's crystal clear is that the more we know (and we're learning every day), the higher this company is going to move in our rankings.
Let's start with its environmental impact. Wonk Room estimates Koch Industries belches 300 million tons of CO2 pollution annually. "The immense profitability of their carbon holdings depends on their freedom to pollute without consequence -- a toxic freedom they have sold to the American public, and particularly the Tea Party faithful organized by the various Koch front groups, as inherent to the American dream," writes Brad Johnson on ThinkProgress. "If their pollution was fairly priced in a free-market system such as the cap-and-trade markets the Koch successfully demonized in Washington (but failed in their attempt to do so in California), the Kochs would be facing costs of anywhere from $1 billion to $40 billion a year."
In order to keep the money machine oiled, the Kochs have worked to slander the EPA and weaken environmental protections, contort public opinion on the science behind global warming and roll back regulations. All of this has been done by lining the pockets of politicians and lobbyists. From 1989-2012 CRP found that more than $12 million of Koch money went to federal candidates (90 percent to Republicans), making them the second highest in that category on our list.
Additionally, from 1998-2011 CRP reports that Koch Industries spend $59 million on lobbying (fourth highest on our list) and just this year they have hired 26 lobbyists (also fourth highest on our list). In 2008 alone they spent $20 million on lobbying. According an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, "Koch's lobbyists are known on Capitol Hill for maintaining a low profile. There are no former U.S. Senators or House committee chairmen on the payroll."
However, many of Koch's registered lobbyists on its payroll "are Washington insiders with previous experience as congressional staffers or federal agency employees." For instance, Greg Zerzan served as senior counsel for the House Financial Services Committee and later as deputy assistant secretary for financial institutions in the Department of Treasury during the Bush administration. In 2010 he became a lobbyist for Koch Industries after a stint at the International Swaps and Derivatives Association.
When it comes to political campaigns, CRP reports that, "Koch is also one of the Republican Party's most reliable donors. In every election cycle since 2000, people and political action committees associated with the company have donated at least 83 percent of their cash to Republican candidates and committees." In 2010, the number was more than 92 percent for Republicans. In that election, Koch Industries gave more than $1.6 million to federal candidates or their PACs.
Their darling that year was Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, who sits on the Energy and Commerce committee, raking in $79,500. Pompeo's voting record on energy is in keeping with someone who's received large donations from the energy industry. This year, he voted in favor of barring the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases as well as for opening up the Outer Continental Shelf to oil drilling. And now he's grandstanding against Solyndra. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, on the Banking and Appropriation committees received $41,050 and has also voted against enforcing limits on CO2 emission limits in 2009 and was in favor of authorizing construction of new oil refineries in 2005. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, got less money ($20,000) but put it to good use. Hatch has been vocal in his support of tax breaks for oil companies. Likewise, he generally supports legislation that would benefit the oil and gas industries, for example voting in favor of drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf (2011), opposing EPA regulations (2011), and supporting the elimination of the Kyoto Accords in 2000. In December 2006, the Campaign for America's Future rated Hatch's support for energy independence at a mere 17 percent.
The highest paid Democrat on the roster was Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln with $17,500. Fellow Arkansas Representative Mike Ross, who sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, got the second highest amount for a Democrat at $10,000. As you'll read later, Arkansas is key to the Kochs' dirty business.
The brothers haven't been sitting back in the 2012 election cycle, either. Already Koch money has tipped Mike Pompeo $27,500; Scott Brown, R-Mass., $10,000; and Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., $5,000, among others. Outlays to federal candidates for 2012 has already hit $433,750 and less than $17,000 of that has gone to Democrats. Senate Democrat Joe Manchin of coal-friendly West Virginia got $5,000.
And that's not all. A report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund reveals more about the 2010 election:
The Kochs have contributed significantly to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In fact, they are the single-largest oil and gas donor to members of the committee, contributing $279,500 to 22 of the committee's 31 Republicans and $32,000 to five Democrats. Tim Phillips, the head of Americans for Prosperity, even co-authored an op-ed with chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), detailing how Congress could stop the EPA from ensuring a cleaner environment.
Upton, who received $10,000 that year, made Koch proud. The Los Angeles Times reported in February 2011:
In recent months the congressman has made a point of publicly aligning himself with the Koch-backed advocacy group, calling for an end to the "EPA chokehold." Last week the chairman released a draft of a bill that would strip the EPA of its ability to curb carbon emissions. The legislation is in line with the Kochs' long-advocated stance that the federal government should have a minimal role in regulating business. The Kochs' oil refineries and chemical plants stand to pay millions to reduce air pollution under currently proposed EPA regulations.
The Kochs are also active at the state level fighting environmental initiatives. Their subsidiary Flint Hills Resources spent $1 million for Prop 23, a (failed) attempt to block a clean energy law in California. And they've donated to gubernatorial campaigns, including funding climate denier Rick Perry to the tune of $50,000.
While ExxonMobil has come under scrutiny for its work funding the anti-science climate denying movement, the Kochs have been just as diligent. A report from Greenpeace revealed that from 1997 to 2008, the Kochs helped fuel bogus think tanks, organizations and "experts" with $48.5 million. "In 2009, they contributed over $6.4 million dollars to some 40 organizations that continue to deny the scientific consensus on global warming while attempting to slow or block policies to solve the climate crisis."
Here is what the report also found:
Of the eleven freshman senators who publicly question settled climate science, ten received funding from Koch Industries in 2010, and eight of them signed the Americans for Prosperity "No Climate Tax Pledge" to obstruct policy solutions to climate change. Of the 38 freshman Representatives who deny climate science, 22 received Koch PAC funding in 2010, and all 38 signed the AFP pledge.
So, what has the impact of this been on communities across the U.S.? Pretty horrific. Brave New Films recently released a new video as part of its Koch Brothers Exposed project that puts a human face on the way the Kochs do business. At least 11 people from just 15 homes on Penn Road in Crossett, Arkansas have died from cancer, and others in the neighborhood are sick. The cause of their deaths and illnesses is believed to be a toxic open sewer filled with millions of gallons of wastewater that runs by their homes. The source of the wastewater is Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia Pacific. So far the EPA has done nothing to address the issue even though it is a violation of the Clean Water Act. Remember, those congress members from Arkansas the Kochs have been funneling money to?
The people of Crossett are among a long list of victims. Two 17-year-olds were killed in 1996 in Texas when a leaky pipeline caused their truck to explode as they were going to seek help. The company knew the pipeline was faulty, but didn't bother to fix it.
Koch Industries has long been known for causing environmental harm. In 2000, over 300 spills they were responsible for in six states finally caught up with them, resulting in a $30 million penalty. But Koch Industries often manages to get away with paying chump change and getting a slap on the wrist. As Lee Fang reports:
Koch funneled large amounts of donations into electing George Bush in 2000 (even sending Koch-linked lobbyists to help disrupt the Florida recount). At the time, Koch Industries faced a 97-count federal indictment charging it with concealing illegal releases of 91 metric tons of benzene, known to cause leukemia, from its refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas. When Bush took office, his Justice Department dropped 88 of the charges and settled the case for a small amount of money.
And in Minnesota, Bloomberg Markets Magazine reported, "The company used fire hydrants to pump more than a million gallons of wastewater contaminated with ammonia out of the ground. Koch also increased its dumping of wastewater on weekends when it didn't monitor discharges, circumventing the reporting requirement of its permit, the EPA said. Koch also admitted that it negligently released between 200,000 gallons and 600,000 gallons of aviation fuel into a nearby wetland."
The list goes on, but you get the idea. There is a blatant disregard for human life, the health of the environment, and the air and water we all need to survive. And Koch Industries is able to get away with it because of its Yes Men in Washington, who are greasing the wheels of their greedy machine.
No list of the worst energy companies would be complete without British Petroleum. The company catapulted into the national headlines in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers and causing a months-long gusher that would dump 200 million gallons of crude. In 2011, a comprehensive report by the Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement placed the blamed for the disaster clearly on the shoulders of BP, which managed the Macondo well. (Rig owner Transocean and contractor Halliburton received a small share of the blame.)
According to the AP:
The report concluded that BP violated federal regulations, ignored crucial warnings, was inattentive to safety and made bad decisions during the cementing of the well a mile beneath the Gulf of Mexico...
In the report, the primary cause of the disaster was identified -- again -- as the failure of the cement seal in the well. While it was Halliburton's job to mix and test the cement, BP had the final word and made a series of decisions that saved money but increased risk and may have contributed to the cement's failure, the panel said.
The report said BP, and in some cases its contractors, violated seven federal regulations at the time of the disaster. ...
In the report's 57 findings, only one person -- BP engineer Mark Hafle -- is mentioned by name. It said Hafle failed to investigate or resolve anomalies detected during the cementing and did not run a test that evaluates the quality of the cement job. Hafle still works for BP.
Not only was BP largely responsible for the largest spill in U.S. history, but its actions afterward were terrible. In the weeks and months that followed, the company was accused of stonewalling journalists, covering up evidence, providing unsafe working conditions for cleanup crews, and remarkably -- in the case of the company's CEO Tony Hayward -- complaining about being inconvenienced by the disaster.
They also tried to get rid of the oil by dumping millions of gallons of toxic dispersants into the water, further damaging the ecosystem and potentially the health of cleanup workers.
While oil-soaked gulf creatures -- from turtles to birds to dolphins -- made the news after the spill, the ecological impacts will take years and likely decades to fully understand. Scientific American reported that, "Oil fouled 35 percent of the U.S. Gulf Coast's 2,625 kilometers of shoreline before the spill was done." Also affected were critical wetland habitat and fisheries crucial to the local economy.
The economic loss has been clocked at $40 billion or more. As Brad Jacobson reported for AlterNet, large numbers of health problems such as respiratory, dermatologic, ocular and neurological issues were reported and are "consistent with exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, chemicals in crude oil and dispersants."
To make matters worse, after the BP spill it was revealed that drilling regulators were found to be accepting gifts from, partying with, taking drugs with, and even having sex with employees of the oil and gas companies they were suppose to be overseeing.
As is the case with Massey, the Gulf diaster was no isolated incidence. ABC reported last year that, "In two separate disasters prior to the Gulf oil rig explosion, 30 BP workers have been killed, and more than 200 seriously injured." BP is also responsible for the Prudhoe Bay Spill in 2006, which leaked 200,000 gallons of crude onto Alaska's North Slope. An ABC story revealed, "In the last five years, investigators found, BP has admitted to breaking U.S. environmental and safety laws and committing outright fraud. BP paid $373 million in fines to avoid prosecution."
It gets worse. According to ABC:
BP's safety violations far outstrip its fellow oil companies. According to the Center for Public Integrity, in the last three years, BP refineries in Ohio and Texas have accounted for 97 percent of the "egregious, willful" violations handed out by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ...
Shockingly, after the comprehensive government report was released this fall nabbing BP as the spill's culprit, the company's stock actually went up. Yes, up. And now BP has just been given the go-ahead from federal regulators to begin deepwater drilling again in the Gulf -- this time 1,000 feet deeper.
How does BP manage to not just stay in business, but to thrive? It maintains its empire, consisting of refining 2.8 billion barrels of oil each day, as well as operating 16,000 gas stations across the U.S., and increasing its share of natural gas production, with help from friends in Congress. From 1989-2012 CRP reported that BP's contributions to federal candidates were over $6.3 million (70 percent going to Republicans), the fourth highest on our list. The company cranked up the lobbying efforts, too, spending $70 million on lobbying between 1998-2011, according to CRP, making it third highest on our list in that category. But BP stole the show with lobbyists hired. This year its total is 47, the highest of any company in the oil and gas sector. According to CRP, "Its lobbying focuses on tax incentives for oil and gas production, opposing mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions and following U.S. trade relations and policy in the Middle East."
As was revealed after the spill, BP has some serious revolving-door issues. As the AP noted last year, former Minerals Management Service senior official Jim Grant left his government position as chief of staff for the Gulf of Mexico region to become regulatory and advocacy manager at BP, one of the companies his former agency regulated. Reportedly, Sylvia Baca also moved from management positions at BP to a position in the federal government -- not once, but twice (under Clinton and Obama). As Project on Government Oversight investigator Mandy Smithberger told the AP, the revolving door between the Minerals Management Service and energy companies is a chronic issue. "To say that MMS has had a revolving door problem doesn't even begin to describe how profoundly this agency has entangled itself with industry," she said. "The revolving door has spun so readily in this case that the lines between the regulators and the regulated are now virtually nonexistent."
Not surprisingly, its top dogs in Congress were from oil and gas states. In 2010 here were its favorites:
- Lisa Murkowski, I-Alaska, Senate; $10,400
- Jeffrey M Landry, R-Louisiana, House; $4,800
- John Culberson, R-Texas, House; $4,400
- Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, Senate; $4,000
Murkowski, a ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, got Lincoln (also a darling of Koch) to jump ship from Democrats and side with Republicans in a effort to block the EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as Politico reported in 2010. Murkowski is not known for being a friend of the environment. Mother Jones reported, "In Congress, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has emerged as the leading--and most canny--threat to the EPA." Although Murkowski admits that global warming is a real threat -- and is threatening her state, too -- she's done little to stop it. As Kate Sheppard wrote, "It's become increasingly difficult to distinguish her actions from those of her denialist colleagues."
2. Exxon Mobil
Oil giants Exxon and Mobil, which can trace their origins back to Rockefeller's Standard Oil, merged in 1999 and their partnership has made them one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. Today Exxon Mobil produces 6 million barrels of oil a day, supplies 40,000 gas stations in 100 countries and is moving quickly into shale gas, as well.
All this means it has an awful lot of money to throw around (including paying CEO Rex Tillerson $21.5 million last year). According to CRP, from 1998 to 2012 the company dished out $12.3 million to federal candidates, the highest on our list, with 85 percent going to Republicans. Exxon Mobil wasn't shy about its lobbying efforts either, spending $174 million from 1998 to 2011 -- twice that of Chevron, the second highest on our list.
With 34 lobbyists hired in 2011, Exxon Mobil can do a lot to influence things in Washington. Exxon Mobil's VP of Government Relations since 2001, Theresa M. Fariello, is a former Occidental Petroleum lobbyist who served as deputy assistant secretary for international affairs in the Department of Energy between her two lobbying positions. And Philip Cooney joined Exxon as a lobbyist shortly after leaving his position as a chief of staff with the Council on Environmental Quality. Cooney has also worked as a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute.
In Congress, Exxon Mobil has a few favorites. It kicked off the 2012 election season by giving John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, the Big Oil workhouse, $17,000. Also a favorite of Chevron, Barrasso introduced legislation earlier this year to curb what he calls "job-crushing" carbon regulations and he has also supported opening up Alaska's Coastal Plain and the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling. This year Exxon Mobil has also given $10,000 to John Boehner, R-Ohio; John Cornyn, R-Texas; Doc Hastings, R-Washington; and Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
In the 2010 election, Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, was Exxon Mobil's man. Blunt has earned a reputation for accepting money from the oil industry -- a reputation that his opponents used against him during the 2010 campaign. Indeed, Blunt voted against enforcing CO2 limits in 2009, against incentives for renewable energy in 2008 and again in 2010, and in favor of barring greenhouse gases from the Clean Air Act rules in 2009. In December 2006, the Campaign for America's Future rated Blunt's support for energy independence at 0 percent.
Exxon Mobil also plays at the state level. In order to protect its gas interests, the company bought XTO Energy in 2009 to get into the Marcellus Shale game, and added Philips Resources and TWP Inc recently. Not surprisingly, Exxon Mobil gave $10,000 to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett in 2010. And in Colorado Exxon Mobil and Chevron teamed up to spend $1 million to oppose a severance tax on natural gas.
Politicians and lobbyists aren't the only ones that Exxon Mobil has been giving money to. The company is notorious for trying to block action on an international climate treaty and fueling the anti-science rhetoric around climate change. For many years, Exxon Mobil was the largesse behind the deniers. All the big, right-wing think tanks that have been putting the hot air in the climate denial movement have gotten money from Exxon Mobil: $2 million went to the Competitive Enterprise Institute; $3 million to the American Enterprise Institute; $2.4 million to the Center for Strategic and International Studies; $1 million to the Annapolis Center for Science-Based Public Policy; $1 million to Atlas Economic Research Foundation; $1.2 million to Frontiers of Freedom; and $680,000 to the Heritage Foundation.
Exxon Mobil is also involved with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), having given it more than $1.4 million. ALEC is quite dangerous, as Sourcewatch explains:
Through ALEC, behind closed doors, corporations hand state legislators the changes to the law they desire that directly benefit their bottom line. Along with legislators, corporations have membership in ALEC. Corporations sit on all nine ALEC task forces and vote with legislators to approve "model" bills. They have their own corporate governing board which meets jointly with the legislative board ... Participating legislators, overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, then bring those proposals home and introduce them in statehouses across the land as their own brilliant ideas and important public policy innovations--without disclosing that corporations crafted and voted on the bills. ALEC boasts that it has over 1,000 of these bills introduced by legislative members every year, with one in every five of them enacted into law.
ALEC is a darling of the oil and gas companies, with Chevron, BP, Koch and Exxon Mobil all taking part. Exxon Mobil's government affairs manager Randy Smith serves on ALEC's "private enterprise" board (and he also sits on Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission).
Along with its efforts at climate denialism, which were totalled at $16 million in 2007, Exxon Mobil also has some ugly stains on its resume.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 dumped 11 million gallons of crude into Alaska's beautiful Prince William Sound. Environment News Service reports that the disaster affected 10,000 square miles of coastline, as well as "fouling a national forest, two national parks, two national wildlife refuges, five state parks, four state critical habitat areas, one state game sanctuary, and many ancestral lands for Alaska natives."
But that's not all. Reuters reported in 2009 that Exxon Mobil was found to have polluted New York City's groundwater with methyl tertiary butyl ether (MBTE), a gasoline additive: "The city contended Exxon knew that gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether would contaminate ground water if it leaked from the underground storage tanks at its retail stations." The tab for damages came to $105 million.
On the human rights front, ExxonMobil has faced long-standing claims that it hired members of the Indonesian military to protect the company's facilities in the country. Indonesians accuse the company of murder, rape and destruction.
The top spot on our list for the worst energy company this year goes to Chevron. The company has indeed moved quite a large amount of cash through Washington and its business practices have resulted in an incredible loss of life. Much of it just happened out of the country, so many in the U.S. may have missed Chevron's gross abuses.
In relation to other energy companies, Chevron is big -- it's the second largest U.S. oil company and the third largest U.S. corporation overall. Its mammoth size is the result of gobbling up a lot of other companies along the way. It started off as Pacific Coast Oil Company and then became Standard Oil and then Chevron when it swallowed up Gulf Oil in 1984. In 2001 Chevron merged with Texaco, and then in 2005 acquired Unocal.
Chevron continues to make a killing. Antonia Juhasz, writing in "The True Cost of Chevron: An Alternative Annual Report," found that the company's 2010 profits of $19 billion were nearly double 2009 profits and its revenue shot up to $200 billion. As most Americans struggle through the economic downturn, Chevron's CEO John Watson took home a cool $16.3 million in 2010 -- even as Juhasz writes, "Chevron continued to shrink its number of employees and holdings."
The company has tried to change its oil and gas image with aggressive ad campaigns about its investments in renewable energy, but in truth, 95 percent of its revenue still comes from oil and gas. That might explain why, according to Tyson Slocum, Chevron doled out $500,000 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, "which is leading the fight to demonize pending EPA rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Chevron's also trying to pad its profits by contributing largely to politicians. From 1989-2012 CRP reported that Chevron's contributions to federal candidates were over $11.9 billion -- the third highest on our list (although nearly tied for second with Koch), with 75 percent going to Republicans.
CRP has calculated that Chevron spent over $779,000 in 2010 (with only $152,480 going to Democrats). These were some of its top dogs:
- Carly Fiorina, R-Calif., Senate; $37,250
- Davide Vitter, R-Louisiana, Senate; $29,800
- Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Senate; $29,600
- Robert F. Bennett, R-Utah, Senate; $24,400
- Blanche Lincoln, D-Arkansas, Senate; $16,000
- William Flores, R-Texas, House; $14,400
- Lisa Murkowski. I-Alaska, Senate$13,900
- Kevin Brady, R-Texas, House; $9,000
- Dan Boren, D-Oklahoma, House; $8,000
So far in 2012 it spent over $167,000, with $23,500 going to Senator John A Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and $11,000 going to Rep. William Flores, R-Texas.
"Why does Chevron bother spending this kind of money on the political system?" asks Slocum. "Because, dollar for dollar, nothing provides a better financial return than investing in politicians. With environmentalists pushing to hold oil companies accountable for their pollution, corporations like Chevron would be forced to spend millions of dollars to make their oil and natural gas drilling operations and oil refineries cleaner and safer. Sure, doing so would improve the standard of living for millions of Americans and help ensure we all have access to cleaner air and water--but Chevron's political activities clearly show the company's priority is profit--not saving the planet."
When it comes to lobbying, Chevron isn't holding back either. Since 1998, the company has spent $85 million on lobbyists, second highest on our list. Already this year it's spent nearly $5 million on hiring 39 lobbyists -- also the second highest number of lobbyist on our list. And revolving door issues abound. Lisa Barry served as a staffer for former Republican House Member Silvio Conte, deputy assistant to the U.S. Trade Representative, and deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Commerce before becoming an executive at several major corporations and, most recently, vice president of governmental affairs at Chevron Corp.
Lobbying firm Ogilvy Government Relations, which lobbies on behalf of Chevron, employs several individuals who have ties to government. For instance, John J. O'Neill worked for two years as tax and pension counsel for the Senate Finance Committee and did a brief stint in 2007 as policy director for former Republican Congressman Trent Lott. Prior to his time in the public sector, O'Neill worked for lobbying firm Davis & Harman. Current Ogilvy employee Drew Maloney worked for lobbying firm Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh before becoming legislative director for Republican Congressmen Roger Wicker and Ed Bryant and an assistant to then House Majority Whip Tom DeLay.
So, with all these lobbyists, what are Chevron's big political priorities?
As expected it's pushing for more of the "drill, baby drill" we've seen over the years -- so anything having to do with opening up new oil leases and exploration, on- and off-shore, including in the Gulf and Alaska. Of course it'll be teaming up with the Chamber and the rest of Big Oil to prevent the EPA from doing its job, especially when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
In case you thought Chevron was all oil -- it's definitely not. "Chevron has acquired nearly five million net acres of shale gas assets in the United States, Canada, Poland and Romania," according to George Kirkland, Chevron's vice chairman. The company has been making aggressive strides to leverage its power in the Marcellus region of the eastern U.S. where oil and gas companies are hoping to have a drilling field day.
At the beginning of 2011 Chevron picked up Atlas Energy for $4.3 billion, a company with major holdings in the Marcellus. Then in May it announced that it had picked up an additional 228,000 leasehold acres in the Marcellus from Chief Oil and Gas.
You better believe that Chevron will be doing all it can to make sure that any attempts to ban or even regulate fracking in the Marcellus are quashed.
In fact, Desmog Blog fingered Chevron as one of several big oil companies fronting an astroturf group called Energy in Depth, which alleged to be a collection of "small, independent oil and natural gas producers" but Brendan DeMelle has found exists courtesy of Big Oil. As DeMelle writes, "EID seems to attack everyone who attempts to investigate the significant problems posed by hydraulic fracturing and other natural gas industry practices that have been shown to threaten public health and water quality across America."
And even though Chevron hasn't spent as much money as Exxon Mobil (although it has come close), it sealed the top spot on this list because of its corporate irresponsibility, which seems strangely out of the Exxon playbook.
Around the world, over and over again, Chevron's outdated practices and policies have consistently violated human rights, damaged human health, and worsened global warming.
In Kazakhstan, Chevron has contaminated land and water resources and impaired the health of local residents. In Canada's Alberta region, Chevron is invested in tar sands -- one of the most environmentally damaging projects on the planet. In the Niger Delta, Chevron is complicit in human rights violations committed by security forces against local people. In the Philippines, regular oil leaks and spills have sickened Manila residents. Chevron's operations in Burma are providing a financial lifeline to the Burmese military regime -- known for its appalling human rights record. In Western Australia, Chevron's liquefied natural gas facility threatens the health of local communities and fragile humpback whale and turtle populations.
But Chevron's worst legacy may be in Ecuador, where Texaco (now part of Chevron) spent 30 years decimating the ecologically rich Amazon rainforest and the many indigenous communities there.
As one of the campaigns seeking justice for Ecuadoreans reports:
Unlike the Exxon Valdez disaster that spilled over a billion gallons of crude during a one time cataclysmic event, Texaco's oil extraction system in Ecuador was designed, built, and operated on the cheap using substandard technology from the outset. This led to extreme, systematic pollution and exposure to toxins from multiple sources on a daily basis for almost three decades.
In a rainforest area roughly three times the size of Manhattan, Texaco carved out 350 oil wells, and upon leaving the country in 1992, left behind some 1,000 open toxic waste pits. Many of these pits leak into the water table or overflow in heavy rains, polluting rivers and streams that 30,000 people depend on for drinking, cooking, bathing and fishing. Texaco also dumped more than 18 billion gallons of toxic and highly saline "formation waters," a byproduct of the drilling process, into the rivers of the Oriente. At the height of Texaco's operations, the company was dumping an estimated 4 million gallons of formation waters per day, a practice outlawed in major US oil producing states like Louisiana, Texas, and California decades before the company began operations in Ecuador in 1967. By handling its toxic waste in Ecuador in ways that were illegal in its home country, Texaco saved an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced.
Rainforest Action Network reports that "1,400 Ecuadoreans have already died as a result of the contamination in the Amazon, and some 30,000 more are at risk."
In an historic trial in 2011 ("the first time indigenous people have forced a multinational corporation to stand trial in their own country for violating their human rights"), the company was found liable for over $8 billion, but Chevron is still trying to escape payment.
Chevron's dirty business practices may not be washing up on our shores (yet), but they're still sickening.
Profit Before People (and Everything Else)
Chevron may have captured the title of worst energy company this year, but the competition was incredibly fierce. Massey looks bent on destroying Appalachia, Koch Industries is determined to try and rework our politics and our culture (while wrecking the environment, too), the Gulf is reeling from the catastrophic BP spill, and Exxon Mobil is still throwing its considerable weight around with all the wrong players.
But it's important to remember that these aren't just a few rogue corporations that have boarded a runaway greed train. The problems go much deep than that -- they are inherent in our economic and political systems.
Regulations have been made more lax instead of stricter, even when faced with the death and illness of workers, and the growing list of environmental catastrophes. Industry is allowed to pay candidates to do their bidding in Congress, often helping to craft pro-corporate legislation themselves. Politicians spend their time fundraising, and without campaign finance restrictions, often look to the biggest paycheck in order to stay in office. And all the while, these companies continue to make massive profits while being handsomely rewarded with subsidies that come from taxpayer pockets. Big Oil, for example is likely to get over $40 billion from taxpayers over the next decade. To make matters worse, we continue to tip these corporations day after day when we drive our cars, heat our homes and turn on the lights.
Until we unplug from a fossil fuel economy and from a political system in which corporations are given more rights than people (and nature is denied any), then the number one spot on this list may change from year to year -- but the real loser will be the planet and everything and everyone living on it.
Lauren Kelley contributed to the reporting of this story.