Gardner digs in with Big Oil

Colorado Fourth-District Republican US Rep Cory Gardner is filling his campaign coffers for 2012 as he did in 2010 by leaning heavily on oil-and-gas industry donors. He raked in $370,000 in the quarter that just ended. That’s the most of any candidate for federal office from Colorado and topped his take in previous quarters by roughly $100,000. One of every ten dollars Gardner brought in last quarter came from oil and gas, and this quarter the percentage is higher, coming in at roughly 12 percent. That notable campaign finance record paired with the high-profile pro-drilling and environmental-regulation-rollback positions he has taken mark out the freshman congressman as an aspiring top-level advocate for oil and gas on the Hill.

Although it’s certainly true that in the post-Citizens United-era more corporate money than ever sloshes into increasingly expensive political campaigns and that Big Oil donates generously in races coast to coast, Gardner nevertheless seems to be sailing into new territory.

More than a year from Election Day, Gardner has raised more money from oil and gas than did his Republican predecessor, former US Representative Marilyn Musgrave, during the entire heated 2008 campaign season. The industry contributed roughly $44,000 to Gardner this quarter and $32,000 last quarter.

“This campaign will be difficult, fighting against the special interests’ favorite incumbent, but it’s increasingly obvious that Northern Coloradans are fed up.”

Oil and gas is solidly on track to give Gardner more money this election than it did last election, and last election the industry was good to Gardner: its representatives gave him $177,000 and made oil and gas the top-contributing industry to his 2010 campaign. That’s as much as Musgrave raised from the sector for all three congressional races she ran in the district. Democrat Betsy Markey, who defeated Musgrave in 2008, got a negligible amount from oil and gas, and Republican Bob Schaffer, who represented the district before Musgrave, pulled down only roughly $23,000 total from oil and gas for all three of his House campaigns.

According to Gardner’s Federal Election Commission financial reports, he has raised nearly $900,000 total so far this year and has taken thousands from British Petroleum, Exxon, Chevron, Halliburton, Anadarko Petroleum Corp, as well as from oil and gas associations. Over the course of his career as a state and federal lawmaker, depending on how you count, Gardner has also taken directly and indirectly somewhere between $300,000 and $450,000 from Koch Industries, the oil and gas conglomeration headed by right wing lightning-rod magnates Charles and David Koch.

Committees Gardner has authorized to spend on his behalf include those run by Halliburton, Marathon Oil and Williams Companies. The last two are major gas drillers in Colorado, and Halliburton, a contract service provider for the industry, has become one of the leading companies behind the controversial extraction practice called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where undisclosed mixtures of water, chemicals and sand are blasted into the earth to free up gas. Many believe the practice is contaminating ground water in Colorado and in other heavily drilled states such as Wyoming, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York.

A resource-rich district

In a release Tuesday, Gardner 2012 opponent Democratic state Senate President Brandon Shaffer began tapping out what is sure to be a steadily rising drumbeat narrative in the race.

“This campaign will be difficult, fighting against the special interests’ favorite incumbent, but it’s increasingly obvious that Northern Coloradans are fed up with all the hot air coming from Washington and are ready for straight talk and real Colorado solutions.”

Shaffer reported that his campaign raised $180,000 in the third quarter, with donations from more than 900 individual Coloradans, adding that the average individual contribution he received amounted to $153.78 and that 98 percent of the 900-plus individual donors to his campaign live in Colorado.

Gardner spokesperson Rachel Boxer has played down concerns about Gardner’s ties to the oil industry. After last quarter’s numbers appeared, she told the Greeley Tribune that the congressman’s ties to energy companies just make sense.

“[Energy production] is a big part of… the Fourth Congressional District. Gardner believes developing American-made energy is a good way to create jobs. It’s a good way to wean ourselves off foreign oil. And it’s a way to jump-start the economy.”

In fact, Weld County in the northeast corner of Gardner’s district has seen a drilling boom over the last few years atop the Niobrara shale formation, which spreads from Colorado into Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska. Weld is now dotted with hundreds of new wells and will see hundreds more drilled in years to come—and that will be true no matter who CD4 constituents elect to represent them in Congress. Indeed, although Gardner attacks even longstanding clean air and water regulations as “job killers” designed by bureaucrats to “shut down the energy industry,” the gas boom in Weld has come despite stiffer environmental regulations put in place in the state by Democratic Governor Bill Ritter.

Drilling for jobs

That kind of evidence on the ground in the Fourth District, however, isn’t likely to alter Gardner’s vision.

He has aggressively adopted the House Republican line— taken up in Tuesday’s debate by GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry— that the best way to create jobs and cure the plagued economy is to increase domestic energy production, or put another way, to “drill baby drill.” In fact, the list of bills presently stuck in the Senate that House Republican leaders tout as the party’s job plan consists mostly of drilling-licensing and regulation-thinning proposals that Gardner voted for and that Democratic lawmakers and environmentalists decry as an historic attack on the environment.

Critics see the proposals less as a jobs plan and more as a thinly veiled giveback to oil and gas campaign donors.

As has been widely reported but without much effect, licensing and regulations aren’t the problem they’re being made out to be: oil and gas companies right now are sitting on thousands of drilling leases all over the country, and regulations, including the new rules in Colorado, have not prevented the same companies from conducting major new operations.

Citing the need to create jobs, however, Gardner last spring voted for more than a hundred bills (pdf) that would block or lift regulations on air and water pollutants including mercury for the benefit of cement-making, mining and drilling companies.

“This is fear-based politics,” Colorado Conservation Voters Executive Director Pete Maysmith told the Independent. “A small number of GOP politicians and their Tea Party supporters are holding captive politicians of all stripes. It’s become Republican Party orthodoxy to attack regulations but that is just ideology in that much of it is not based in reality.

“Providing basic protections for the environment is a bedrock principle for Coloradans. This is such a great place to work and play. We have a long history of hunting and fishing. It’s who we are. There’s an ethic that we have to protect this beautiful state. We may disagree on how to do that but to run roughshod over regulations is just not sensible.”

Fort Collins-based Clean Water Action Director Gary Wockner said Gardner already has established himself as perhaps the most anti-environmental member of Congress in the state’s history. He told the Independent his group has knocked on tens of thousands of doors in the district to draw attention to Gardner’s positions, pointing in particular to Gardner’s repeat votes in favor of diluting the forty-year-old Clean Water Act.

“There is no outcry [in the Fourth District] to attack the Clean Water Act,” Wockner said. “Nobody is talking about the Clean Water Act up here. It’s a well-established law that forces polluters to clean up after themselves. No business or organization or any other entity I know of here sees the Clean Water Act as causing trouble. This is coming from Gardner alone.”

Offshore Colorado

Gardner’s oil and gas advocacy, however, already extends well beyond the district and has led him into deeply controversial territory.

Most notably, Gardner last June introduced the Jobs and Energy Permitting Act of 2011, which seeks to open up greater sections of the U.S. coast to oil drilling, and particularly sections of the Arctic Ocean off of Alaska.

Shell Oil has been working for a decade to win permits to conduct major operations in the pristine Arctic Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Shell spokesperson Kelly op de Weegh told the Independent that it was Shell’s case that reportedly spurred Gardner, a representative from a landlocked district, to act. She said members of the GOP-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee including Gardner “were particularly interested” in Shell’s efforts to secure permits.

“Key committee members, including Congressman Gardner, determined that legislation was appropriate to settle some of the more troubling issues and to ensure that future permit applications are processed in a more expeditious manner.”

In an email, Op de Weegh denied that Shell wrote the bill for Gardner.

“As the legislation was developed, Shell and other industry supporters provided input as requested by Mr. Gardner and others.”

A main reason for the delay in permitting, according to testimony provided to the Energy and Commerce Committee by Anchorage-based EarthJustice attorney Erik Grafe (pdf), is that pertinent research on the largely unstudied region and its unique qualities has yet to be completed. He points out that the significance of that research has been underlined in the year since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. He referred to the National Commission report published on offshore drilling in January 2011 that strongly recommended more specific scientific study of natural environments and emergency response preparedness in any region being considered for new drilling, particularly the remote, freezing, stormy, dark Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

Grafe added that another main reason for delays in permitting was Shell’s repeat attempts to sidestep air-pollution rules by not submitting full data or by seeking to win classifications that would sidestep longstanding air pollution standards for the aging exhaust- and particulate-spewing fleet of icebreakers and drilling support ships it plans to move into the region.

Grafe told the committee that the regulatory streamlining proposed by Gardner’s bill would create the same kind of loopholes that led to the Deepwater spill.

Little of Grafe’s testimony— about the region, about Shell, about the nature of the lives of the native people who live there– has been heard in the Fourth District.

“One thing I can attest to is that a majority of Coloradans support increased energy production,” Gardner said in explaining why a Colorado Congressman was introducing the bill. He said the bill would create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

He also lamented that regulatory processes were more challenging in the United States than they were in Saudi Arabia.

“Production off the coast of Alaska could provide a million barrels of oil a day – comparable to what we currently import from Saudi Arabia. Unlike Saudi Arabia, this domestic production is blocked by a convoluted permitting system in place that is difficult if not impossible to navigate.”


For more stories in our series “Campaign Cash: Outing the Corporations,” click here. This report was produced as part of a collaborative investigative effort to expose the influence of corporate money on the political process by members of The Media Consortium, in partnership with the We the People campaign. To read more, visit CampaignCash.org or follow #CampaignCash on Twitter.

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