Report: Oil and Gas Industry Exerts Outsized Political Influence in Colorado

DENVER– A report released today by Colorado Ethics Watch describes oil-and-gas industry spending on state election campaigns and legislative lobbying efforts as disproportionally influential and “shocking.”

Drawing on public databases, the report’s authors found that, over the last five years, oil and gas companies and industry associations spent about a million dollars annually on lobbying at the capitol and that, over the last two election cycles, the companies and their employees gave roughly $800,000 to help elect Colorado Republican and Democratic candidates.

Ethics Watch Director Luis Toro said that the position in political circles oil and gas has established goes hand in hand with the image it has projected as an industry integral to Colorado state identity.

“It has very successfully depicted itself as western, part of the state culture and the backbone of our economy.”

Oil and gas interests are top spenders at the capitol, but they rank down the list of top contributors to the state’s economic health, including employment, according to the federal Department of Commerce data included in the report, which is titled Spend Baby Spend (pdf).

Oil and gas generates 2.25 percent of state Gross Domestic Product and accounts for 29,421 Colorado jobs or 1 percent of the total number. The science and high-tech services industry, by contrast, generates 9.56 percent of GDP and employs 275,885 Coloradans. Oil and gas is similarly outpaced by Colorado’s real estate, information, finance, health care and retail industries.

“Oil and gas has undue influence because it takes a very sustained and smart approach to political spending,” Toro said. “They spend more and they spread it around. They give to campaigns, 527 groups, political parties. They make independent expenditures. They give across party lines. They make themselves indispensable.”

Events at the Colorado legislative session that concluded earlier this month bolster the assertions made in the report.

Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly as well as the governor’s office and, despite strong resistance, passed bills on major issues, including gun control, gay rights and election administration. Lawmakers did not pass a trio of pro-environment bills sponsored by Democrats and aimed at expanding groundwater testing, protecting against conflicts of interest on the state’s drilling regulatory commission and hiking fines for toxic spills. The bill proposing higher fines, which was sponsored by Lafayette Democrat Mike Foote, would have set minimum fines and would have upped maximum fines for public health violations significantly, to $15,000 per day from $1,000 per day.

Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper, a former oil-and-gas industry geologist, opposed the $5,000 minimum fine the bill proposed as too high and he won over Senate Democrats, who struck it from the bill. Foote and his supporters in the House agreed that without the minimum the bill would be toothless.

The Center for Western Priorities has reported (PDF) that four oil companies are responsible for more than 90 percent of spills that damaged Colorado groundwater last year. And three of the four made the list of top industry spenders on lobbying, according to the report: Anadarko, Noble Energy, and Encana Oil and Gas. Those three companies spent more than $300,000 on lobbying in Colorado in just the first quarter of this year, the months the General Assembly was in session.

“Oil and gas had a track record of success where no one else did,” Toro said. “A lot of sacred cows got gored this year. Not oil and gas. They were the most successful at withstanding the impulse for change.”

At one point in the session, with the Obama Administration pushing gun control in Washington and national news media bearing down on Denver, a lobbyist for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners was hit with an ethics complaint for allegedly threatening a lawmaker during a fiery capitol hallway exchange.

“You don’t see that with oil and gas,” Toro said. “There’s a long-term commitment. There’s experience and savvy.”

Toro has written in the past about the less-direct ways oil and gas might influence politics. In a column at the Huffington Post last February echoed in the report published today, he pointed out the industry gave roughly $100,000 to the “Yes on S” ballot initiative campaign in 2012. The measure sought to update public-employee management systems. It had nothing directly to do with oil and gas, but it was spearheaded by Hickenlooper, who has never tried to hide his oil and gas industry sympathies.

It is “myopic… to fail to recognize the possibility that contributions to ballot issue campaigns could be used to curry favor with elected officials,” Toro wrote.

“The governor’s ability to sign or veto legislation and power to appoint members of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission bears directly on the business of these companies.”

At publication time, messages left with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association seeking comment were not returned.

The kind of success the report suggests the oil lobby enjoys in Colorado will be familiar to analysts who watch the nation’s top lobby shops work Capitol Hill.

As The New York Times reported last week, the main goal of lobbying efforts in Washington is to “block and impede” legislation. It’s a relatively easy goal to achieve, lobbyists interviewed by The Times explained, because there are many stages in the legislative process and many decision makers throughout.

” [T]he opportunities to raise questions, point out problems and flaws [with bills] and essentially deter forward movement are numerous,” a Democratic lobbyist told Times writer Tom Edsall.

Campaign finance watchdog groups recently have begun calculating the benefits gleaned by the industries that spend the most money on lobbying. It’s difficult to imagine a similarly high return on investment in any realm that wouldn’t land all parties in jail.

According to watchdog United Republic, from 2009 to 2011, fossil fuel companies spent $347 million lobbying Congress. They won $20 billion worth of subsidies from lawmakers, a 5,900 percent return. Dow Jones blue chip stocks by comparison last year returned an average of 11 percent on every dollar invested.