A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on August 21, 2019 in Norco, Louisiana. The plant agreed to install $10 million in pollution monitoring and control equipment in 2018 to settle allegations that flares used to burn off emissions were operating in violation of the Clean Air Act.
A gas flare from the Shell Chemical LP petroleum refinery illuminates the sky on August 21, 2019 in Norco, Louisiana. The plant agreed to install $10 million in pollution monitoring and control equipment in 2018 to settle allegations that flares used to burn off emissions were operating in violation of the Clean Air Act.
Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry is in the pockets of our elected officials. I mean, a climate denier doesn’t sit in the White House by accident, right? A new study, however, confirms just how powerful contributions from the oil and gas sector can be.

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Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday, the study looks at 28 years of campaign contribution data (from 1990 to 2018) to learn more about the relationship between the fossil fuel sector and legislators. As it turns out, when legislators—whether they’re senators or representatives—vote against the environment, oil and gas companies increased their contributions to their election campaigns the following election cycle.

The study offers the 2016 election as the worst example in the dataset: Every 10 percent of congressional votes against the environment in 2014 led to an additional $5,400 in campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry in 2016. So while many may assume that this industry tries to sway officials to vote one way or the other, what the industry is really doing, at least according to this study, is rewarding those who help push its deregulatory and anti-environment agenda. While the study doesn’t find a clear influence on legislators’ voting records, it also didn’t account for other ways the industry might be influencing Congress, such as through lobbying.

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All that being said, 2016 was a year of generosity by the industry. On average, contributions were $1,700 for every 10 percent drop in a legislator’s environmental score, as rated by the League of Conservation Voters. This was the measure the researchers used to determine a Congressperson’s voting record. For the 2020 election, the industry has already paid out more than $40 million in contributions.

“It’s not that they get the money and then change their vote,” study author Matthew Goldberg, a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told Earther. “It’s that they prove themselves to be anti-environment and get rewarded later.”

Among the Republican party, at least, some members always vote against the environment. The League of Conservation Voters’ 2018 report card even saw seven Republican senators receive flat-out zero scores. That’s because they voted against the environment and public health every damn time. As this new study shows, that’s likely resulted in thousands of dollars in their pockets from the oil and gas sector. On the flip side, 35 Democratic senators and one independent—Bernie Sanders—earned a perfect 100 percent score.

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The power this industry holds over the people who write and pass our laws is terrifying, to say the least. The industry is finally seeing the economy shift away from these dirty energy sources, but that won’t strip the sector of its power and influence immediately, if at all. And we’re all living through a critical moment when the world needs effective climate policy if we’re to avoid global catastrophe. Every dollar that the fossil fuel sector injects into our democracy threatens to prevent the changes we desperately need.

“Congressional candidates are more likely to win if they can raise more money, so it’s especially troubling,” said Goldberg.

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There’s been a call from environmentalists, especially from the youth, to end the influence of this dirty money in politics. In January, a coalition of scientists and young people came together to form Polluter’s Out, whose purpose is to get this corporate influence out of the international talks around the Paris Agreement. But for years, advocates have been calling on candidates and politicians to reject money from fossil fuel companies. We’re finally seeing this effort take off in the 2020 presidential election, where candidates such as Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren have committed to taking zero dollars from the industry. Vice President Joe Biden signed such a pledge and then, well, failed.

So there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s tough to know how many of our Congress members make decisions that will harm the environment because they expect to be paid for it later on. It’s something that Goldberg is certainly suspicious of, and anyone paying attention should be, too.

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Yessenia Funes is a senior staff writer with Earther. She loves all things environmental justice and dreams of writing children's books.

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