Big oil money at the state level mostly goes to influence the public, not the politicians


The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling will allow corporate interests to spend unlimited amounts trying to influence voters, something they’ve already proven themselves adept at on the state level. Case in point: the oil and gas industry has directed the majority of its political spending not on the campaigns of lawmakers, but on its own campaigns against ballot initiatives.

From 1998 to 2008 major oil and gas companies pumped over $120 million into state level elections. The vast majority of that did not go to influencing politicians, but rather to influencing the public to vote against ballot measures that would increase taxes on oil and gas companies.

Committees organized to influence the public to support or oppose ballot measures at the state level are governed by state laws, most of which allowed unlimited corporate or union contributions prior to the Citizens United decision.

A review of state-level campaign contributions, obtained through, shows that 73 percent of all campaign contributions made by major oil and gas companies went towards the group Californians Against Higher Taxes—No on 87, a group devoted to the defeat of the 2006 ballot measure, California Proposition 87.

Prop 87 would have levied taxes—between 1.6 percent and 6 percent—on companies extracting oil in California. The receipts were intended to create a $4 billion fund to invest in alternative energy, alternative energy vehicles and energy efficiency. After the oil & gas companies had dropped nearly $88 million into their campaign to defeat it, Prop 87 failed by a popular vote of 54 percent to 45 percent.

The major oil companies paid in full to defeat the proposition. Californians Against Higher Taxes received $38 million from Chevron, $32 million from Aera Energy, a joint venture of ExxonMobil and Shell, $9.5 million from Occidental Oil & Gas and over $3 million from both ConocoPhillips and BP.

A similar ballot measure made Colorado the number two recipient of oil and gas money at the state-level over the same period of time. From 1998 to 2008 major oil and gas interests spent $7.4 million in state-level Colorado politics. The vast majority of that was spent by one organization devoted to the defeat of one ballot measure.

Coloradans for a Stable Economy was organized by large oil and gas interests to oppose Amendment 58, a ballot measure that would have repealed a tax-exemption that favored the industry and used the funds—approximately $300 million—to pay for college scholarships, infrastructure improvements and renewable energy projects.

Major oil and gas companies dropped $7.2 million into Coloradans for a Stable Economy allowing it to run countless advertisements against the ballot measure. BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Encana Oil & Gas, ExxonMobil and Noble Energy each contributed over $1 million to the organization.

Amendment 58 failed when voters went to polls with a commanding 58 percent voting against adoption.

Oil and gas companies also spent big in Alaska, the fourth biggest recipient of contributions from the industry, on defeating a threatening ballot initiative.

General Ballot Initiative 2 would have raised taxes on natural gas reserves held in Alaska’s North Slope. The effort was intended to push the companies holding the reserves to construct a pipeline to extract the natural gas.

BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil all contributed handsomely to the defeat of Ballot Initiative 2. The initiative fell by a nearly 2-1 margin.

Neither Colorado nor Alaska saw much of the oil and gas contributions go to their politicians. In those states, the industry largesse was mostly focused on influencing voter opinions. Politicians in California, along with Texas and Louisiana, the two states rounding out the top five recipients of oil and gas money, however, reaped a good amount of industry money for their campaigns.

Chief among them is California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the recipient of $1.72 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry. The majority of that money came from the San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

A 2004 Associated Press article detailed Schwarzenegger’s adoption of many of Chevron’s desired policy agenda items. These included streamlining the refinery approval process and the processes of the agency that oversees mining and dredging in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Schwarzenegger also endorsed other oil industry priorities including offshore drilling (after the BP oil spill the governor dropped his support) and opposing Proposition 87.

Lawmakers throughout the legislature were targets for oil and gas money in Texas. Perhaps the state most closely link with the industry, oil and gas companies spread their money far and wide in Texas. The industry contributed to over 400 candidates.

The biggest recipients were current Gov. Rick Perry ($129,890) and former House Speaker Tom Craddick ($104,250). The industry also contributed heavily across the board to legislative and judicial campaigns. Most of these contributions went to Republicans candidates.

In Louisiana the largest contributions went to governors—Bobby Jindal, Kathleen Blanco, Mike Foster–and lawmakers—Max Malone and Heulette Fontenot–close to the industry. Other top recipients included leading members of the state Senate. Frontpage feature graphic courtesey of richardmasoner