How the Fossil Fuel Industry is Subverting Democracy and Undermining Sustainable Development in America

The fossil fuel industry buys legislators to do their bidding at the cost of American jobs and a sustainable futureWhile most know that the fossil fuel industry is the leading source of climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions, few appreciate the extent of their control over federal and state legislators. 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.

One of the biggest political spenders is the American Petroleum Institute (API) which is the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry (including hydraulic fracturing). API has created numerous front groups to advance its political agenda including Americans for Prosperity and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Despite being called the American Petroleum Institute, its 2012 directors include Tofiq Al-Gabsani, a Saudi Arabian national who heads the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) subsidiary, the state-run oil company that also helps finance API. In 2012 alone the oil and gas lobby spent $139,7 million to advance their interests in the U.S.

According to a facts sheet from, fossil fuels are subsidized at almost six times the rate of renewable energy. From 2002 to 2008, the federal government gave the fossil fuel industry over $72 billion in subsidies while the renewable industry received $12.2 billion. The Yale Project on Climate Change’s November 2011 survey found that 70 percent of Americans opposed federal subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, including 67 percent of registered Republicans.

President Obama has repeatedly called for an end to oil and gas subsidies. Although this move is overwhelmingly supported by American public opinion, the oil and gas industry’s control of Washington legislators shelters fossil fuel subsidies from the will of the voting public.

According to Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, “The obstacle has been the petroleum industry. The American Petroleum Institute has dug in their heels and is fighting tooth and nail to retain these subsidies.”

In his most recent budget, President Obama has proposed billions more investments in renewable energy and he continues to advocate for the elimination of $4 billion in fossil fuels subsidies. Since 2008, the U.S. has nearly doubled its energy generation from renewable energy sources and President Obama has set a goal of doubling it again by 2020.

The oil and gas lobbies are a powerful force in Washington, and they wield even more power in state legislatures across the country.  There are some very well established organizations whose power extends far beyond that of a lobby or a front group. One of the most powerful is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

As reviewed in Source Watch, ALEC describes itself as the largest “membership association of state legislators,” but it is actually a corporate bill mill that is funded by corporations and corporate foundations. Through ALEC, corporations hand state legislators their wish lists. ALEC task forces allow corporate lobbyists and special interest reps to vote with elected officials to approve “model” bills. Oil and gas companies with ties to ALEC include the corporate boards of ExxonMobil and Koch Companies as well as numerous others (for the full list click here).

Organizations like the API are based in Washington, D.C., but they also have offices in 27 state capitals. While the Obama administration continues to advance renewable energy at a national level, some state legislators are working to stymie those efforts at the local level.


It should be no surprise that the state that eliminated evolution from its curriculum is now working to undermine sustainability. The state’s “Committee on Energy and Environment” is proposing a new law that would prohibit spending on efforts to combat climate change. The proposed law (House Bill No. 2366) would make it illegal to use “public funds to promote or implement sustainable development” in Kansas.

To understand how the consideration of such an outlandish policy position is possible in 2013, we need to appreciate that Kansas is the eighth biggest oil-and-gas producing state in the United States. Vested interests like Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association (KIOGA) do not want to see renewable energies challenge fossil fuels. KIOGA is a lobby group engaged in public policy advocacy and has direct access to elected officials, regulators, and government decision-makers.


In January of this year, the oil and gas lobby in Colorado sought to limit testimony in the state legislature on oil and gas drilling. More recently, there have been efforts to stop a bill that would increase renewable energy. The new bill is known as SB13-252, it aims to increase the renewable energy mandate on rural Colorado electricity co-ops from 10 percent to 25 percent by 2020. While Colorado’s conservation community was delighted by the bill’s passage through committee, rural energy and local elected officials have pledged to fight it.

The bill is now headed to the full Senate for consideration. Pete Maysmith, executive director of the Conservation Colorado advocacy group, said in an interview with the Denver Business Journal that the proposal is “an excellent step forward for Colorado…It’s more wind, more solar energy and it’s more clean-energy jobs for Colorado,” Maysmith said. “It means more investment in Colorado, more jobs and it means that we’re looking for tomorrow’s energy and tomorrow’s energy future.”

Colorado is thought to have 10 percent of the U.S. natural gas reserves and almost 2 percent of the nation’s crude oil reserves. Once again the old energy economy is threatened by the growth of renewables and beholden to fossil fuels regardless of the costs. The largest petroleum lobby in state is Colorado Oil & Gas Association’s (COGA).org

North Carolina

In North Carolina, a Republican-sponsored bill rolled back renewable energy standards (RES) for power companies. The legislation effectively guts a 2007 law designed to increase renewable energy in the state. This move was supported by bastions of conservatism like the Heartland Institute even though the state is prospering and providing jobs under the RES.

“The state’s clean energy sector has been identified as one of the top national growth trends, vaulting North Carolina into a top-tier state for clean energy jobs and lifting the entire Southeast with it,” Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker said in the press release.

The bill caps renewable energy and efficiency requirements by power companies, electric cooperatives, and city-owned electric utilities at roughly half the level outlined in the 2007 law.

One of those who are paid to lobby on this issue is Dallas Woodhouse, the director of the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group with ties to the Koch brothers and the API. “The one and sole goal of the General Assembly should be to guarantee an ample supply of electricity to the consumer at the very lowest cost possible.” Considering where his paycheck comes from, Woodhouse is hardly a credible source of accurate information. According to Ross Loomis, a senior economist at RTI International, the switch to clean energy will actually save ratepayers $173 million by 2026.

The 2007 law currently requires big electric utilities to generate renewable energy or efficiency efforts equivalent to 3 percent of their retail sales. The percentage was scheduled to increase over time to 6 percent in 2015 and 12.5 percent in 2021. The new bill caps the growth of renewables at 6 percent.

This bill not only curbs the growth of renewable energy, it harms the state’s economy. A study by Research Triangle International and an outside consultant said the state’s clean energy and energy efficiency programs have helped to generate $1.4 billion in project investments and created or retained more than 21,000 jobs over the past five years.

North Carolina is fifth in the nation in installed solar capacity, however, the new law eliminates solar energy mandates and this severly damages the industry and discourages investment.

North Carolina was the first state in the Southeast to pass a RES, and now, at the behest of the Koch brothers through their legislative arm, ALEC, the state has became the first to repeal their RES. The ALEC bill, HB298, dubbed the “Affordable and Reliable Energy Act” was introduced by ALEC member Rep. Mike Hager.

The current political administration in North Carolina lifted a decades old ban on injection wells with a bill (SB 76) which passed in its second reading by a 38-10 vote. The bill is now headed to the House. The bill makes many changes to Senate Bill 820, the 2012 law opening the state to gas drilling. Most notably, it removes the requirement that state lawmakers must approve rules before the first well can be drilled.

The goal was to send a “very clear signal” to oil and gas companies, that the state wants shale gas exploration said Sen. E.S. “Buck” Newton, the sponsor of SB 76. He concluded by saying that the state is declaring itself open for drilling.


Influence peddling is also alive and well in the state of California. Earlier this year, State Senator Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield) suddenly announced that he is resigning from office in order to take a “government affairs” position at Chevron. It is no coincidence that Rubio was also working to weaken the landmark California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and make it more friendly to corporations. Stop Fooling California, said of Rubio’s departure, “It seems that Big Oil is attempting to buy ever more influence in Sacramento.”

Oil and gas companies spend more than $100 million a year to buy access to lawmakers in Washington and Sacramento. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), is the the most powerful corporate lobby in California.

On a more positive note, the courts can be a bulwark against influence peddling. One case in point is the April 2013 supreme court decision that saw the API fail in its bid to challenge the EPA’s air pollution rules.

It remains to be seen whether justice will prevail in the challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation of coal power plants’ water effluents. As explained by the Waterkeeper Alliance, efforts are currently underway to weaken the EPA’s limits on water pollution from coal burning power plants. Nearly three quarters of all the toxic water pollution in the country comes from coal. If they succeed in watering down these limits, it will allow power plants to continue discharging countless tons of deadly poison into American waterways. Over 350 coal burning power plants discharge millions of tons of pollutants including mercury (134,000 lbs./yr.), arsenic (5.1 million lbs./yr.), lead (6.9 million lbs./yr.), and chromium (175,000 lbs./yr.). While coal plants currently operate under wastewater discharge permits, nearly 80 percent of those permits have no limits for any toxic pollutants.

The old energy economy’s spin doctors would have us believe that we are faced with the choice between jobs and the environment. However, this is a false choice, as it is now widely understood that sustainable development can both grow the economy and provide jobs. The truth is that the fossil fuel industry is pursuing self interest ahead of the national interest by controlling American legislators, subverting democracy and undermining sustainable development.

The fossil fuel industry loves America because it knows that this is the best democracy money can buy.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: TerranceDC, courtesy flickr


Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. There is the supply side aginst the economics that also go hand in hand. The fact is that at the rate of current consumption level of conventional energy, we are far off from crises just as the environmental effects that are ignored. But true, there is constant search from smaller affordable dams to bio mass, wind energy and hosts of other options that some dedicated professional are at work – credit them. Hydro tech. electrolysis is already there. As to technology, offcourse Calfornia tops despite the hoarding crises some years back. But also, look at the Australian model …..


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