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“Let’s Unwrap This A Bit”: Money From Big Oil Isn’t Always What It Appears To Be

In Democratic politics, no candidate ever wants to appear beholden to corporate donors, and that’s especially true when it comes from the oil and gas industry. Few industries are as unpopular among progressive voters as Big Oil.

And with this in mind, Hillary Clinton generated headlines yesterday when she was confronted by a Greenpeace supporter who pressed her on money she’s received from the industry. The visibly annoyed Democratic presidential hopeful said she’s tired of Bernie Sanders’ campaign “lying” about her.

For its part, the Sanders campaign highlighted the encounter and insisted that Clinton “has relied heavily on funds from lobbyists working for the oil, gas and coal industry.” This morning, the senator himself repeated the charge, arguing, “The fact of the matter is Secretary Clinton has taken significant money from the fossil fuel industry.”

The point of the criticisms is hardly subtle: Sanders and his supporters want Democrats to see Clinton as someone who may not follow through on her energy and environmental commitments because of the money she’s received from Big Oil.

So, is that fair? Let’s unwrap this a bit.

The Washington Post published a report today, relying on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which drew an important distinction that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle: technically, both Clinton and Sanders have received money from “the oil and gas industry.”

The total for Clinton’s campaign is about $308,000; for Sanders’s, it’s about $54,000. As Clinton noted in the moment, the Center for Responsive Politics mostly aggregates contributions by employer.

If a guy who runs the commissary at Chevron in California gives $27 to Bernie Sanders, that’s counted as “oil and gas industry” money.

It would be ridiculous, of course, to suggest the Sanders has been corrupted because that guy, “feeling the Bern,” chipped in $27. But because of the way contributions are categorized, money from an oil company CEO and a donation from a gas-station janitor are both counted the exact same way: it’s technically money from the “oil and gas industry.”

Looking at the dispute in an even broader context, the Washington Post’s piece added, “About 0.15 percent of Clinton’s campaign and outside PAC money is from the ‘oil and gas industry.’ Only about 0.04 percent of Sanders’s is.” In other words, neither of these candidates is dependent on financial support from those who work in some capacity for an oil company.

So let’s unpack the question from that Greenpeace activist. The suggestion appears to be that this 0.15 percent of all Clinton fundraising – a percentage that, again, consists of contributions from employees of oil and gas companies regardless of job title – somehow influences Clinton’s behavior. The activist didn’t connect the dots, but the implication is that this 0.15 percent makes Clinton more susceptible to the lures of the oil industry than does Sanders’s 0.04 percent.

MSNBC’s report noted that Clinton has not “taken any money from PACs tied to the oil and gas industry, or companies themselves.” Lobbyists with at least some connection to the industry have made contributions, but the bulk of that money has gone to super PACs that Clinton cannot legally control.

I can think of compelling lines of attack against each of the candidates, but this probably isn’t one of them. There’s ample room for a debate about Clinton’s and Sanders’ energy and environmental platforms – both, by my estimation, are offering excellent policy blueprints – but neither appears to be in Big Oil’s pocket.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 1, 2016

April 3, 2016 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Big Oil, Hillary Clinton | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“One Screwup After Another”: Shell’s Arctic Drilling Adventure Is A Disaster Waiting To Happen

This month may mark the end of a decade-long saga that’s highlighted the lengths to which oil companies will go to drill in the Arctic—and the huge risks such endeavors entail.

If everything goes according to plan, Royal Dutch Shell will soon bury its first drill bit into the Arctic seabed since 2012. The exploration project, which began in 2005, has faced numerous setbacks—logistical issues, expensive equipment repairs, regulatory hurdles, environmental challenges. To date, Shell has sunk more than $7 billion into this hunt for oil and natural gas, and even if successful, it won’t see anything resembling financial success for more than a decade. But if it hits the substantial deposit of oil it believes to be under the Chukchi Sea, the payoff could be enormous.

That’s because, in the next few decades, companies expect it will become harder to extract oil and gas from existing wells, and even the fracking boom may begin to deplete. The race is on to find untapped resources, with companies pushing further and further into harder-to-reach areas.

As the warming ocean and atmosphere has melted Arctic ice, companies have particularly eyed the Chukchi sea for its fossil fuels. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the wider region contains 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of its oil. Shell purchased its first leases here nearly a decade ago, and it is determined to see a return on its investment.

Shell reached this stage once before, drilling two wells in 2012. But the trip was plagued with problems. At the time, Shell underestimated Arctic dangers and overestimated how much time it had before heavy ice and storms made travel dangerous. The New York Times chronicled the mishaps in a lengthy and dramatic article: One rig, the Noble Discoverer, appeared to ground before reaching the Chukchi that July. Shell’s voluntary spill containment was crushed. A rig caught fire. From there, it got worse: The lines attaching the old rig Shell used, the Kulluk, to towing boats broke, the rig ran aground, and the Coast Guard had to rescue the 18 men trapped aboard it. These setbacks have helped bolster environmentalists’ case that the Arctic is too dangerous to drill.

This time around, Shell has planned to drill two more wells. Two oil rigs, 29 ships and seven aircraft are currently making their way north—an even bigger fleet than the one the company assembled for its previous trip to the Chukchi. Shell says it has never been better prepared, insisting to the Wall Street Journal that the risks today are “negligible.”

Environmentalists certainly don’t feel that way. Before one of the two rigs even left its Seattle port in mid-June, about two-dozen activists took to the water in kayaks, in an attempt to block the rig from leaving port.

There have been other hurdles. Shell’s original plan was to use the two rigs to drill for oil simultaneously, nine miles apart. A backup rig is already required in the aftermath of BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, and Shell figured it would put it to good multitasking. The rigs would double the efficiency of the drilling operations and meet federal requirements in case of a blowout. In a win for environmentalists, however, federal regulators decided in June against Shell’s plans to speed things along, citing the harm simultaneous drilling could cause walruses.

And then, just last week, Shell found a 39-inch gash in its vessel, called the Fennica, which contains a crucial piece to cap a well in the case of a blowout. Shell has taken it to Portland for repairs, and says there’s no reason it will delay the start date for drilling in late July. “We do not anticipate any impact on our season, as we don’t expect to require the vessel until August,” a spokesperson for Shell told Joel Connelly. Greenpeace USA spokesperson Travis Nichols disagreed, saying the company can’t possibly begin work on schedule without the essential equipment.

Shell is still waiting for a final permit from the Department of Interior before it can begin drilling. Department spokesperson Jessica Kershaw said they are watching the situation closely. “We continue to review Shell’s proposal for drilling activity in the Chukchi Sea this summer,” Kershaw said. “As we’ve said from day one, Shell will be held to highest safety and environmental standards. This includes having on hand the required emergency response systems necessary for each phase of its drilling program.”

Even as a long-term prospect, Shell is years behind schedule as the problems add up. And it can’t afford another slow season this year. The company faces pressure to prove to investors it can deliver on its $7 billion bet. By 2017, the Times reported, Shell’s first leases will expire if it doesn’t begin producing oil a decade after it first acquired them.

“Everybody’s watching to see if we’re going to fail or succeed out there,” Ann Pickard, Shell’s Executive Vice President running its Arctic division, told the Wall Street Journal. “If we fail for whatever reason … I think the U.S. is another 25 years” away from developing Arctic resources.

So even minor delays this year—like an incident akin to 2012’s—could be devastating to Shell. Above all else, it faces natural challenges. The weather is fickle, sea ice doesn’t always melt on schedule, and there’s a limited window of a few months a year when the Arctic is calm enough to drill. Interior has given Shell a hard stop to drilling in late September.

Environmentalists say that this pressure is exactly what makes Shell prone to risky decisions. “The Fennica could have easily travelled along a much safer route instead of going over a shallow, rocky shoal in an area that to begin with is not well charted,” said Chris Krenz, Arctic campaign manager and senior scientist for Oceana, an ocean advocacy organization campaigning against Shell’s oil development, in a statement.

If Shell continues, environmentalists warn it’s only a matter of time before the next big disaster strikes. “I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to have a ‘perfect season’ in the Arctic,” Nichols said. “The margin of error is so slim. Things that fly in the Gulf [of Mexico], even though they shouldn’t,” won’t in the Arctic “because conditions are so hard.”

 

By: Rebecca Leber, The New Republic, July 15, 2015

July 16, 2015 Posted by | Big Oil, Environment, Royal Dutch Shell | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“When The IRS Targeted Liberals”: Outrage Only Occurs When Lines Between Politics And Social Welfare Are To GOP’s Liking

While few are defending the Internal Revenue Service for targeting some 300 conservative groups, there are two critical pieces of context missing from the conventional wisdom on the “scandal.” First, at least from what we know so far, the groups were not targeted in a political vendetta — but rather were executing a makeshift enforcement test (an ugly one, mind you) for IRS employees tasked with separating political groups not allowed to claim tax-exempt status, from bona fide social welfare organizations. Employees are given almost zero official guidance on how to do that, so they went after Tea Party groups because those seemed like they might be political. Keep in mind, the commissioner of the IRS at the time was a Bush appointee.

The second is that while this is the first time this kind of thing has become a national scandal, it’s not the first time such activity has occurred.

“I wish there was more GOP interest when I raised the same issue during the Bush administration, where they audited a progressive church in my district in what look liked a very selective way,” California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff said on MSNBC Monday. “I found only one Republican, [North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones], that would join me in calling for an investigation during the Bush administration. I’m glad now that the GOP has found interest in this issue and it ought to be a bipartisan concern.”

The well-known church, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, became a bit of a cause célèbre on the left after the IRS threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status over an anti-Iraq War sermon the Sunday before the 2004 election. “Jesus [would say], ‘Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine,’” rector George Regas said from the dais.

The church, which said progressive activism was in its “DNA,” hired a powerful Washington lawyer and enlisted the help of Schiff, who met with the commissioner of the IRS twice and called for a Government Accountability Office investigation, saying the IRS audit violated the First Amendment and was unduly targeting a political opponent of the Bush administration. “My client is very concerned that the close coordination undertaken by the IRS allowed partisan political concerns to direct the course of the All Saints examination,” church attorney Marcus Owens, who is widely considered one of the country’s leading experts on this area of the law, said at the time. In 2007, the IRS closed the case, decreeing that the church violated rules preventing political intervention, but it did not revoke its nonprofit status.

And while All Saints came under the gun, conservative churches across the country were helping to mobilize voters for Bush with little oversight. In 2006, citing the precedent of All Saints, “a group of religious leaders accused the Internal Revenue Service yesterday of playing politics by ignoring its complaint that two large churches in Ohio are engaging in what it says are political activities, in violation of the tax code,” the New York Times reported at the time. The churches essentially campaigned for a Republican gubernatorial candidate, they alleged, and even flew him on one of their planes.

Meanwhile, Citizens for Ethics in Washington filed two ethics complaints against a church in Minnesota. “You know we can’t publicly endorse as a church and would not for any candidate, but I can tell you personally that I’m going to vote for Michele Bachmann,” pastor Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Center in Minnesota said in 2006 before welcoming her to the church. The IRS opened an audit into the church, but it went nowhere after the church appealed the audit on a technicality.

And it wasn’t just churches. In 2004, the IRS went after the NAACP, auditing the nation’s oldest civil rights group after its chairman criticized President Bush for being the first sitting president since Herbert Hoover not to address the organization. “They are saying if you criticize the president we are going to take your tax exemption away from you,” then-chairman Julian Bond said. “It’s pretty obvious that the complainant was someone who doesn’t believe George Bush should be criticized, and it’s obvious of their response that the IRS believes this, too.”

In a letter to the IRS, Democratic Reps. Charles Rangel, Pete Stark and John Conyers wrote: “It is obvious that the timing of this IRS examination is nothing more than an effort to intimidate the members of the NAACP, and the communities the organization represents, in their get-out-the-vote effort nationwide.”

Then, in 2006, the Wall Street Journal broke the story of how a little-known pressure group called Public Interest Watch — which received 97 percent of its funds from Exxon Mobile one year — managed to get the IRS to open an investigation into Greenpeace. Greenpeace had labeled Exxon Mobil the “No. 1 climate criminal.” The IRS acknowledged its audit was initiated by Public Interest Watch and threatened to revoke Greenpeace’s tax-exempt status, but closed the investigation three months later.

As the Journal reporter, Steve Stecklow, later said in an interview, “This comes against a backdrop where a number of conservative groups have been attacking nonprofits and NGOs over their tax-exempt status. There have been hearings on Capitol Hill. There have been a number of conservative groups in Washington who have been quite critical.”

Indeed, the year before that, the Senate held a hearing on nonprofits’ political activity. Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said the IRS needed better enforcement, but also “legislative changes” to better define the lines between politics and social welfare, since they had not been updated in “a generation.” Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the IRS has defined 501(c)4′s sufficiently to this day, leaving the door open for IRS auditors to make up their own, discriminatory rules.

Those cases mostly involved 501(c)3 organizations, which live in a different section of the tax code for real charities like hospitals and schools. The rules are much stronger and better developed for (c)3′s, in part because they’ve been around longer. But with “social welfare” (c)4 groups, the kind of political activity we saw in 2010 and 2012 is so unprecedented that you get cases like Emerge America, a progressive nonprofit that trains Democratic female candidates for public office. The group has chapters across the country, but in 2011, chapters in Massachusetts, Maine and Nevada were denied 501(c)4 tax-exempt status. Leaders called the situation “bizarre” because in the five years Nevada had waited for approval, the Kentucky chapter was approved, only for the other three to be denied.

A former IRS official told the New York Times that probably meant the applications were sent to different offices, which use slightly different standards. Different offices within the same organization that are supposed to impose the exact same rules in a consistent manner have such uneven conceptions of where to draw the line at a political group, that they can approve one organization and then deny its twin in a different state.

All of these stories suggest that while concern with the IRS posture toward conservative groups now may be merited, to fully understand the situation requires a bit of context and history.

 

By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, May 14, 2013

May 15, 2013 Posted by | GOP | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Koch Industries Lobbying Aggressively To Allow Safety Loopholes At Chemical Sites At Risk Of Terrorist Attacks

One of the largest private companies in the country, Koch Industries, is fighting tooth and nail against regulations aimed at protecting the United States from a terrorist attack on chemical plants, according to a new report. Since 9/11, homeland security officials have worked to establish rules for top chemical producers to ensure that major American plants identify vulnerabilities and shore up potential risks. However, the safety rules are costly, and as Greenpeace reveals in a study released today, Koch has used its influence in Congress to loosen enforcement on its own sprawling network of chemical facilities.

There are two bills that deal with industrial chemical safety standards and terrorism prevention. One bill, the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standard (CFATS), will “exempt most facilities and actually prohibit the authority of Department of Homeland Security to require safer processes.” Another bill, the Continuing Chemical Facilities Antiterrorism Security Act (CCFASA), closes security loopholes and provides authorities the power to enforce the law on chemical manufacturers. Koch has pushed for an extension of CFATS and has unambiguously lobbied to kill the CCFASA bill.

John Aloysius Farrell, Ben Wieder and Evan Bush, reporters for iWatch News, have covered the issue and note the proximity of Koch’s most dangerous facilities to large population centers:

– An Invista chemical plant in LaPorte, Texas, where a spill and vaporization of formaldehyde could threaten almost 1.9 million potential victims within 25 miles.
– A Georgia-Pacific plant in Camas, Wash., where a chlorine spill and gas cloud could endanger 840,000 people within 14 miles.
– A Flint Hills refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, where 350,000 people living within 22 miles would be threatened by a hydrogen fluoride spill and vaporization.
– And a Koch Nitrogen plant in East Alton, Ill., where 290,000 people live within 11 miles, and face the potential danger of a poisonous anhydrous ammonia cloud.

Koch’s campaign donations appear closely aligned with their anti-terrorism prevention lobbying. For instance, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA), the lead author of the flawed CFATS extension, blocked amendments to the bill that would “require facilities to asses their ability to convert to safer chemical processes, close regulatory loopholes, and involve non-management level workers in the chemical security process.” Lungren has accepted over $22,000 from Koch-related campaign donations.

By: Lee Fang, Think Progress, August 24, 2011

August 25, 2011 Posted by | 911, Campaign Financing, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Energy, Environment, GOP, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Ideologues, Ideology, Koch Brothers, National Security, Nuclear Power Plants, Politics, Regulations, Republicans, Right Wing, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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