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Lobbying and Campaign Cash Fuel GOP Attacks on Endangered Species

The GOP seek to undermine endangered species protections to ease the way for Big Ag and Big Oil..

A male sage grouse in Owyhee, Idaho. Large oil companies and their industry groups have repeatedly lobbied members of Congress to prevent the placement of certain threatened species on the endangered list (including the sage grouse) - particularly species that exist in areas they want to drill. (Photo: Gary O. Grimm/Flickr)

Part of the Series

Last year, Exxon Mobile lobbied Congress on a bill that would have placed the greater sage-grouse on the endangered species list. BP lobbied on “Endangered Species Act issues impacting oil and gas development including prairie chicken and sage grouse,” according to federal lobbying records.

In 2008, Shell Oil lobbied on the listing of polar bears as an endangered species. The records do not specify the company’s position on the issue, but they do indicate that the lobbying was part of an aggressive push to open federal waters in the Arctic to oil drilling.

The sage-grouse and prairie chicken are both western fowl that have seen their populations decline dramatically along with their habitat, and conservationists are fighting to keep them from disappearing entirely. The prairie chicken is currently listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and the sage-grouse is a candidate for federal protection.

“[The birds] exist in areas where they want to drill – Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, those type of states where there is a lot of oil and gas development,” said Jamie Pang, a researcher with the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are literally in the way of oil and gas development.”

A Truthout review of lobbying records found that large oil companies and their industry groups have repeatedly lobbied members of Congress to prevent the placement of certain threatened species on the endangered list. These groups have also pushed for a growing list of bills and riders that environmentalists say are designed to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Environmentalists say that corporate campaign cash may also be influencing lawmakers. A report, coauthored by Pang and released this week, found that the number of “legislative attacks” on endangered species has grown considerably since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that unleashed a flood of outside campaign spending by corporations and wealthy donors.

This doesn’t bode well for the American burying beetle, which would lose its endangered species protections under several proposals introduced in Congress.

“The American burying beetle is the biggest threat to the Keystone pipeline right now,” said Pang, referring to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and has become an ongoing national controversy.

Chipping Away at Endangered Species Protections

There have been 166 pieces of legislation aimed at weakening endangered species protections introduced in Congress since 2011, but only 69 were recorded between 1996 and 2010, according to the report. Republicans have introduced 93 percent of the legislation and every one of the 66 bills and riders that have been introduced so far this year.

Some of these “legislative attacks” have sought to weaken the Endangered Species Act in general, but lawmakers have become increasingly focused on reducing or removing protections for specific species that stand in the way of industrial development, as big agriculture and fossil fuel interests fill their campaign coffers with record contributions.

Together, five Republicans are responsible for nearly 25 percent of the 166 pieces of legislation introduced since 2011, and each one has benefited from campaign contributions from industries seeking to undo endangered species protections, according to the report.

Ken Calvert (R-California) leads the pack with 10 bills aimed at species ranging from the mountain yellow-legged frog to the African elephant. Calvert has received $665,009 from big agriculture interests and $277,074 from oil and gas interests during his career.

John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has introduced legislation to weaken protections for several endangered salamanders in his state, has received nearly $1.7 million from big agriculture and $2.9 million from oil and gas interests during his career.

Some of the pieces of legislation are bills and others are stealth riders tucked away deep inside massive spending bills and other must-pass legislation.

A rider that Calvert tacked on to a bill to fund the multiagency Interior Department, introduced in June, for example, would remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the endangered species list but does not mention the gray wolf by name. The rider would force US Fish and Wildlife to reissue a 2011 rule, delisting the wolves, which was struck down in court, and that rule is only identified by its listing in the federal register. Pang said she suspects that big agriculture interests pushed for the rider because wolves are perceived as a threat to cattle.

The report notes that most of the legislation has little chance of passing, but a few have been successful in the past, including a 2011 rider that delisted gray wolves living in the Rocky Mountain region. The legislation can also have a chilling effect on the agencies tasked with monitoring and conserving endangered and threatened species, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has already weakened protections for the sage-grouse and the northern long-eared bat.

Save the Manatees

Pang said the Endangered Species Act, which was passed by a unanimous vote in 1973, is designed to facilitate citizen participation in conservation policies and has been highly successful at recovering species like gray whales and bald eagles from the brink of extinction. The act enjoys the support of the vast majority of voters, so its conservative critics look seriously out of touch when they meet with business interests behind closed doors to undermine it.

Pang pointed to Rob Bishop (R-Utah), one of the top five Republicans who have railed against protections for endangered species but has recently become an apparent fan of Florida’s endangered manatees. Bishop made headlines last month when he attempted to use the endangered status of manatees to help thwart the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Bishop argued that the Obama administration failed to consult wildlife officials when designing the plan, which could force some old and especially dirty coal plants to shut down. Manatees like to gather in the warm water expelled by coal plants in Florida, Bishop argued, so the clean power rule could adversely impact the marine mammals if the plants closed.

Calling on the Endangered Species Act only when it benefits polluters is probably not a good way to protect the environment and its wildlife. Perhaps that’s why environmentalists like Pang want endangered species policies to be based on the best available science, not the interests of corporate lobbyists and campaign donors.

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