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Oil Industry Lobbying Group Funded “Dark Money” Ads for Conservative Democrats

American Petroleum Institute’s tax filings reveal millions spent on ads for Henry Cuellar, Kyrsten Sinema and others.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar questions U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas as he testifies before a House Appropriations Subcommittee on April 27, 2022 in Washington, DC.

A “dark money” group that spent millions of dollars this year on ads supporting conservative Democrats, including Reps. Henry Cuellar and Kurt Schrader, was funded by oil and gas industry lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute, Sludge has discovered.

The American Petroleum Institute’s (API) 990 tax form for 2021 shows it paid more than $3.5 million to the Better Jobs Together Campaign, an opaque Virginia corporation that was formed in April 2021, for advocacy services it performed as an independent contractor. Better Jobs Together has spent more than $2.5 million according to AdImpact figures to run television ads that praise a handful of conservative congressional Democrats for policies that they say protect the climate and jobs. API did not respond to a request for comment.

Better Jobs Together’s ads do not explicitly endorse the candidates they praise, and the group does not report its activities to the Federal Election Commission. Federal campaign finance laws on “electioneering communications” allow groups to air political ads while avoiding disclosure as long as the ads do not explicitly say to elect or defeat a certain candidate, and are not shown within 30 days of an election.

The group’s ads praise Cuellar, Schrader, Rep. Vincente Gonzalez, Rep. Marc Veasey, Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, according to copies that can be viewed on its website. The bulk of Better Jobs Together’s spending went towards ads that praise Cuellar, on which they spent at least $1.4 million, according to AdImpact. Cuellar has been labeled “Big Oil’s favorite Democrat” for his tendency to cross the aisle and take votes aligned with Republicans and the fossil fuel industry. He has the worst environmental voting record of any House Democrat, according to the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard.

The American Petroleum Institute’s 2021 990 shows it paid Better Jobs Together as an independent contractor.

This is the second election cycle in a row that Cuellar has been boosted by a dark money political group that Sludge later uncovered was funded by API. In the 2020 election cycle, a then-unknown group called American Workers for Progress spent more than $720,000 on pro-Cuellar ads and mailers and was later found by Sludge to have received $1.3 million from API in 2019. In both his 2020 and 2022 re-election campaigns, Cuellar was challenged in the Democratic primary by progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros, who is endorsed by left-leaning climate advocacy groups and supports a Green New Deal that includes investment in solar and wind infrastructure.

In June of last year, API hired Cuellar’s former chief of staff, Amy Travieso Loveng, to work on its federal lobbying staff. Loveng now works for oil company Oxy, short for Occidental, on government affairs, according to her LinkedIn.

API is the largest American lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, with annual revenues in 2021 of more than $228 million. Its dues-paying members include companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron.

Better Jobs Together’s ads praise the conservative Democrats for supporting climate policies that they say are good for things like jobs and security, but in all the cases the policies are also supported by API as the group angles to embrace climate measures that would also perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. For example, in its Sinema ads, Better Jobs Together praises the senator’s work on a package of energy bills that included a bill she sponsored called the Launching Energy Advancement and Development through Innovations for Natural Gas Act that directs federal funding to natural gas carbon capture technology research. API’s climate action framework says the group plans include advocating for federal funding of carbon capture research and development.

A Better Jobs Together spot for Texas Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, founding chair of the Congressional Oil and Gas Caucus, cited statements he made at an API-sponsored event during 2020’s virtual Democratic National Convention arguing that natural gas is “vital” to a renewable-energy future. Recent blog posts from API have similarly touted natural gas as “essential.” Research by InfluenceMap has tracked the lobby group’s efforts since 2016 to obstruct climate policies that would reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Against the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” in a transition to renewables, research by advocacy group Oil Change International found that greenhouse gas emissions from already-operating fossil fuel sites is incompatible with the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit warming worldwide under 2 degrees Celsius. Another ad for Rep. Marc Veasy praises his introduction of a bill that would direct federal funds for infrastructure like pipelines for transporting captured carbon. API promoted carbon capture starting in 2006 as a method to enhance oil production.

As it unleashed a wave of political spending last year, becoming the dominant outside spender in the high-profile rematch between Cuellar and Cisneros, Better Jobs Together released virtually no information about its founders or its funders. The group listed an address on its incorporation papers in Arlington, Virginia that appears to be a mailbox at a Staples store. Its principal and treasurer is Rene Ramirez, founder of Texas-based consulting firm Pathfinder Public Affairs and a state lobbyist for dozens of corporate clients including pipeline firm Energy Transfer. The incorporator listed was Megan Troy, a D.C. attorney and former lobbyist with a specialty in telecom and regulatory policy. As of Aug. 31, Better Jobs Together is deemed inactive by the Virginia State Corporation Commission for not filing an annual report this year. Ramirez did not respond to a request for comment on API’s funding of Better Jobs Together.

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