Against the backdrop of intensifying global heat waves, a burning Amazon forest, and melting arctic ice caps, the question of how to respond to the global climate crisis, and a candidate’s relationship to the fossil fuel industry, are assuming center stage in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
At one end, you have Donald Trump, the near-certain Republican nominee, who has taken huge amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry. The Trump administration has rolled back climate regulations, removed the U.S. from the Paris Accords, and elevated fossil fuel lobbyists into key oversight positions – though it appears that even Trump now sees the need to give lip service to climate concerns.
Democratic candidates have been compelled to take more aggressive stances towards addressing the climate crisis, and to make gestures at distancing themselves from the influence of the fossil fuel industry, largely due to pressure from climate activists. Several Democratic candidates have signed on to the Green New Deal resolution, and some took part in CNN’s climate town hall. There have also been calls for a debate focused solely on the climate crisis, which the Democratic National Committee voted down.
The most concrete and direct way that the climate movement has impacted the Democratic race may be through the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. Sponsored by 17 climate organizations, candidates who sign the pledge promise “not to take contributions over $200 from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, and PACs and instead prioritize the health of our families, climate, and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.” The No Fossil Fuel Pledge raises the issue of fossil fuel industry influence over candidates. All but two Democratic candidates – Steve Bullock and John Delaney – have signed on.
This article profiles some examples of fossil fuel industry donations to 2020 candidates. Oil, gas, and coal interests are clearly lining up behind Donald Trump, having already donated significant sums towards reelecting him. While nowhere near the level of the Trump campaign, some Democrats, too, have accepted donations from oil and gas interests – including some signers of the No Fossil Fuel Pledge.
These donations raise questions over whether these candidates have violated the pledge, and they point to some blurry terrain around what exactly constitutes fossil fuel industry money. Money from holding companies that solely invest in fossil fuel businesses? From powerful utilities that primarily burn coal and gas? From Wall Street interests that have large stakes in major oil and gas companies?
The Trump Campaign and Fossil Fuel Industry Donations
Fourteen months before the 2020 presidential election, the Trump campaign has already reaped in big fossil fuel industry donations. For example, Kelcy Warren, the billionaire chairman and CEO of Energy Transfer, which owns the Dakota Access Pipeline, gave a whopping $360,600 to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee to reelect Trump, on June 13th, as well as $5,600 to Trump’s campaign committee.
Billionaire Jeffrey Hildebrand, co-founder and president of Hilcorp Energy, which carries out oil and gas operations across the U.S. and just acquired BP’s Alaska assets, gave $150,000 to Trump Victory on March 20, and his wife Melinda also gave $150,000. Crownquest CEO Tim Dunn has given $150,000 to Trump Victory and $5,600 to the Trump campaign committee. Crownquest is a major driller in the Permian Basin, and Dunn bankrolls the far-right group Empower Texans. Syed Javaid Anwar, founder of Midland Energy, gave $50,000 to Trump Victory.
On February 11, Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, a major coal company, gave $5,600 to Trump Victory and another $5,600 to theTrump campaign committee. Murray Energy poured money into electing Trump in 2016.
These are just a few examples of the fossil fuel industry money already flowing towards Trump. Given that the election is over a year away, this is likely just the beginning of an outpouring of campaign cash to Trump from oil, gas, and coal interests.
Democratic candidates have not accepted the kinds of direct, astronomical sums of money from the fossil fuel industry as Trump (though, according to a recent story by journalist Donald Shaw at Sludge, the Democratic National Committee has taken in tens of thousands of dollars from the industry). But a survey of a few donations indicates that, despite almost all Democratic candidates signing onto the No Fossil Fuel Pledge, oil and gas executives and lobbyists, and other executives with clear interests tied to fossil fuel companies, are finding ways to give money to candidates.
Atlas Energy is a holding company that appears to invest solely in fossil fuel industry operations. Jonathan Cohen, an executive at Atlas Energy, made a maxed out donation of $5,600 to Pete Buttigieg on June 6, 2019. Buttigieg agreed to the No Fossil Fuel Pledge on March 27, 2019. (Update: the Buttigieg campaign has said that it is returning these funds).
According to its website, Atlas has a big stake in Titan Energy, an exploration and production company that carries out oil, gas, and coal operations across the U.S.; Atlas Growth Partners, an exploration and development subsidiary that Atlas created “to conduct natural gas and oil operations” across the U.S., including in major basins in Texas and Oklahoma; and Lightfoot Capital Partners, which “invests directly in energy-related businesses and assets,” including Arc Logistics Partners, which is “principally engaged in the terminalling, storage, throughput and transloading of petroleum products and other liquids.”
As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in 2014, when Atlas sold its midstreams assets to Targa Resources, “[t]he Atlas group of companies has a history of selling off major parts to big players then rebuilding in anticipation of another such sale.” In 2011, for example it sold its “vast Marcellus Shale assets” to Chevron for $4.3 billion. The Post-Gazette reported in July on a young boy who had become sick – his father believes, and claims results of a toxicology report show – from two Chevron wells behind his house that the company acquired from Atlas.
Jonathan Cohen, who gave the $5,600 to the Buttigieg campaign on June 6th, is the Executive Chairman of Atlas Energy, and is also the son of Ed Cohen, the CEO of Atlas Energy.
Wall Street investors in Fossil Fuel Companies
One gray area surrounding fossil fuel industry money involves donations from private equity firms. Unlike bank credit facilities or index funds, private equity investors have close, active roles with the companies they invest in. While not fossil fuel executives per se, these investors are top shareholders of major oil, gas, and coal companies, and many effectively exercise executive power within fossil fuel companies they invest in.
For example, Baupost Group, a Boston-based hedge fund headed by billionaire Seth Klarman, is a 9.2% owner of Antero Resources, a Denver-based oil and natural gas production company with operations in the Appalachian Basin. Baupost is the top owner of Antero after the board and executive officers as a group.
Baupost is also a 5.5% owner of Cheniere Energy, making it the company’s fourth biggest shareholder. Cheniere is a major liquefied natural gas company, and it was the first company to receive permits, under the Obama administration, to export LNG from the lower 48 states.
Klarman gave $5,600 to Pete Buttigieg’s campaign on May 24, 2016, around two months after Buttigieg signed the no fossil fuel pledge. Klarman also gave $5,600 to Cory Booker’s campaign, though those donations came on March 25 and 26, and Booker only agreed to the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge on June 2. Frederick Fogel, Bauopost’s General Counsel, gave $1,500 to Joe Biden’s campaign on May 1, though Biden did not take the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge until June 27.
While Klarman may is not a fossil fuel industry executive, he is the power behind the fossil fuel executives of the companies that Baupost has major investments in. Clearly, as a top owner of major oil and gas corporations, Baupost has an interest in seeing policies enacted that would benefit these companies and the policy and regulatory world in which they operate.
On June 30, 2019, Nicolas Medina gave $250 to Julián Castro’s campaign. On his donation filing, Medina lists his occupation as “Public and Government Affairs” for ExxonMobil Pipeline Company. Castro announced his agreement to the No Fossil Fuel Pledge on May 23, 2019.
Medina has worked at Exxon for around 26 years and describes himself as a “seasoned oil and gas executive.” Medina is also the vice-chair of the Public Awareness Group at the American Petroleum Institute and a member of the communications and government relations committees at the Association of Oil Pipelines. Medina’s work in the area of “public and government affairs” implies involvement in industry lobbying efforts, though we have found no record of him engaging in lobbying activity.
Other candidates have accepted donations from upper-level employees of ExxonMobil. For example, ExxonMobil senior counsel James Morse gave Kamala Harris’s campaign $500 on June 28.
These donations, while not huge, underscore the the ways in which high-up employees of fossil fuel corporations are sending donations to candidates who have pledged to distance themselves from industry money.
Some Candidates Have Returned Donations Tied to the Fossil Fuel Industry
Some candidates have decided to return contributions that may not technically violate the No Fossil Fuel Pledge, but which still constitute significant donations from the industry, and, with an electorate concerned with climate issues, give off a potentially a bad look.
For example, Amy Klobuchar recently returned $5,600 in donations from a pipelines project manager at Enbridge, the company behind the proposed Line 3 replacement pipeline, which is very controversial in Klobuchar’s home state of Minnesota. Klobuchar received the donation on May 16, four days before she signed the No Fossil Fuel Pledge. The donor also was not an executive, it appears. But when the news of the donation was published in City Pages, Klobuchar soon decided to return it.
Beto O’Rourke has said that he would return donations that do not conform to the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.
Other candidates have taken donations from oil and gas companies, but, like Klobuchar, did so before they signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. For example, Kamala Harris’s campaign accepted $3,800 through two donations from managing directors at EIG Energy Partners, which has a portfolio filled with fossil fuel companies. These contributions came around two and three months before Harris signed the pledge. Similarly, Joe Biden’s campaign accepted a $1,000 donation from Orion Energy Partners around two months before Biden signed the pledge. Orion’s portfolio includes a host of companies that provides oilfield services. Eleven days before he signed the No Fossil Fuel Pledge, Biden also accepted a $3,000 donation from Michael Wajsgras, an executive at Exelon, a power generation company that produces 27 percent of its electricity from burning natural gas and oil (62 percent comes from nuclear).
Skirting the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge?
The Washington Post also found donations that skirt the promise by some candidates to refuse to fossil fuel industry donations:
- “An oil company development and finance manager remains one of former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s most generous donors, including to his presidential campaign.”
- “Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has accepted donations from a top attorney at CITGO Petroleum, among others at natural gas corporations, federal filings show. After an inquiry from The Washington Post, Harris’s campaign said it was in the process of returning a gift from a vice president at Consumers Energy, a Michigan-based natural gas and electricity company.”
- “South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has received money from a CITGO manager who is now assistant corporate controller of another Texas-based petroleum distributor.”
- “Biden received the maximum $2,800 donation from the president of Marathon Energy Corp., a New York-based oil, gas and electricity supplier.”
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