In a controversial move, the Obama administration last week gave final approval for the oil and gas industry to begin conducting seismic testing to map potential offshore reserves along the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida. The decision comes as the administration is drawing up a new five-year plan for selling offshore drilling leases beginning in late 2017.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said its plan to move forward with the oil and gas studies "adopts the strongest practicable safeguards to eliminate or reduce to eliminate or reduce impacts to human, marine and coastal environments." These include additional environmental reviews for specific sites and special closure areas to protect the main migratory route for the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, only about 450 of which are left in the world. The animals' only breeding and calving grounds are off the coast of Georgia and Florida, part of the area designated for seismic testing.
Seismic air gun blasts can reach 250 decibels -- a sound level that in animals can cause hearing loss, interfere with communication, and disturb behavior. In comparison, a jet takeoff at about 80 feet is 150 decibels, a level that can rupture eardrums. Fishermen have reported drops in catches in areas where seismic testing has occurred.
The American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry's leading lobby group, issued a statement saying it "welcomed" the Interior Department's decision to issue permits for seismic testing in the Atlantic. But it criticized some of the measures the administration is imposing to protect wildlife, saying that operators "already take great care to protect wildlife."
More than 120,000 public comments were submitted on seismic testing in the Atlantic, with about two-thirds against it. The plan is also opposed by numerous coastal municipalities, scientists and members of Congress. After the Obama administration announced it was green-lighting the plan last week, 11 members of Florida's congressional delegation sent a letter to the president expressing disapproval and stating their continued opposition.
Some environmental advocates connected the decision to move forward anyway with the financial clout of the oil and gas industry. Claire Douglass, campaign director for Oceana, told the FuelFix blog that "our government appears to be folding to the pressure of Big Oil and its big money."
Just how strong is the oil and gas industry's pressure and how big is its money? Let's look at political spending at the federal level in recent years by the industry, which recorded more than $100 billion in profits in 2013 alone:
* Presidential politics: The amount that companies with interests in oil and gas contributed to all federal candidates in the 2012 election cycle -- more than $70 million -- was double what they spent in the 2010 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org database. Ninety percent of those contributions went to Republicans.
During the last presidential election, the industry contributed more than $5.7 million to Republican candidate Mitt Romney and $991,674 to Republican Rick Perry, who lost to Romney in the primaries. Romney was by far the biggest recipient of the industry's financial support during that election cycle, receiving almost seven times the $825,527 the industry contributed to President Barack Obama.
The industry contributed more to Obama's campaign during his first run for the presidency in 2008 -- $965,048. But it contributed almost three times that -- $2.7 million -- to Republican candidate John McCain during that cycle.
* Congressional politics: In the 2012 election cycle, the oil and gas industry contributed more than $35.7 million to congressional candidates, with over 87 percent of that going to Republicans. So far in the 2014 election cycle, oil and gas interests have contributed almost $17.8 million to congressional campaigns, with 84 percent going to Republicans.
The industry has been investing in U.S. Senate races in the three states along the Southeast coast where governors have been pressing the federal government to allow offshore drilling through the Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition. With 33 of the Senate's 100 seats up for grabs, Republicans need to win six seats to take control of the Senate from Democrats.
So far in this cycle, oil and gas interests have contributed $35,635 to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) but more than three times that -- $112,600 -- to challenger Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican National Committee and former adviser to President George W. Bush. Both Gillespie and Warner support offshore drilling. In fact, Warner along with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) sponsored a bill to open Virginia's coastline to drilling.
Next door in North Carolina, oil and gas interests have contributed $9,400 to Sen. Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, but more than five times that -- $51,100 -- to her Republican challenger, state House Speaker Thom Tillis. Hagan and Tillis both support offshore drilling.
The industry's spending is even more skewed in the U.S. Senate race in South Carolina. Oil and gas interests have contributed $226,801 to Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican, but nothing so far to his Democratic challenger, Joyce Dickerson, according to OpenSecrets.org. Perhaps not surprisingly, Dickerson opposes offshore drilling while Scott has worked on legislation to promote it. Scott is the Senate's seventh-biggest recipient of oil and gas industry contributions after John Cornyn (R-Texas), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Steven Daines (R-Mont.).
* Lobbying: The oil and gas industry is also one of the top sources of business for lobbying firms, OpenSecrets.org reports. Last year the industry ranked third among all those involved in lobbying, after pharmaceuticals and insurance, and so far this year it ranks sixth.
Last year alone, oil and gas interests spent almost $145 million on lobbying at the federal level. That represents an increase over the $143.6 million it spent on lobbying in 2012, though it was down from the $150.7 million spent in 2011.
The five oil and gas companies that spent the most on federal lobbying in 2013 were Exxon Mobil ($13.4 million), Chevron ($10.5 million), Koch Industries ($10.4 million), American Petroleum Institute ($9.3 million), and Royal Dutch Shell ($9 million).
* Outside spending: The industry has also been expanding its political influence through outside spending, according to OpenSecrets.org. "Outside spending" refers to political expenditures made by groups or individuals independent of and not coordinated with candidates' committees. This type of spending exploded in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision loosening restrictions on corporate money in politics, jumping from $205.5 million in the 2010 cycle to $1 billion in the 2012 cycle.
The top outside spender by far in the current election cycle is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent almost $14.8 million to date. Though the nonprofit business association does not have to disclose its donors to the Federal Elections Commission, some of them were discovered by Center for Responsive Politics researchers examining IRS filings of donating organizations, and they include the American Petroleum Institute.
Another leading outside spender at the federal level is the 60 Plus Association, a conservative 501(c)(4) "social welfare" nonprofit that has been involved in promoting climate science denial as a member of the Cooler Heads Coalition. The 60 Plus Association has spent more than $526,000 so far in this election cycle. Among its leading known contributors? The American Petroleum Institute.