Pro-Environment Groups Outmatched, Outspent in Battle Over Climate Change Legislation
It was supposed to be their time.
With significant majorities in Congress, a president promising action
and favorable public opinion all on their side, many environmentalists
believed their political stars had properly -- and finally -- aligned.
Sensing the unique opportunity to address global warming on a national scale, environmental interest groups
poured considerable capital into federal lobbying expenditures in an
effort to topple their significantly more wealthy foes in the energy
industry whose political standing appeared uncharacteristically wobbly.
At the height of the legislative push, during 2009, pro-environmental groups spent a record $22.4 million on federal lobby efforts. That is double the average expenditure between 2000 and 2008.
Advocacy groups lobbied independently of, and in partnership with, like-minded corporations. Industry leaders -- the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and World Wildlife Fund -- hit hardest, investing more than $6 million. The US Climate Action Partnership,
an unprecedented conglomeration of leading advocacy groups, energy
businesses and some of the U.S. largest producers, spent $1 million
Yet even as pro-environment groups seemed poised to capitalize on
favorable trends, moneyed opponents girded for a fight with more
financial capital than ever before.
Clients in the oil and gas industry
unleashed a fury of lobbying expenditures in 2009, spending $175
million -- easily an industry record -- and outpacing the
pro-environmental groups by nearly eight-fold, according to a Center for
Responsive Politics analysis.
of the largest petroleum companies in the world together spent hundreds
of millions of dollars in various attempts to influence politics during
the past 18 months
the industry leader in 2009, spent $27.4 million in lobbying
expenditures that year -- more than the entire pro-environment lobby.
And in July, congressional debate on global warming stopped cold.
In other words, Goliath whipped David.
way it turned out was a huge disappointment, to put it mildly," Nathan
Wilcox, the Federal Global Warming Program Director for Environment America, one group that lobbied heavily on comprehensive climate change legislation, told OpenSecrets Blog.
"The opposition outspent us, and they took it to a new level this time."
MOMENTUM GIVES WAY TO DEFEAT
Though only recently coming to a head, the battle over climate change
policy -- and subsequent dramatic increase in political spending --
began a few years earlier for both of these groups.
Energy and climate change became major issues for both groups
following the Democratic sweep of the congressional mid-year elections
in 2006. Environmental groups scored major victories in the 2008
election cycle, betting heavily on a Democratic majority and the
presidential candidacy of Barack Obama.
Individuals and political action committees contributed nearly $5.6 million to political candidates in 2007 and 2008. Ninety-four percent of the total went to Democrats.
These same groups favored Obama, who campaigned on a promise to
aggressively tackle global warming, if elected. Pro-environment groups
poured more than $1.2 million into his campaign, donating to his campaign over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's by a seven-to-one margin.
Oil and gas groups again outspent
pro-environmental groups considerably, and with their own partisan
slant. With more than $35.6 million, individuals and political action
committees contributed far more, at a more than six-to-one rate.
Seventy-seven percent of contributions from this industry went to
Republicans during the 2008 cycle.
Still, it was pro-environmental groups that backed the winning
candidates. And it was pro-environmental groups who carried the
political momentum into 2009 and the first legislative battleground in
the House of Representatives.
Advocacy groups pushed hard for a bill that would tackle global
warming by placing an economy-wide cap on carbon emissions. Major
industry players lobbied heavily in the first half of the year.
Established leaders favoring the legislation -- the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Sierra Club -- all lobbied heavily, bringing the industry to more than $4.7 million during the first quarter.
In the American Security and Clean Energy Act (H.R. 2454), which passed the House of Representatives in June 2009, most saw a serious victory.
Wesley Warren, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, today calls the House's passage of H.R. 2452 "proof" that money isn't the final arbiter in legislative matters.
"It's not only about the money," he told OpenSecrets Blog. "Having money helps, but the other side will always have more and they don't always win."
Far from united on the issue, however, many environmental activist
groups cried foul over perceived carve-outs for special interests,
citing massive amounts of carbon offsets given to energy and coal
companies, which would large parts of the industries from a cap on
Greenpeace, a group that is well-known for its environmental activism and which also lobbied on the bill in 2009, went on record as not supporting the legislation. It called H.R. 2454 a "victory" for lobbyists from industries of oil, coal and others.
Indeed, looming over the negotiations throughout the first half of the year was the oil and gas industry's influential shadow.
During the first half of the year, oil and gas groups spent more than
$86.5 million on legislative influence. Some of the largest oil
companies in the world -- who double as industry spending leaders --
lobbied heavily on H.R. 2454. ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp, ExxonMobil and U.S. petroleum conglomerate Koch Industries
each individually spentmillions of dollars lobbying Congress that
quarter . Each listed H.R. 2454 frequently on their federally mandated
lobbying reports repeatedly in 2009.
"It was a major job-killer," Bill Bush, a spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association that represents oil and gas interests, told OpenSecrets Blog.
"It wasn't an efficient way to go about the problem of climate change
-- it would have placed a great burden on those Americans who use and
are employed by oil and natural gas companies."
The fight between pro-environmental and oil and gas groups would only
grow more bitter as the fight shifted to the notoriously slow-moving
Negotiations over legislation to reform the nation's
health care system had inflamed an already deep partisan divide between
Democrats and Republicans. It was the perfect situation for opponents of
climate change legislation: As Democrats wrangled with the moderate
factions of their party over health care, oil and gas groups hammered
away in the background.
In the year following the House's initial passage of H.R. 2454, the
oil and gas industry lobbed nearly more than $163 million at Congress,
bringing their 18 month total to nearly $250 million. Many of the same
leading oil and gas interests lobbying on H.R. 2454 also focused on the
Senate versions of the legislation -- the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S.1733), sponsored by Senators John Kerry (Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.), and which later became known as the American Power Act.
By the time it was over in July of this year, with legislation
stalling out in the Senate, the oil and gas industry had outspent
environmental interests more than seven-to-one.
PRO-ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS REFLECT
What's next for environmental groups isn't completely clear.
Some of the largest groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club,
are turning their attention to the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of
Mexico and the fight to hold oil giant BP responsible for the incident.
On the fight for comprehensive climate change legislation, opinions
are mixed as to what it will take to move legislation forward, but many
groups argued they've already made progress.
Nathan Wilcox at Environment America
said he believes environmental groups will "undoubtedly" have to spend
more money. But he also notes that in the process of a long debate,
pro-environmental groups succeeded in bringing together many
organizations that don't always agree with one another -- something that
he thinks helped move legislation forward to some degree.
"An unprecedented number of groups [came] together in support of
climate," he said, including the renewable energy and national security
fields. "We really raised the profile of the issue."
Such partnerships, notes Bob Bendick, government relations director at the Nature Conservancy, can also help break a standard narrative in the climate change debate: that the issue pits jobs against the environment.
Bendick cited Nature Conservancy's work with the US Climate Action Partnership
as one example: USCAP, he said, "presented to the American people that
this isn't about: 'Jobs versus Climate', but that climate can be a very
important part of the future of our economy."
Another advantage groups cited was its ability to bypass Congress and take its message directly to the American people.
Joe Smyth, a spokesperson for Greenpeace,
said environmental groups need to pressure Congress from the bottom-up,
rather than relying on buying a seat at a committee room through
"We as a community are not going to be able to out-lobby [oil and
gas], or other industries," he said. "We need to take our fight
elsewhere. There needs to be grassroots pressure on members of
And grassroots pressure is one thing that advocacy groups do
particularly well. With millions of members among them, such an effort
may help them outflank oil and gas interests in the next debate.
As Smyth puts it: "It's the only way that we are going to break out of the stranglehold they have over the issue."