In California, the Oil Empire Strikes Back

by Mike Young

In California, the Oil Empire Strikes Back

We have the best legislature money can buy, and Big Oil just proved it.

The oil industry used their limitless war chest to fund a multi-million dollar fear-mongering campaign against two major climate proposals, ending the 2015 legislative session with two huge victories for their profits and two devastating losses for our future. But that’s not the whole story, as I’ll explain in a moment.

Wielding considerable influence over a group of Democrats that calls themselves the “Moderate Caucus” but which are more accurately described as the “Oil Caucus,” oil lobbyists succeeded in convincing Assembly members to kill a critical piece of priority climate bill SB 350 (de Leon); namely, a requirement to cut California’s petroleum use in half by 2030. At the same time, they halted the progress of another climate bill, SB 32 (Pavley), which would have put California on a path to reduce our greenhouse gases on a level scientists say we need to reach to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

Together, the two bills authored by Senate environmental champions Kevin de Leon and Fran Pavley would have been the most impactful and ambitious climate and clean energy laws in the world. But Big Oil proved it wasn’t ready to take the hit to their profits and compete with cleaner sources of energy.

You may be asking yourself, as did the Los Angeles Times editorial board, when the threats of drought, wildfires, and drastically low water supplies among other impacts are so apparent, why is the legislature “backsliding on climate change?”

Great question. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the oil industry front group the California Drivers Alliance bombarded Californians with absurdly misleading ads in the mail, radio, television, and social media that have been thoroughly debunked. Many of the ads tried to sway the public, but some specifically targeted members of the state Assembly, many of them associated with the so-called "Moderate Caucus" of oil-friendly Democrats who were already on the fence about proposed climate legislation.

While there is no evidence the PR blitz had any effect on voters, we assume they had some effect on targeted lawmakers. But Big Oil’s real secret? They rigged the deck. For decades, they’ve been funding and working to elect candidates across the state that will be beholden to their interests. From 2005 to 2014, they spent $266 million on influencing California public policy on the state and local levels including a staggering $154 million on political campaigns.

In the 2014 general election alone, oil companies spent nearly $10 million dollars in just six competitive races against strong environmental candidates. A few million dollars may seem like a lot to you or me, but for an industry making billions of dollars a year, it’s a drop in the barrel. It should come as no surprise then that dozens of Democratic Assemblymembers serving today have largely benefited from a greater share of the millions of dollars Big Oil has spent to win elections than in the past. According to the Sacramento Bee:

“Moderate Democrats raised 15 percent of their contributions from labor, compared with the 19.4 percent for other Assembly Democrats, according to a campaign finance analysis from January 2013 to June. And the moderates took in 9.1 percent from energy and natural resource interests like oil companies, compared with 6 percent for other Democrats. The group has expanded in recent years, as the shift to a top-two primary system has given business donors a new avenue to influence a Legislature controlled by Democrats.”

The worst part? Their big investments in the last few years are paying off. In the fight to pass SB 350 and SB 32, the relationship between these Assemblymembers and Big Oil was so obvious that several reporters commented on it. As Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Morain described it:

“Canoodling with the oilies, Assemblyman Henry Perea, the Fresno Democrat who leads the moderate caucus, showed himself to be perhaps the most influential member of the 80-member lower house by insisting on weakening the agency responsible for reducing greenhouse gas, the California Air Resources Board. De León rightly rejected that. Perea kept the mods unified, and allied with 28 Republican Assembly members, who also opposed the legislation.

Several Central Valley Democrats backed Perea’s play, including Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove and Adam Gray of Merced. Many mods parroted oil industry lines that reducing petroleum use would raise prices and harm poor people, and glossed over evidence that poor people live in areas with the worst air.”

These members of the Oil Caucus will get to serve for another decade unless they get defeated by pro-environmental public servants, and with the oil industry proving they’re not afraid to keep their dirty money flowing in a top two primary world that has allowed money to have a greater impact than ever before, it won’t be an easy task and it won’t come cheap.

If this last legislative session proved anything, it’s that elections absolutely matter. Who we elect makes an enormous difference in the type of future California has.

When Big Oil elects more polluter-friendly politicians like Assemblymembers Henry Perea, Adam Gray, and Jim Cooper, California’s climate leadership and our quality of life becomes seriously threatened.

But when we elect more public pro-environmental public servants like Fran Pavley and Kevin de Leon, California is able to accomplish incredible things – including passing climate legislation that is a model for the nation and the world.

CLCV is proud to be a leader in that endeavor. For over forty years, CLCV has been the only organization dedicated to electing pro-environmental candidates to state office, and our campaign experience has helped keep California green. In 2012, for instance, despite being heavily outspent more than 3 to 1, we successfully used our resources to defend Fran Pavley’s competitive re-election bid from one of the oil industry's well-financed candidates. It’s not hard to imagine how much different Big Oil’s candidate would have been if he had been elected instead.

This is what we do, and what we’ve been doing for four decades. But while we’re great at maximizing our resources, we need more grassroots support. We don’t need to have more money than Big Oil (nor would we ever expect to be able to compete dollar-for-dollar), but we need to raise enough money to help pro-environmental candidates get elected. Recent years have proved that dirty energy companies’ resolve has only grown, and that means we need to work harder and harder to elect pro-environmental candidates to challenge their well-funded cohorts.

The open seats in 2016 are the last opportunity for six years to elect a pro-environmental majority in our legislature –but it’s also the opportunity Big Oil is waiting for to grow the size of the Oil Caucus that has already hampered the environmental progress California has made.

There’s a choice we have to make. Do we want a legislature that will keep California as a leader on fighting climate change or a legislature that will be beholden to wealthy polluters?

That’s why if you’re like me, disappointed with the outcome of SB 32 and SB 350, disgusted with the Oil Caucus, and angry with Big Oil, I hope you’ll make a contribution to our work today. Your contribution will go a long way to help us elect real champions for our communities and our environment.

They say we have the government we deserve, but they’re wrong. We deserve much, much better.

Help us make that into a reality by donating to CLCV and helping us elect the kind of leaders who will be responsive to their constituents, not Big Oil. The kind of leaders California needs if we are going to truly be the Golden State for future generations. Chip in today at www.ecovote.org/climatematch.
Thanks for all you do to protect our environment for future generations.

- David Allgood, Political Director & Mike Young, Political & Campaign Manager

Posted on September 15, 2015 in ECOVOTE BLOG.

Building Democracy. Electing Environmental Champions. Protecting Our Future.

We are California's voice, statewide and nationally, for bold climate action. We elect and cultivate environmental champions, turn election victories into policy wins, hold our lawmakers accountable, and build political power to transform our political system and achieve climate justice.

Learn More about our work