Will Anderson, JHU:
Driving through my hometown, I often see a bustling Citgo gas station full of customers. Citgo, with the slogan “Fueling good,” has created multiple ad campaigns featuring smiling, healthy Americans and extolling the virtues of locally-owned, community-focused Citgo gas stations. In other ads former U.S. Representative Joe Kennedy (D-MA), who runs a non-profit “energy” company, Citizens Energy Corporation, is seen giving cheap heating oil to poor, American families and old people, an admirable cause. Let’s watch one.
He describes this gift as “from our friends in Venezuela and Citgo.” Yes, that’s right, a former U.S. congressman, son of former presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, is an indirect spokesman for the state-owned oil company of Venezuela, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. Venezuela is one of the most hostile nations to American interests. Citgo, while based in Texas and Oklahoma, is completely owned by Venezuela. Republicans and Democrats continue to say nothing, even as Venezuela ramps up anti-American rhetoric under its President, Nicolas Maduro. Why aren’t they saying anything then?
This open relationship is just the tip of the greater issue of oil money in politics and the fight against the reality of climate change. Just this week, the Guardian news organization launched a political campaign called “Keep it in the ground,” the “it” referring to petroleum reserves. The main goal of the campaign is to get two enormous health-focused nonprofits, the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to divest their billions of invested dollars from fossil fuels. According to the campaign, if we continue burning fossil fuels at the same rate, including that wonderful, subsidized Venezuelan petroleum, in just over 17 years the Earth would experience 2℃ (3.6°F) temperature rise. The effects of this 2℃ rise would be drastic, including more droughts, floods, hurricanes and typhoons, diseases, sea level rise, and climate refugees along with a measurable decline in food supplies, economic activity, and overall security. The Middle East, for example, an already tumultuous region, would experience severe food shortages due to decreased agricultural yields and an influx of climate refugees from continuously expanding desertification.
However, the “energy” industry is determined to destroy the planet with the help of snappy ad campaigns, doomsday predictions of the consequences of a world without fossil fuels, and fear mongering. None of that has to happen, but what’s more important to this article is the moniker of “energy companies” that has helped create a softer image for the world’s oil and natural gas companies. The use of semantics by the fossil fuel industry has created a picture of necessity and economic well-being associated with pumping and burning copious amounts of sweet, ancient plant goo. The creation of the Department of Energy in response to the OPEC oil embargo in 1977 contributes to the public improvement of the fossil fuel companies’ collective image. BP’s community-focused ads after the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 are a prime example of deflection and image-sculpting. The name “natural gas” portrays the burning of methane gas, which is barely more environmentally friendly than oil or coal, as good enough for the environment. Let’s take a look at two newer commercials paid for by the American Petroleum Institute, the “energy” companies’ lobby group in Washington, D.C.
In this series of commercials, a smart, well-spoken businesswoman explains the benefits of the natural gas industry, which creates millions of jobs (often non-permanent) and is the so-called future of the American energy boom, culminating with an explosion of a ”re-energized American economy.” Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), a technology that has led to immense well water contamination and flammable water from household taps due to natural gas in my home state of Pennsylvania and can release harmful carcinogens like benzene into our groundwater supply, is described as safe and well-researched. In the future, fracking needs more regulations and studies to see if it is truly harmful to human health, but in an little regulated industry it is hard to assess health risks and enforce policies because of lobby backlash. Commercials like these are effective because of their impressive presentation and compelling arguments. These same people, the “People” in fancy script at the end of the commercial, are those who run Congress by funding the political campaigns of hundreds of America’s lawmakers and then extracting favors at the risk of cutting off their funding.
In my home state of Pennsylvania, which has large shale gas reserves and a history of fracking, the two Senators, Pat Toomey (R) and Bob Casey (D), are both on the payroll of fossil fuel companies to the tune of a $95,200 and $20,000 respectively. The industry focuses its payments on Republicans and senators from resource-rich states, with the largest recipient being Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) who was given $865,206 in 2014 alone. Not surprisingly, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) received the most money in the House, totalling $674,389 in 2014. Even Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a staunch liberal, was given $6,000 by the fossil fuel industry in 2014. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), who recently tossed a snowball in the House to demonstrate that the abnormal snowfall in D.C. was proof that climate change is a hoax, was given $284,350 by the fossil fuel industry in 2014. The overall funding split in 2014 was $26,002,468 to Republicans and $4,364,560 to Democrats. While the numbers are skewed, the amount of oil and gas money directly fed into politics, not even counting the indirect spending that is unquantifiable and immense, is disgustingly large and influential. It’s legalized corruption.
There are many issues, such as massive consumption in the developed world, overpopulation, and ecological destruction, that must be addressed to ameliorate the effects of climate change, not just fighting the agenda of fossil fuel companies. But in a country that prides itself on being for the people and as the foremost force pressuring the spread of democracy worldwide, it is hypocritical to take money from these corporations in exchange for legislation and deregulation. A democracy or republic should be held accountable to its citizens’ beliefs and expectations, not the expectations of the corporations it regulates. The Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling in 2010 granted corporate personhood, enabling companies to donate to SuperPACs and get around campaign donation restrictions. This needs to change so that the American government once again addresses issues that the American public values, including climate change, with 61% of Americans believing that there is significant evidence that the Earth is warming. To address the immense potential effects caused by climate change, it is imperative that we have a robust government willing to combat against powerful companies that see nothing but a good investment in bribery to increase their profits. Regulation is needed, but there has to be support for it. In a government whose elections are funded by these companies that need to be reined in, it’s going to be nearly impossible to reform and regulate, but with sufficient regulations and a commitment to combatting climate change, the United States can go from being the world’s leader in natural gas to the world’s leader in clean energy technology, and provide new jobs in clean energy rather than oil exploitation and ecological destruction.
The “energy” industry is interfering with the government’s responsibility to the American people through vote buying, deregulation of potentially dangerous activities, and brainwashing through snappy ad campaigns, so that they can continue sending our planet and country on a trajectory that is becoming increasingly unsustainable.