The Fracking Industry Has Bought Off Congress
December 20, 2011, 1:00am

By Scott Thill, AlterNet

Thanks to our morally bankrupt political system and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, the fracking lobby’s power of the purse is huge.

Environmentalists and other well-adjusted citizens of Earth, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that, thanks to illuminating documentaries like Josh Fox’s Gasland and determined pressure from activists in and out of the mainstream, the toxic ravages of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, are no longer the shale gas sector’s dirty secret. The bad news is that, thanks to the United States’ morally bankrupt political system and its Supreme Court’s reality-defying ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the fracking lobby’s power of the purse is greater than it has ever been.

That power was depressingly dissected in Common Cause’s recent report, Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets, which explained that earnings junkies like Exxon, Koch and more have paid House and Senate politicians on select energy and commerce committees nearly $750 million over the last decade to smother regulatory oversight of the expanding fracking practice, whose complete chemical components still remain a relative mystery. It was evidently money well spent. During that lobbying stretch, the Environmental Protection Agency scientifically linked fracking with water poisoning in Wyoming, and probably isn’t far from siding with the increasing ranks of those who blame fracking for earthquakes from Oklahoma to Ohio to England. And yet beyond manageable fines and stock devaluations, no one from the industry has yet to seriously face the music for groundwater contamination and worse.

For that, you can thank the industry’s “Halliburton loophole,” so named for former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s insistence that his former company’s fracking be stripped of EPA regulation. Years and billions later, money still talks and safety still walks in our peak oil century tapping, like veins, what fossil fuel deposits we have left, from natural gas to tar sands. And they do so in a decidedly nonpartisan fashion.

“The natural gas industry has spent billions on lobbying and advertising to convince Americans that natural gas is a cleaner, cheaper alternative to oil,” Common Cause regional director James Browning, co-author with Alex Kaplan of Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets, told AlterNet. “They’ve also tried to rebut environmental concerns by pitching natural gas as a ‘transition fuel’ that will help America move from fossil fuels to primarily clean forms of energy by the next century.

“But while fracking’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act is rightly called the ‘Halliburton loophole’ and the vast majority of our top 100 recipients of fracking money are Republicans, it’s important to note the extent of the industry’s influence among Democrats,” he added. “In Pennsylvania, the only state without a severance tax on natural gas extraction, previous Democratic governor Ed Rendell only made an issue of imposing a tax during his last year in office, too late to make it a reality. President Obama is very pro-fracking and it’s important to note that the FRAC Act languished in the Democratic 111th Congress.”

Currently, the FRAC Act, which would repeal fracking’s exemption from the Safe Water Drinking Act, also languishes in the 112th Congress, where it is still taking its first legislative steps while sponsored by Colorado’s Democratic congresswoman Diana DeGette. DeGette and Delaware Republican Michael N. Castle coauthored the 2005 Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, an opportunity that provided former president George W. Bush with his first veto. Yet it is respective Bush Republicans like Joe Barton ($514,945) and John Cornyn ($417,556) who crown Common Cause’s top 100 congressional hoarders of campaign cash from the fracking industry. As Browning explained, they’re followed in fourth by Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu ($328,300), who’s accompanied by House Democrats Dan Boren ($328,300), Jim Matheson ($223,79), and even Gene Green ($186,300).

More importantly, and across party lines, the fracking industry has lavished millions on crucial members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Yet it was only DeGette who continued to beat the lonely regulation drum after the EPA’s report on Wyoming.

“The fact that we have a proven case of a connection between hydraulic fracturing and the contamination of an aquifer underscores just how important it is that we take cautionary steps to protect our communities’ water supply,” said DeGette in December, after Colorado implemented a new fracking disclosure rule. “That is why I continue to encourage members of Congress to pass my FRAC Act, so communities across the country will have transparency in the drilling process as well.”

Transparency is the enemy of industry, which is why steps to stem its ubiquity in fracking have continued support from well-paid politicians at the state and federal levels, despite the disturbing facts. As Browning and Kaplan explained in Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets, different states host different loopholes for perpetuating the industry’s extraordinary influence. Pennsylvania currently has no limit on campaign contributions, while Ohio’s lobbying law fails to require disclosure of lobbyists’ salaries, complicating the effort to get hard numbers on their political spending.

“There is a direct and frightening parallel between the failure to get better disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, and the failure to get better disclosure of the industry’s political expenditures,” Browning told AlterNet. “As noted in our report, the industry has been ramping up its independent political expenditures since Citizens United. Three ways to give the public more of a fighting chance are requiring disclosure of all independent political expenditures, requiring disclosure of political expenditures to corporate shareholders, and giving corporate shareholders the power to approve or disapprove such expenditures in advance.”

According to Browning, some strange developments have arisen on the latter front, from parties to our current economic and environmental misery. Fracking’s indignant bedfellows have been getting stranger.

“As the potential dangers of fracking become harder to ignore, two of the most interesting developments are the hard questions being asked by banks and mortgage brokers, who don’t want to be left with a lot of potentially permanently polluted property, and by the shareholders at oil and gas companies,” Browning explained. “Last May, shareholders at ExxonMobil and Chevron both introduced resolutions to force better disclosure of the potential risks and costs of fracking. The Chevron resolution got more than 40 percent, a very high figure for a controversial, first-year resolution.”

It’s hard to look at budding shareholder revolts in both repeat offenders without noticing that, like most polluters and parasites, they’ve soiled their own nests. (“You never miss your water, until your well runs dry,” is how Peter Tosh put it in the song “Till Your Well Runs Dry.”) From the Deepwater Horizon spill in Landrieu’s Louisiana to fracking messes in predominately Republican territories, citizens and shareholders alike are starting to realize that fossil fuel’s base is, pun intended, fracturing.

“Fracking is an unusual example of an environmental issue that, for now, is playing out in areas that routinely support Republicans,” said Browning. “In Pennsylvania, the threat not only of water and air pollution but also of stripping local governments’ abilities to regulate fracking in their communities is creating common cause between rural Republicans and urban and suburban environmentalists.”

“We need to take this momentary victory in the Delaware River and move across Pennsylvania and the United States to stop fracking,” Gasland director Fox tweeted in November, after the Northeast’s Delaware River Basin Commission – which includes the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and an official from the Army Corp of Engineers – postponed further meetings about regulating fracking in the region. “We have the momentum.”

But do we have the money? Until we bring Citizens United to heel, we will be hard-pressed to compete with the current billions, and future trillions, that last century’s climate-killing energy sector throws at politicians like party favors. If the past is prologue, then we’re likely to change, like Rendell, too late. In slow-motion, we could annihilate what aquifers and other sensitive resources we have left to us, as climate change ramps up to freakout levels later this century. Plus, we’ve already reached the realm of the ludicrous: When a nation of drill junkies forces its planet to return fire with earthquakes, in hopes of changing our distracted minds and dirty habits, then it’s time to move onto the green economy, no matter the capital costs. But until anything substantive changes, we’ll likely need to marry Fox’s momentum to Citizens United’s money to make the drop-deadline.