Oil and gas and energy special interest groups outspent others by a large margin during the regular session of the Texas legislature this year. 19 cents of every dollar spent on lobbying belonged to the energy and natural resources industry, according to a new report by Texans for Public Justice, a state watchdog group. And oil and gas and energy companies and businessmen were big contributors to campaigns in the state last year, according to a separate report from the group.
Together, the two reports claim to show a “list of who sits in the owner’s box at the Texas Capitol,” says Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice. “These are the people who get their calls returned first.” The top lobby clients list is a who’s-who of oil and gas and power companies (and their interest groups) in the state. In a way that makes perfect sense, as much of the state’s economy is riding high from a fracking boom.
With such large amounts of money spent on elections and lobbying, did the interest groups get their money’s worth this session?
Wheat says one big winner was Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who owns the Waste Control Specialists radioactive waste disposal site in West Texas. Simmons had lobbied for state approval of the site for years, and ultimately got it. “He’s been working that play for years,” Wheat says. “Every session, he’s back to the legislature and the Governor to ask for more. And every session they give him more.”
The site recently began accepting its first shipments of waste. This session the company had asked the state to increase the levels of radioactivity and amounts of waste they can dump at the site, a measure the legislature considered but did not approve. The company also wanted to limit any contesting of the site to Texas residents. (The site sits near the New Mexico border.)
Simmons gave $3.4 million to state candidates during the last election; lobbying for Waste Control Specialists totaled somewhere between $675,000 and $1.2 million for the 2013 legislative session.
The exact amounts spent on lobbying aren’t required in filings, only a range, Wheat says. “All we know are the minimum and maximums, we can’t tell you how much those contracts are worth.”
Some $107 million was spent in campaign contributions for the 2012 state elections by the top 150 contributors, with seven-figure donations from companies like Energy Future Holdings and TXU Energy PAC. The total amoujnt raised by candidate in that period amounted to about $180 million.
That’s by design, Wheat says. “Texas is the Wild West of money and politics. There are no limits on campaign contributions for executive or legislative state office.”
Energy Future Holdings is a power company that has power plants, transmission, and retail electric providers. They were also part of the biggest leveraged buyout in history, one that hasn’t turned out too well. “They’re losing billions of dollars but still have money to invest in lobbying,” Wheat says.
That group and other energy companies are lobbying the state to allow them to charge more for electricity. They would also like to switch Texas to a “capacity market.” That would mean they could charge not just for electricity, but for their ability to generate it.
“This is money in the back pocket for Energy Future Holdings,” Wheat says. “The Governor’s Public Utility Commission have been pretty willing to raise prices on consumers.” A measure introduced this session to study how much it would cost the state to pay power generators went nowhere.
A big victory for the oil and gas industry this session, Wheat say, was the failure of reforms for the state agency in charge of regulating it, the Railroad Commission of Texas. The commission is run by three elected officials, who receive plenty of funding from the oil and gas industry they are supposed to regulate. A periodic review of the commission that would have imposed stricter campaign restrictions and reduce potential conflicts of interest failed, and the commission was only kept around with a last-minute lifeline.
The one reform that actually made it through? A provision that a commissioner must resign if they wish to run for another office.
“That’s interesting,” Wheat notes. “The [oil and gas industry] is interested in paying their bills while they’re commissioners. But they don’t want to pony up huge amounts of money every time one of these people wants to run for higher office.”
Industry groups didn’t necessarily get everything on their wishlist, however. An effort to limit how pollution permits are contested by communities and environmental groups didn’t pass; and other efforts to change how oil and gas pipelines use eminent domain (including one favored by the oil and gas industry) went nowhere.