Fossil Fuel Donations Largely Absent From Newspapers' Coverage Of Keystone XL

››› ››› DENISE ROBBINS

A Media Matters review of several major newspapers found that their coverage of congressional efforts to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline has been missing an essential component of the story: the hundreds of millions of dollars that the fossil fuel industry spent in the midterm elections to elect members of Congress who support Keystone XL and other aspects of the oil industry's agenda. Of the newspapers reviewed, only The New York Times tied congressional support for Keystone XL back to the fossil fuel industry's campaign contributions.

Fossil Fuel Interests Spent Vast Amounts To Lay Groundwork For Industry-Friendly Congress

Fossil Fuel Industry Spent Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars During 2014 Election Cycle. According to an analysis from the Center for American Progress, the coal, oil, gas and electric utility industries spent at least $721 million during the 2014 midterm election cycle, with a goal of "putting industry-friendly politicians in charge of both chambers and laying the groundwork for the new Congress to advance special-interest priorities such as approving the Keystone XL pipeline":

According to an analysis of contributions and lobbying data from the Center for Responsive Politics and advertising spending data from Kantar Media Intelligence/CMAG, as published by the Atlas Project, the fossil-fuel industry directly invested $721 million--and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars more through contributions to outside groups--in order to secure a Congress of its choosing and a friendly energy agenda. Of these investments, the fossil-fuel industry directly contributed more than $64 million to candidates and political parties, spent more than $163 million on television ads across the country, and paid almost $500 million to Washington lobbyists in the two years leading up to the November 2014 elections.

Center for American Progress

[Center for American Progress, 12/22/14]

Legislation Passed Senate, House That Would Force Construction Of The Keystone XL Pipeline. The first agenda item of the new GOP-controlled Senate was to pass a bill forcing approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries at the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama has announced that he will veto the bill, which passed the Senate on January 29 and must be reconciled with a similar House version before reaching the President's desk. The Huffington Post reported:

The Senate voted Thursday afternoon to approve a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline over the presidential approval process, capping off weeks of debate over amendments.

Following the vote, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) praised the passage, calling it a victory "for jobs in this country, for energy security, for good trade relationships with our neighbor in Canada."

"For all the right reasons, it was important that we pass this legislation in front of us here today," said Murkowski.

The bill passed by a vote of 62 to 36, with all Republicans and nine Democrats voting in favor. The House approved similar legislation earlier this month. It's unclear at this point whether the two chambers will need to conference on a bill, or whether the House will pass the Senate bill as amended.

But the bill is destined for a veto either way, as the White House has said President Barack Obama will not sign it into law.  [Huffington Post, 1/29/15]

Senators And Representatives Voting In Favor Of Keystone XL Received Much More Fossil Fuel Money Than Those Voting Against. Think Progress reported that according to Oil Change International, the Senators voting in favor of the recent Keystone XL bill have received more than $31 million over their careers from the oil and gas industry, compared to under $2.7 million in career contributions for the Senators who voted against the bill. Put another way, the 62 Senators voting in favor of the pipeline have taken, on average, seven times more oil and gas industry money than the 36 Senators who voted against it. Similarly, the Representatives that voted in favor of the House version of the Keystone XL bill received 8.5 times more oil and gas industry money in the 2014 election cycle, on average, than those voting against the bill. ThinkProgress, 1/29/15; Oil Change International, 1/29/15 via Facebook; Oil Change International, 1/9/15 via Twitter]

The New Republic: Keystone XL Debate Shows "The Kochs Are Already Getting What They Paid For In Congress." The New Republic's Rebecca Leber explained that the passage of the Keystone XL bill exemplifies the energy industry's influence on Congress -- particularly, that of the oil-giant Koch brothers' network:

Just one month into the new Congress, and already the Kochs' fossil fuel interests--which include oil pipelines and refineries--have neatly aligned with Republican priorities. The Koch network's campaign for and against Keystone amendments not only offers a preview of future energy battles, but demonstrate their difficult-to-quantify political influence.

In January, three conservative groups --Heritage Action, American Energy Alliance (AEA), and Americans for Prosperity (AFP) -- combined for a total of seven key vote alerts on amendments that would count in their congressional scorecards. The alerts serve as a warning: If a senator votes against the group's interest, he or she risks future attacks from the right. All three groups are tied to the Kochs: AFP is considered the brothers' "main political arm," and they have contributed to Heritage and AEA.

[...]

All three groups endorsed the overall Keystone XL bill, of course. Koch Industries stands to gain financially from the pipeline's construction, because the behemoth company owns an estimated 1.1 million acres of leases for Canada's tar sands and the pipeline would likely boost development there. [The New Republic, 2/1/15]

Newspapers Largely Ignored Fossil Fuel Industry's Influence On Congressional Keystone XL Debate

Fossil Fuel Industry Spending Not Mentioned In Recent Keystone XL Coverage By Several Major Newspapers. According to Media Matters' review, the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post ignored the fossil fuel industry's spending to influence Congress in their reporting of Keystone XL since January 1.

By Contrast, The New York Times Explained How Fossil Fuel Industry Influenced Keystone XL Outcome. Of the U.S. newspapers and wires included in this analysis, The New York Times was the only outlet that provided coverage of the fossil fuel industry's influence on the recent congressional debate over Keystone XL, via one article and two op-eds:

  • The New York Times reported on January 15 that the Koch brothers' political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity "spent big to help Republicans take control of Congress" and that the group would continue "to press Congress into action on approving the Keystone XL pipeline." [The New York Times, 1/15/15]
  • In a January 8 op-ed, contributing op-ed writer Timothy Egan wrote: "The Koch brothers Congress, purchased with the help of about $100 million from the political network of the billionaire energy producers, got down to its first order of business this week: trying to hold off the future." The first example Egan cited was that Congress "is trying to rush through the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the dirty tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast." [The New York Times, 1/8/15]
  • Paul Krugman stated in a January 11 op-ed: "It should come as no surprise that the very first move of the new Republican Senate is an attempt to push President Obama into approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canadian tar sands. After all, debts must be paid, and the oil and gas industry -- which gave 87 percent of its 2014 campaign contributions to the G.O.P. -- expects to be rewarded for its support." [The New York Times, 1/11/15]

LA Times, Washington Post Each Ran Articles That Mentioned Fossil Fuel Spending And Keystone XL -- But Did Not Connect The Two. The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post both published interest pieces within the time frame of this study that mentioned the fossil fuel industry's electoral spending and the Keystone XL pipeline but did not make the connection between the industry's financial influence and congressional support for the pipeline:

  • The Los Angeles Times published an interview with climate change activist and billionaire Tom Steyer in which he differentiated between his electoral and the outside groups spending on behalf of the fossil fuel industry. Steyer stated that the fossil fuel industry has been spending "to maintain the dirty energy status quo in Congress in the past two years," in part through "dark money groups" that are not required to report or disclose their expenditures and donors. Later in the interview, the Los Angeles Times asked Steyer about Keystone XL being "on Congress' agenda," but not in the context of electoral spending. [Los Angeles Times, 1/20/15]
  • The Washington Post published a biographical feature on Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the head of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which noted that Inhofe "aims to take center stage" on a variety of issues including Keystone XL, and later noted that the oil and gas industry is Inhofe's top source of campaign money.  But the article made no connection between the two subjects. [The Washington Post, 1/8/15

Newspapers Also Failed To Cover Senate Amendment That Would Require Tar Sands Financial Disclosure

CAP Report: Fossil Fuels Contributed Through "Dark Money" Groups. In addition to direct campaign contributions and other disclosed expenditures, the fossil fuel industry provided significant financial support for candidates in the midterm elections through use of "dark money groups" that do not disclose their donors, as detailed in a report from the Center for American Progress. From the report:

Oil, gas, and coal interests are also reported to have funneled an unknown amount of money through so-called dark-money groups that are not required to disclose their donors, such as organizations in the Koch network. The top six Koch-backed organizations planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the midterm elections; the National Journal reported that the Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners Action Fund alone spent a "combined $100 million on competitive races in 2014." Not only are these Koch-network organizations directly funded by oil and gas industries, adding hundreds of millions of dollars more to estimates of fossil-fuel spending, but these major players also lobby on energy and environmental issues promoting pro-coal, oil, and gas priorities. [Center for American Progress, 12/22/15]

Whitehouse Amendment Would Have Required Disclosure Of "Dark Money" Contributions From Tar Sands Industry. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) sponsored an amendment to the Senate Keystone XL bill that would have required campaign finance disclosures by companies that make more than $1 million from tar sands production. It was voted down 52 to 44. From Sen. Whitehouse's floor remarks describing the amendment:

We know that since Citizens United there has been a torrent of corporate money poured into our elections, and a great deal of it has come from the fossil fuel industry. We know also that beside that torrent of disclosed money has been another torrent of dark money that has poured into our elections. We don't know quite where that has come from, but there are plenty of reasons to suspect and to suggest that money has also come from the fossil fuel industry.

[...]

This amendment would require that companies that will make more than $1 million off of the Keystone Pipeline should meet the disclosure obligations that we have voted on before in the Senate. These are disclosure obligations that Republican Senators have often supported in the past. [Senate.gov, accessed 2/2/15; Congress.gov, 1/27/15]

Whitehouse Amendment Was Ignored By Newspapers. Sen. Whitehouse's amendment was not mentioned in any of the newspapers included in this study. 

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