By Laura Litvan
Energy companies are giving more to Republicans to help them win a U.S. Senate majority and counter President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda.
Electric utility political action committees have donated 63 percent of their cash this election cycle to Republican candidates. That represents a partisan flip from four years ago when they gave 55 percent to Democrats and just 43 percent to Republicans, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
Oil-and-gas company committees skew even more to Republicans. They’ve given 83 percent of their cash to the party’s Senate and House candidates so far, 11 points higher than in 2010, the last election in the middle of a presidential term, according to data compiled by the center.
Employees of one company, Occidental Petroleum Corp. (OXY), have more than tripled donations to the Republicans’ Senate election fund from four years ago, at $94,800. Occidental hasn’t given a penny to the Democrats’ committee, after giving $5,000 in 2010.
“Under Republican control, we would have a better ability to stop bad things from happening,” said Tim Wigley, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance of oil and natural gas producers. The alliance’s PAC recently gave to Colorado Democrat Mark Udall’s challenger, who supports the Keystone oil pipeline and hydraulic fracturing, a method to mine natural gas opposed by environmentalists.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to wrest Senate control and the partisan tilt of the donations coincides with Obama’s efforts to combat climate change. This week, the White House unveiled new rules targeting coal-fired power plants, and the president has faced criticism for delaying a decision on building the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Energy companies are also seeking to force Senate action on legislation that has already passed the Republican-controlled U.S. House.
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Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, last month blocked final votes on a Republican proposal that would force the Energy Department to approve natural gas exports to certain nations. He also resisted a measure that would bypass Obama and approve TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s cross-border pipeline.
The giving pattern represents a departure from the typical model followed by business PACs, which tend to donate to incumbents and split their checks between the two parties at closer margins.
Securities and investment industry PACs are giving 57 percent of their donations to Republican Senate and House candidates, and 43 percent to Democrats. In contrast, coal mining industry PACs are writing 93 percent of their checks to Republicans, up from 68 percent in 2010.
Occidental’s political committee also has given 93 percent of donations to Republican candidates so far this cycle, up from 77 percent in 2010, according to the center’s data. The company declined to comment on its donation decisions.
Even if Republicans prevail, their majority would lack the 60 votes to end filibusters, and fall short in both chambers of the two-thirds necessary to override Obama vetoes.
Still, a Senate majority would let them set committee agendas, and taking on the power-plant rules is a top priority of utilities such as Southern Co. of Atlanta, and coal producers like Bristol, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR)
The National Mining Association, which includes Alpha, Arch Coal Inc. (ACI) in St. Louis and Murray Energy Corp. of Pepper Pike, Ohio, would push a Republican Senate to pass a House bill limiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in crafting emission standards, Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president, said in an interview.
“It’s one of many examples of a bill making progress in the House and then getting stalemated in the Senate,” she said. “There’s not enough support at this time to move it forward.”
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Environmental groups are also using cash to help keep Senate Democrats in control, with billionaire investor Tom Steyer pledging to raise and spend $100 million backing candidates who support climate-change action. The groups are dominated by his NextGen Climate Action Committee, a super-PAC that can raise and spend unlimited sums.
Steyer wants to raise climate change as an issue in four close U.S. Senate races. Last month, NextGen disclosed to the Federal Election Committee spending more than $145,000 to oppose Senate Republican candidates Cory Gardner in Colorado, Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, Joni Ernst in Iowa and former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who is running in New Hampshire.
Republicans have a 50-50 chance of taking control of the Senate, and the party’s prospects are lifted after more established business-oriented candidates beat Tea Party-backed competitors in most primaries this year, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington.
It’s a change from 2010 and 2012, when untested Tea Party candidates won Republican Senate primaries in states including Delaware and Indiana, then lost the election to Democrats — an outcome party leaders and analysts say cost them a chance to snag the majority.
Energy producers are largely shunning Senate Democratic candidates in Montana, Kentucky and West Virginia, while giving heavily to Republicans.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has collected $1.23 million from employees in oil and gas, mining and electric utility companies, according to the center. His foe, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, doesn’t count those industries among her top 20 givers, according to the center.
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In Colorado, Udall collected $390,000 from oil and gas and electric utility PACs and individual donors from those industries. After Gardner entered the race in March, the U.S. House lawmaker raised $1.2 million in a month, with help from energy PACs and donors from such companies as Houston-based Marathon Oil Corp. (MRO), Koch Industries Inc. in Wichita, Kansas, and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN) of Oklahoma City. The race is considered one of the year’s closest.
In Montana, energy-industry donors have bypassed the re-election coffers of Democratic Senator John Walsh, who replaced Senator Max Baucus in February. Walsh has declared on his campaign website that he’s “very concerned about the consequences of climate change.”
Industry donors instead are backing Walsh’s challenger, Republican Steve Daines, who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee and helped lead unsuccessful efforts to approve Keystone XL. Daines also favors expanded hydraulic fracturing to produce more oil, and voted to limit how regulators apply a carbon-cost calculation in decision-making.
Daines at the end of March had $2.2 million cash on hand, almost triple Walsh’s $697,000, with oil and gas donors ranked No. 4 among all his contributors.
In West Virginia, Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito’s top 20 donors include the mining industry, oil and gas industry givers and electric utilities, according to the center. Capito has received $448,000 from PACs and individual donors in those industries. Her Democratic opponent, Natalie Tennant, has received about $19,000 from those industries, the center’s data shows. They are running to replace Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller.
The industries are backing some Democrats, most visibly Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who has garnered $547,000 in oil and gas industry donations for the election. Republican rival Representative Bill Cassidy has about $203,000 from energy sector givers.
Some companies’ PACs are hedging their bets by giving to both Louisiana candidates, including Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) in Oklahoma City and Valero Energy Corp. (VLO) of San Antonio.
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