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How Money from Big Oil and Pipeline Developers Spills into the Democratic Party

Let’s get right down to business: the Democratic Party has a pipeline problem. After deciding to stop taking Big Oil money in 2018, then promptly reversing course, the DNC has all but proven that they value money over anything else — and they clearly don’t care much about where it comes from. The party that prides itself on being the driving force behind the climate change and conservation conversations have ultimately failed in their rhetoric, and more importantly, their actions (or lack thereof).

This needs to stop. Indigenous peoples’ sacred lands and water sources are being threatened and destroyed. Our environment is being polluted — the recent Keystone Pipeline leak being the latest example. Over the course of this article, we will explore several of the countries largest pipelines, the companies that own them, and where they put their money. Here’s a clue: Oil money isn’t just for Republicans.

Keystone Pipeline

The Keystone Pipeline transports about 700,000 barrels of oil per day from the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin in Alberta to refineries in Illinois, Texas, and Ohio. Owned by TC Energy, a subsidiary of TransCanada, the 2,151 mile long pipeline runs through six states (ND, SD, NE, KS, MO, IL), and would add a seventh (MT) if the proposed Keystone XL addition proceeds, as it appears it will. Operating since 2010, it cost $5.2 billion to build, but it has had its share of opposition, not to mention legal issues, that have made that cost a bit higher than TransCanada would’ve liked.

On November 17, 2017, the Keystone Pipeline leaked 210,000 gallons of oil onto rural land near Amherst, South Dakota — at least, that’s the number TransCanada reported. According to the ensuing Federal investigation, however, it was later revealed the spill was actually closer to 400,000 gallons. Of course, this October, Keystone spilled 383,000 gallons of oil near Edinburg, North Dakota — the aftermath of which is still playing out, and probably will for some time. Whether this puts a damper on the Keystone XL remains to be seen, but that itself has faced major opposition in a very public, and political arena — for good reason.

Keystone XL’s project impacts assessment includes disturbance, demolition, or removal of historic, prehistoric, or Native American sites, in addition to tapping numerous Native Reservation water sources, such as the Cheyenne, Bad, and White Rivers. TransCanada also owns well over a dozen other oil and gas pipelines in the United States, such as the Northern Border pipeline, a 1,408 mile long pipeline that’s run from Montana to Iowa since 1982. TransCanada, through their PAC, has donated $5,000 each to Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), former Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), and Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) this year, as well as donating to various other PACs.

Enbridge

Lipinski in particular is going to pop up a lot here, as he’s taken $1,000 from Richard Keane, CEO of Kinder Morgan (who has stakes in several pipelines including the Utopia, CalNev, and Plantation Pipelines) and $2,500 from Enbridge’s PAC. Enbridge owns one of the largest pipeline systems in North America, the Enbridge System, a sprawling 3,100 mile long pipeline system that transports over 1.4 million barrels of crude oil across the country, and one that is guilty of several of the largest inland oil spills in American history.

In 1991, the Enbridge system leaked 1.7 million gallons of oil in Grand Rapids, MN, which was the largest spill ever recorded. In 2010, 840,000 gallons of dilbit crude spilled into Talmadge Creek in Michigan, which flows into the Kalamazoo River. It took a reported 18 hours for Enbridge to stop the flow, even after it was notified of the spill. Enbridge eventually settled with the DOJ and EPA for $177 million dollars, and as of 2014, the cost of cleanup was in the area of $1.2 billion. Spectra Energy, owners of the historic Big Inch pipeline built in 1943, also contributes heavily to Enbridge’s PAC, so their money goes with the rest of the pack.

Plantation Pipeline

Stretching 3,100 miles through 9 states from Louisiana to Maryland, the Plantation Pipeline has operated since 1940. It is a joint venture between Kinder Morgan and oil industry juggernaut Exxon-Mobil. While the state of affairs in the current political climate, especially on the left, you would think the optics of accepting direct contributions would be enough to make any politician treat them like the plague. However, there are a few Democrats who apparently aren’t phased:

  • Joe Biden — the former Vice President and one of the “frontrunners” for the Democratic Presidential nomination has taken $1,000 from Matt Gobush, who works for Exxon in “Public Relations”
  • Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX) — Congresswoman Fletcher is another name that will be a recurring one in this discussion going forward. As far as Exxon is concerned, she’s taken $5,000 directly from their PAC this year.
  • The Democratic Party of Virginia— Susan Carter, who works for Exxon in “Government Affairs” gave the VA Democratic Party $1,000 this year.

Exxon’s PAC has also made large donations of $2,500 to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), $2,000 to Rep. Bill Foster (D -IL) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), and other size-able contributions to Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI). Make no mistake, this isn’t the only way Exxon is getting its money into the pockets of Democratic lawmakers.

Exxon’s PAC also contributes to Blue Dog PAC, New Democrat Coalition, and Moderate Democrats PAC — all of which filter more money to even more candidates (we’ll break these PACs down in just a bit). While Exxon (and their Big-Oil contemporaries) give millions of dollars each year to Republicans, seeing Democrats taking their money so openly in 2019 is cause for alarm for any progressive hoping to move the party to the left on the issue of fossil fuels and fracking.

Pilgrim Pipeline

The Pilgrim Pipeline is a planned, 178 mile pipeline that will run fracked oil from Albany, NY to Linden, NJ. The pipeline has met opposition from numerous local groups, citing risks of potential water contamination as the proposed route cuts directly across major rivers and two EPA protected aquifers.

The project is under the stewardship and control of Ares Management, an investment firm of whom executive Antony Ressler is also a co-founder of Apollo Global Management, the company who has controlling stakes in several industries, including Private Military Companies. Ares Management founder Michael Arougheti has donated $5,400 to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) this year, while attorney Keith Cooper has given the maximum $2,800 to Cory Booker’s presidential run, as well as partner Matt Cwiertnia doing the same for presidential hopeful Michael Bennet. As for the previously mentioned Ressler, he gives to Forward Together PAC, which donates to:

  • Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC)
  • Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI)
  • Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL)

Along with Ressler, several Apollo Global executives, including billionaire Leon Black, also donate to Democrat Opportunity PAC, who in turn donates to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and to Forward Together. Antoinette Bush, who sits on Ares’ board of directors, has given tens of thousands of dollars to the DNC over the years, including $5,000 to the DSCC in 2019.

Rockies Express Pipeline

Commissioned in 2009, the 1,679 mile long Rockies Express Pipeline runs through eight states from Colorado to Ohio. Its a joint venture between Sempra Energy, Phillips 66, and Tallgrass Energy. Sempra’s PAC has donated $10,000 to Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) this year alone, and has also made $5,000 donations to:

  • Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)
  • Congressional Black Caucus PAC
  • New Democrat Coalition PAC
  • American Gas Association PAC

The American Gas Association PAC is, in essence, a mixing pot of major gas and utility companies such as Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, PG&E, and several others, to throw their money together and disperse it to the many candidates that they deem either sympathetic to their goals or at the very least not threatening to them. The following is a short list of Democrats or institutions that The American Gas Association PAC contributes to:

  • DSCC
  • Rep. Liz Fletcher (D-TX)
  • Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA)
  • Congressional Black Caucus PAC
  • Blue Dog PAC

While Rockies Express may be big for Sempra, their partner in the venture, Phillips 66, has many other irons in the fire — that brings us to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Dakota Access Pipeline

The highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline likely needs no introduction. The 1,172 mile underground pipeline runs from North Dakota to Illinois, passing perilously close to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation along the way. The protests leading up to the pipeline’s eventual construction were highly volatile, as Private Military Companies teamed up with local law enforcement and used everything from attack dogs to water cannons on the protesters who stood their ground.

Energy Transfer Partners, the majority stakeholder in the project, have given $1,500 to the Democratic Party of Illinois, and the State Democratic Victory Fund this year, along with contributions to the Association of Oil Pipelines PAC — who donate to Rep. Liz Fletcher (D-TX) and the PAC belonging to their business partners, Phillips 66.

Phillips 66 PAC has donated $5,000 to Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), $2,500 to Blue Dog PAC, and $2,000 directly to the campaign of Rep. Liz Fletcher (D-TX). As you can see, the problem with PAC money in its purest form is that many of them act as “middlemen” to get money to candidates that normally wouldn’t take them; and in the case of companies like Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, it works like a charm.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a 600 mile pipeline currently being constructed to transport natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina. The route of the pipeline is set to cross through the lands of four different indigenous tribes in North Carolina alone, and is currently before the Supreme Court as to whether or not construction can proceed as presently planned.

The highly controversial project is the brainchild of Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Southern Company Gas, and Piedmont Natural Gas — and they’ve been heavy spenders as of late. Duke Energy’s Spencer Hanes, who works in “Business Development”, donated $2,800 to Rep. Dan McCready (D-NC), while its PAC has given $5,000 to both Blue Dog PAC and Congressional Black Caucus PAC, as well as $2,000 to Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA).

Duke’s partner, Dominion Energy, has been busy as well — and much more blatant. Through their PAC, Dominion Energy has given $30,000 directly to the DNC for their “Headquarters Fund” as well as size-able donations to:

  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)
  • Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA)
  • Rep. David Price (D-NC)
  • Rep. Liz Fletcher (D-TX)
  • Congressional Black Caucus PAC
  • Blue Dog PAC
  • Common Ground PAC (we’ll see this again)

The third major party in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is Southern Company Gas and Electric, and through their PAC, they too have given hefty sums to the Democratic establishment and institutions. In 2019, Southern Company has given $15,000 to both the DSCC and DCCC, as well as donating large amounts to:

  • Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI)
  • Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA)
  • Rep. Liz Fletcher (D-TX)
  • Blue Dog PAC
  • New Democrat Coalition PAC
  • Congressional Black Caucus PAC
  • Common Ground PAC

This shouldn’t be happening — but it is, and PACs make it possible.

The Problem with PACs

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ve undoubtedly seen the same PACs brought up or referenced over and over again — such as Blue Dog, New Democrat Coalition, and Common Ground. These PACs take money from corporations and executives most Democratic lawmakers wouldn’t dare directly touch (even though to some, it’s just icing on the cake). Here’s a non exhaustive rundown of these PACs, and why they are a big problem — which should be self explanatory by the end of the list.

Blue Dog PAC takes money from Exxon, Phillips 66, Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, Southern Company, and the American Gas Association PAC — then in turn, donates to:

  • Rep. Dan McCready (D-NC)
  • Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL)
  • Rep. Xochitl Small (D-NM)
  • Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK)
  • Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA)
  • Rep. Max Rose (D-NY)

New Democrat Coalition PAC gets its money from Exxon and Sempra to name a couple, and donates to pretty much the exact same group of politicians as Blue Dog PAC, but also adds in the following:

  • Rep. Liz Fletcher (D-TX)
  • Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS)
  • Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)
  • Rep. Bill Foster

When it comes to the PACs listed in this article, none of them are more egregious in questionable funding than Common Ground PAC. Common Ground takes numerous large donations from many of the largest corporations and their executives — and not just limited to Big Oil. Microsoft, Metlife, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Deloitte, and Paul, Weiss all throw into the Common Ground PAC.

Now you can probably see why it’s named the way it is. Common Ground has donated $105,000 to the DSCC this year in addition to the following campaigns and institutions:

  • $10,000 to Sen. Mark Warren (D-VA)
  • $10,000 to Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL)
  • $5,000 to Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI)
  • $5,000 to Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA)
  • $5,000 to both the Nevada and Virginia state Democratic parties

This is why PACs are bad. This is why, even with the best intentions, taking PAC money can, and eventually will, tarnish those who accept it. These companies, and for that matter, the entire industry, pump millions of dollars into our elections each and every year — the vast majority of it going to the GOP.

As Bernie Sanders said: You can’t change a corrupt system by taking its money. You can’t fight the oil companies while accepting their PAC donations, or even donations from “middleman” PACs that do. You can’t speak up for the environment if you’re counting dollars that were gained from pumping fracked oil across indigenous peoples’ lands, and you can’t stand up for them when you’re laying down for the corporations who are tapping their water supplies.

We need Progressives in Congress who will stop playing the game. We need new voices that will speak up for the disaffected. We need legislation such as Tulsi Gabbard’s OFF Act or plans like Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal. We need to change, and quickly.

My message to Democratic lawmakers who take checks from pipeline companies is this: if you want to take oil money, run as a Republican. It’s time for the Democratic party to put their money where their mouth is . Put up, or shut up.

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Robbie Jaeger
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Robbie Jaeger

Robbie Jaeger is an independent investigative journalist and sociopolitical commentator based in North Carolina. Examining the links between government and corporations, and tracing their influence on each other, he follows the money down the rabbit hole and back again.
Robbie Jaeger
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