Oil and Gas plays big in elections, despite COVID-19

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Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature. 

Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down. 

The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget. 

Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence. 

“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor. 

Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.

A recent report from Common Cause New Mexico and New Mexico Ethics Watch details five sitting lawmakers who own energy companies, as well as a revolving door through which former state lawmakers and employees join the ranks of oil and gas lobbyists and associations.  “When a bill is heard very late at night or in the very early morning, often the only lobbyists who can be there are the industry ones, because there are so many of them and they’re paid to be there,” she said about how a deep-pocketed industry like oil and gas influences legislation. “It’s all in plain sight, playing out in very practical ways.” 

Such influence peddling is likely to continue, even at the advent of what looks like several difficult years for the industry. 

Leaders of the Permian Strategic Partnership–energy companies invested in the shale oilfields of the Permian Basin of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico–have said there’s no end to the industry presence in the region, even while the next few years look rocky due to incredibly low global oil prices. 

“A growing world needs energy and the long-term demand for oil and gas produced in the Permian Basin remains strong,” Executive Director Tracee Bentley said to the Midland Reporter-Telegram. “While the current global market disruption means challenging times for our industry and our communities, it doesn’t change PSP’s fundamental mission or commitment.”

Seven members of the Permian Strategic Partnership account for 71% of the total contributed by the industry since last October, mostly to New Mexico lawmakers. Those companies are familiar names: Chevron, Devon, Concho, Occidental, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, and XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon. 

2020 Contributions to date

New Mexico In Depth created an industry code for contributions to candidates, that shows the scale of oil and gas industry spending compared to other industries. 

Since last October, almost $6 million has funneled into campaigns for state or county level offices, by a wide range of industries, individuals, political committees, and lobbyists. Candidates for the Public Regulation Commission and several judicial seats received public funding. 

The oil and gas industry has so far distributed $664,000, almost entirely to campaign accounts of state lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike. That’s more than 10% of the total. 

In addition to direct contributions to candidates, Chevron Corporation dumped $350,000 into a political action committee called New Mexico Strong in early February.  Almost $140,000 more was distributed by Chevron and other oil companies to additional political action committees as well as campaign funds of the Democratic and Republican caucuses of the state House of Representatives. 

Chevron could just be getting started. New Mexico Strong spent $2.8 million by the end of the 2018 general election, with almost all of that contributed by Chevron. During the current primary cycle, New Mexico Strong has so far spent $446,000 on media. 

While the industry as a whole gave cash to the governor and a wide swath of incumbent lawmakers, New Mexico Strong appears to be supporting a group of five incumbent Democratic state senators, in particular. 

An assortment of progressive political action committees are spending thousands of dollars to unseat the lawmakers, describing them as  “corporate Democrats” who vote with Senate Republicans to block initiatives that otherwise have wide Democratic support. 

But special interest padded campaign accounts appear on the spreadsheets of lawmakers across the ideological spectrum. Campaign accounts almost always show that incumbents have an advantage over challengers in money, and as a lawmaker gains power in the Legislature, that advantage becomes bigger due to more and bigger donations from corporations and other groups. 

“The longer you spend in the New Mexico Legislature, the more your personal circle includes lobbyists and special interests because they’re there all the time,” said former State Senator Dede Feldman, now a consultant to Common Cause New Mexico. 

Contributions from lobbyists and special interests, Feldman said, begin to replace individual donations as the source of campaign funds. Some lawmakers, she said, argue they represent poor districts and wouldn’t otherwise be able to wage increasingly expensive campaigns, so instead rely on funding from lobbyists and industries that appear before their committees. “That’s not a good trend. It’s a system that is in need of repair.”

Such relationships are on full display in the campaign accounts of the five lawmakers New Mexico Strong supports, all of whom who chair or have plum positions on powerful committees.

The following charts show the contributions made to each of the five Senators and their challengers since last October when the first primary election reporting period began, organized by New Mexico In Depth into industry or other groupings. Included are the beginning balances of cash each candidate had as the reporting period began.

Each of the five primarily rely on corporate donations, with oil and gas a substantial percentage. Their challengers primarily rely on individual donations.

Four of the Senators have a substantial funding advantage. One, Sen. Gabriel Ramos, has a challenger who has drawn even in fundraising. Ramos, it should be noted, was appointed to his seat and this is his first election.

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