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Big Oil’s Central Role in the Trump Administration’s Culture of Corruption

Big Oil’s Central Role in the Trump Administration’s Culture of Corruption

After spending $220 million on lobbying Congress and in political donations since President Donald Trump took office, the oil and gas industry is set to get $200 billion in profits from the proposed rollback of the Obama-era clean car standards.

Vehicles move along the the New Jersey Turnpike while a factory emits smoke in Carteret, New Jersey, November 2017. (Getty/Corbis/VIEWpress/Kena Betancur)
Vehicles move along the the New Jersey Turnpike while a factory emits smoke in Carteret, New Jersey, November 2017. (Getty/Corbis/VIEWpress/Kena Betancur)

Earlier this month, the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era federal fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, freezing them at 2020 levels through 2026. At first glance, the move appears to hurt everybody—and nobody seems to really wants it. If the standards are rolled back, vehicles will no longer be required to be nearly as efficient, all but ensuring increased emissions and worse air quality nationwide. By the Trump administration’s own analysis, U.S. residents will consume an additional 500,000 barrels of oil a day to fuel the less efficient cars—which amounts to 182 million barrels a year.

States, labor unions, and health advocates, among others, have all come out against this proposal, which, if put into effect, will hurt U.S. residents, jobs, and public health. Even the auto industry has been lukewarm in its reception of the rollback; while many in the industry pushed for additional flexibility in the existing standards, they now feel the new proposal goes too far, especially given that it could lead to losses of 60,000 industry jobs.

While the rollback may seem inexplicable at first, it is consistent with the administration’s ongoing culture of corruption. Unsurprisingly, the one sector that has stayed silent on the administration’s recent announcement is the big winner in all of this: the oil and gas industry. Although the existing standards would have saved 2.5 billion barrels of fuel by 2030, an analysis by the Rhodium Group found that, thanks to the increased amount of oil consumed, the rollback could allow the oil and gas industry to make an additional $200 billion in that same timeframe. And this is only the latest big win for “Big Oil.” Since President Donald Trump took office, in order to rig the system in its favor, the oil and gas industry has spent more than $220 million lobbying Congress—including lobbying for the rollback—and in contributions to political campaigns.*

The proposed clean car standards rollback is yet another effort in the oil and gas industry’s master plan to take advantage of the Trump administration’s culture of corruption. This column looks at the different ways in which the industry is ensuring that it will benefit from Trump’s time in office. Meanwhile, the U.S. public’s health and financial well-being are at serious risk of losing out to this grossly wealthy agenda.

1. Placing allies in the Trump administration

In order to achieve what the administration calls “energy dominance”—in other words, prioritizing fossil fuel production regardless of costs to taxpayers and public health—the oil industry has stacked the deck. After spending more than $56 million on the 2016 election, the top donors in the oil and gas industry worked to place former industry executives and affiliates in influential positions within the administration.

A number of administration political appointees have ties to the oil and gas industry, particularly in the agencies that oversee environmental protections, energy leases, and energy development. This includes Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist who has broad oversight of oil and gas leases on public lands, as well as Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum, the Environmental Protection Agency’s top air quality official, who previously worked at a law firm with 31 cases against the EPA. While at the firm, Wehrum represented the American Petroleum Institute in 12 of these cases. In another instance, the oil industry gave funding for research supporting the rollback of the clean car standards to two members of the EPA Science Advisory Board who were appointed by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. In total, throughout the administration’s tenure, there have been at least 41 Trump agency appointees both with connections to the oil and gas industry and who have been involved in rewriting policies that benefit the industry.

2. Rolling back any policy that curbs demand for oil

In 2017, the oil and gas industry spent a reported $126.2 million to lobby Congress on behalf of its interests. So far in 2018, the industry has spent $65.7 million on lobbying. This means that in the mere 20 months since Trump assumed office, the oil and gas industry has shelled out just shy of $200 million to persuade both the administration and members of Congress to pick polluters over people.

These efforts are working. Already, the Trump administration has taken more than 100 actions that deliver the fossil fuel industry’s agenda: weakening environmental protections, delaying action on climate change, and suppressing science. For example, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke cemented a decision through a secretarial order to hold quarterly oil and gas lease sales regardless of industry demand and to expedite drilling permit approvals for industry. Furthermore, the Department of the Interior decided to retain a loophole that allows fossil fuel companies to pay artificially low royalties on what they extract from public lands. According to U.S. government estimates, this costs U.S. taxpayers $75 million annually.

Congress has also rewarded the oil industry financially for their lobbying and donation efforts, most recently through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which Congress passed in late 2017. According to an analysis by Not One Penny, in 2017, the top five oil companies received a combined $11.5 billion in tax benefits as a result of that legislation.

And while the oil and gas industry remained silent in the announcement phase, its fingerprints are all over the proposal to roll back the clean car standards. Aside from lobbying members of Congress, the industry is also on record urging change through the public comments it previously submitted regarding the Obama-era standards. For example, during the 2012 public comment period on those standards, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers—the trade associations for a number of the biggest companies in the oil and gas industry—wrote, “Regardless of the substance and stringency of the actual greenhouse gas (GHG) standards that EPA proposes to impose on light-duty vehicles, the Associations strongly oppose any approach to implementing mobile source standards in a manner that impacts a wide swath of unrelated stationary sources.”

3. Securing a Supreme Court justice

Often, legal challenges are the public’s best recourse to restore environmental protections. However, the judicial branch seems to be on the same corrupt path as the executive and legislative branches. Oil and gas companies are rigging the system in favor of polluters—and against the American public—by lobbying for judges that will rule in favor of their platform.

Unsurprisingly, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh—President Trump’s nominee to replace retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy—has a relatively long track record of siding with the oil and gas industry. Kavanaugh has argued that the urgency of threats posed by climate change does not allow the EPA to go beyond its statutory authority. On oil and gas issues, he dissented when the majority on the appeals court ruled in 2017 that the Trump administration could not suspend methane release standards for oil and gas operations without going through the normal administrative process. Kavanaugh again broke with the court’s majority when it denied the request of association groups in the oil and gas industry to rehear the case, stating that he would have granted the request.

Given the reach of the Obama-era clean car standards, a challenge to the rollback could eventually end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Of particular interest to the oil and gas industry, as well as to the American public, are the greenhouse gas emissions limits in the standards, which were cemented by a major 2007 climate case that ultimately led to EPA defining carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Notably, former Justice Kennedy was the swing vote in that case, leading to a 5-4 ruling in favor. If a court that included Justice Kavanaugh were to reconsider this case, its outcome would likely be different.


It is time to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for all it has done to benefit itself at the expense of U.S. residents. If the proposed rollback of the clean car standards goes forward, consumers will pay more at the pumps, boosting the industry while the public is forced to breathe dirtier air. Everyone has something to lose in this latest proposal to roll back regulatory standards—except the oil and gas industry.

Sally Hardin is a research analyst for the Energy and Environment War Room at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The author would like to thank Claire Moser and the Editorial team for their contributions to this column.

*Author’s note: The total amount spent by the oil and gas industry on lobbying and political donations since Trump took office—more than $220 million—was calculated by first adding the total amount the industry spent on lobbying in 2017 and the amount spent on lobbying so far in 2018, which equals approximately $191 million. This was then added to the total amount in donations that the top 20 oil and gas companies made to Republican candidates and conservative groups during the 2017-2018 election cycle: $30 million.

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Sally Hardin

Former Senior Director, Energy and Environment Advocacy