There’s nothing new about special interests using money to influence politicians. And it’s no secret that this spending has been on the rise across the board recently, notably following in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010.
Such spending is particularly troubling when it successfully interferes with science-based policy making. For example, in our 2012 report A Climate of Corporate Control, UCS looked at how corporate influence worked to misrepresent climate science and block science-based policy proposals to deal with global warming.
But climate policy is far from the only area where corporate interests have spent money to exert influence. Pharmaceutical giants, medical device manufacturers, and biotechnology companies have also spent considerable sums to influence policy. And with the unconventional oil and gas boom well underway in recent years, companies operating hydraulic fracturing sites and the trade groups supporting them have been quick to put money into lobbying efforts, even though this has not always worked to their advantage.
A new report just released by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) tracks campaign contributions from the fracking industry to congressional candidates during election cycles from 2004 to 2012. During this period, unconventional oil and gas development through the technique of hydraulic fracturing (known popularly as “fracking”) expanded dramatically in many areas around the United States. CREW found that campaign contributions from the fracking industry to candidates for the U.S. House and Senate increased significantly: In districts and states with active fracking operations, campaign contributions rose by a staggering 231 percent from approximately $2.1 million to $6.9 million. In non-fracking districts and states, contributions still grew significantly—by 131 percent from approximately $2.2 million to $5.1 million.
While cynics may not be surprised by CREW’s findings, the report is important for two key reasons. First, it provides evidence that helps explain the federal government’s failure to regulate unconventional oil and gas development. Communities have valid concerns about air and water quality and expect their policy makers to address them. However, CREW’s findings suggest that the industry’s influence has helped to stall legislation, such as the FRAC Act, that would end the industry’s exemption from provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well slow efforts to evaluate environmental and other impacts.
Second, CREW’s findings suggest that industry campaign contributions have adversely affected the public dialogue about fracking by distorting the debate over sensible steps the federal government could take to regulate it and compromising the public’s trust.
UCS’s recent report Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate demonstrates how the public dialogue surrounding hydraulic fracturing is already complicated by scientific uncertainty, a patchwork of state laws, and an overwhelming amount of confusing information and misinformation available on the Internet. While our fracking information toolkit can help the public better navigate this noisy information landscape, people need to be able to trust that their elected officials are making decisions based on science and the public interest, not the interests of corporate campaign contributors.
While the findings of CREW’s report don’t do much to instill this trust, shedding light on the fracking industry’s campaign contributions promotes the kind of transparency we need if are truly going to move toward an evidence-based public debate and a regulatory framework that protects the communities affected by fracking—in terms of both benefits and costs—rather than the industry’s bottom line.
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