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Crazy Election Year Plays Out in Energy Industry Political Giving

While coal interests have retained their strong preference for Republican presidential candidates, oil and gas interests have shifted their spending to Clinton in the general election.
This chart shows oil/gas and coal company contributions to presidential candidate committees. It includes contributions from company PACs as well as individuals employed by the companies who donated at least $200.

Fossil fuel companies have a history of backing Republican candidates. But this year’s unusual presidential campaign appears to be having a strange ripple effect on political giving -- at least from the oil and gas industry.


Usually, the industry and the people in it favor Republican candidates with their campaign contributions. Not so with the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton race.


But, then again, this is no typical election year.


“It’s just chaotic, it’s weird -- the loss of discussion on the issues,” says Rey Butcher, who’s involved with the political action committee (PAC) for Dominion Questar, a natural gas company in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. “It's bizarre -- not only on the energy front but everything in our country right now is being faced with these two candidates.”


The Dominion Questar PAC doesn’t even give to White House candidates. But Butcher says in this election a focus on presidential personalities is swamping all the races - even the congressional and state campaigns his PAC supports.


The Center for Responsive Politics and Inside Energy have analyzed the latest campaign finance reports that cover the election cycle through Sept. 30. One finding: The oil and gas industry has given more money so far to Democrat Hillary Clinton than to Republican Donald Trump.


That’s a departure from the past, considering Republican Mitt received more than seven times as much oil and gas money in 2012 as Democrat Barack Obama.


“There’s nothing about this race that I would have anticipated, honestly,” says Jeff Hartley, who’s spent two decades steeped in GOP politics and now lobbies for oil and gas companies.


He wonders why more in the industry aren’t backing Trump like him. “But then again, he hasn’t tried to curry a lot of favor with” oil and gas companies.

The industry went all-in during the Republican primaries by giving over $1 million to Ted Cruz and $10 million to Jeb Bush.


But, in the general election, just $500,000 has gone to Trump.  And $800,000 went to Clinton.


“It doesn't surprise me that that oil and gas or any extractive industries would give money to the Democratic nominee,” says Hartley. “It makes sense to do that -- especially if they're likely to win.”


“You know, if you're backing a loser, that's kind of money down the drain,” says Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.


An oil and gas trade group based in Denver, the alliance gave maximum donations of $10,000 dollars to Romney’s 2012 campaign. This time it has donated just $2,500 to billionaire Trump after sitting out the primary. Most of its focus is on congressional campaigns where the group usually gives around $9 of every $10 dollars to Republicans.


“A  couple of thousand dollars to a presidential candidate gets lost in the shuffle compared to a couple of thousand dollars to a House candidate, for example, or senator who is up for re-election,” says Sgamma. “We have to be very conservative about where our resources go.”


That’s especially true during a time when energy companies are struggling with a market downturn and, in the case of the coal industry, bankruptcies. Campaign finance reports for Congress and the White House show that coal employees and their PACs are giving almost exclusively to GOP candidates. And the coal industry has given more to Trump in this election season than to any other candidate.


Sgamma says the Obama administration hasn’t earned the support of energy companies because it’s stifled fossil fuel production across the board through regulations.


“We know that Hillary Clinton represents the third term of the Obama administration,” Sgamma says, “so we are not supporting her.”


And, even for these oil and gas stalwarts, Trump has been seen as unpredictable, a wild card when it comes to energy policy.


For some, at least, if Clinton is Obama’s third term, that might not be so bad. Natural gas production has grown immensely under the Obama administration and some hope the policies that allowed that to happen would continue.


“If Hillary Clinton wins,” says Hartley, “I think -- I hope that what she has said about natural gas and domestic oil production being a bridge to the future holds true, because our state depends on that and our jobs depend on that, our economies depend on that.”


No matter what happens, he sees a bright spot on the horizon.


“This has been the strangest, most bizarre, frustrating rollercoaster ride,” he says, shaking his head. “And I’ve never been more excited to have an election year end.”


Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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