Fun with Numbers: Dirty Energy's Money Talks

By Bruce E. Johansen

How do fossil fuels keep a leash on our political system?

Let’s have some fun with numbers, and count the ways. Just follow the money.

I read a lot of newspapers, and sometimes the advertising is more instructive than the news. Every time the debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline has taken a twist or a turn, for example, I’m sure I’ll open the daily paper (Omaha World-Herald in our case) to a full-page color portrait of a Nebraskan in a hardhat telling me that TransCanada wants to shower us with thousands of new jobs. If it’s a major twist or turn, I’ll see the same pieces of propaganda in the New York Times, USA Today, and elsewhere—sometimes from TransCanada, but just as often under the sponsorship of the United States Chamber of Commerce, which has never met a carbon molecule it didn’t like.

I get the same messages from ‘the people of the oil and gas industry’ on the network evening news, every night, so often that my wife hits the ‘mute’ button as soon as it appears.

You know the fossil fuel business has got to be profitable (even if Apple Computer recently passed up Exxon-Mobil as the world’s most valuable corporation, based on stock-market capitalization). Just look at how these companies pass the money around to influence the course of opinion and legislation.

Thirty-second spots in the three broadcast network evening news shows run anywhere from $23,000 to $45,000. The higher number is just about Mitt Romney’s standard speaking fee, or an average worker’s wage for a year. A full-page color advertisement in the New York Times runs $35,000 to $40,000, and the same amount of space in the World-Herald costs $11,000 (daily) to $13,400 (Sunday).

Plenty of Profits

There’s plenty of profit left over to help local politicians. Our soon-to-be ex-Senator Ben Nelson, the only Democrat in Nebraska’s Congressional delegation, has taken in $456,049 since 1999 in contributions from fossil-fuel companies, according to According to the same website, he also has sided with these companies on 75 percent of selected votes, such as such as one forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency to include climate change as a factor in its assessments.

Senator Nelson’s largest dirty-energy benefactor has been Berkshire Hathaway (which is included here because it holds a majority interest in the United States’ two largest coal-hauling railroads) at $54,600. He also received $18,000 from Exxon Mobil, $15,500 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and $11,250 from Koch Industries. To be fair to Nelson, this is hardly even wishing-well money for the Koch brothers. No one can be considered even modestly bought by them for anything under six figures.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry has pulled in a relatively meager $68,729 from ‘dirty energy,’ with $22,800 of it coming from Berkshire Hathaway. The rest of his contributions are in the four figures—chicken scratch in this league. He also votes with the fossil-fuel lobby 64 percent of the time.

Mike Johanns, who is just getting started, has received $117,600, earned by voting with dirty energy 100 percent. Even so, he is barely off his training wheels, with $14,800 from the Omaha-based Tenaska Energy, Inc., $11,000 from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (a coal-combustion lobby), and $8,000 from Exxon-Mobil leading the list.

Rep. Lee Terry has been working on his dirty-energy credentials for many years, and has brought in just shy of $393,000—$61,428 from Berkshire, almost $40,000 from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and $28,500 from Exxon-Mobil leading the way. He also votes with dirty energy 100 per cent.

The Really Big League

As much as our local crew has received, they are all minor leaguers compared to the really big money, which goes mainly to Republicans in oil country. Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn’s campaigns have booked $2,069,035 from engaging in fossil-fuelery, while Rep. Joe Barton, another Texas Republican, BP apologist, and global warming denier (who also called President Obama a “liar”), has brought home $1,914,183. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has no oil in his Kentucky district, but he has considerable grease in the Senate, with $1,527,858 from fossil fuel interests. Republican Senator James Inhofe, the loudest global-warming denier in the history of the U.S. Senate, has received $1,287,950 to help him retain his Oklahoma seat.

Perhaps in 50 or 100 years, when glaciers are melting at break-neck speed and the ocean is lapping at coastal cities, a plaque in the ‘Greenhouse Gas Museum’ may remark at our political system—run, as it is, on money devoted to preserving the fossil fuel status quo, but nearly bereft of any common purpose aimed at preserving a sustainable habitat for future generations. By the time that crops go sterile in the summer heat, someone may note that even a likable guy like Warren Buffett—so progressive in some contexts—could have been enslaved to the culture of short-term convenience, with a massive blind spot about what the combustion of coal does to our atmosphere and, ultimately, our lives.

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