November 10, 2011; Source: Common Cause | The venerable clean government organization, Common Cause, has an excellent, digestible report available on the politics—or the money in politics—concerning the “fracking” controversy. The report describes the problems with fracking: “Fracking involves injecting a mix of sand, chemicals, and water into a well at high pressure in order to break up underground rock formations and free up natural gas. Pollution may occur underground, with fracking chemicals or methane directly contaminating aquifers and drinking wells, or above ground, as streams or tributaries are polluted by spills or improper wastewater disposal.” These and other dangers associated with fracking undermine the natural gas industry’s contention that it is much safer and cleaner than coal or oil.

Of interest to us is the flow of money into the fracking controversy, where “nonprofit”-like organizations have had a hand in the huge and expensive campaign by natural gas industry leaders to influence the hearts and minds of White House and Congressional decision makers. The millions of dollars in campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures by big corporate players come as no surprise ($2.8 million in campaign contributions and $147.7 million in lobbying expenditures by top fracker ExxonMobil, $1.6 million in campaign contributions and $98.5 million in lobbying expenditures by number-two fracker Chevron, etc.), and, at least for the campaign contribution side, nonprofits are prohibited from playing that game.

We’re interested in the expenditures by “independent” tax exempt entities that much of the public thinks are sort of run-of-the-mill public charities, but they aren’t—and Common Cause has done a good job recently in reminding the public just what kinds of nonprofits these groups really are. The report notes the significant oil and gas industry contributions to the two “Crossroads” groups set up by Karl Rove, which together accounted for just short of 10 percent ($37.5 million out of $390 million) of all “independent” expenditures in the 2009–2010 electoral cycle and so far have been responsible for 28 percent ($1.2 million out of $4.3 million) as of October 2011 in the 2011–2012 cycle. The report also mentions the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a favorite target of Common Cause’s for its 501(c)(3) status despite lobbying (through model bills submitted in state legislatures) benefitting corporate interests; but, though ALEC is in the findings of the report, it doesn’t really show up in the report itself (despite evidence of ALEC funding from ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute). 

Common Cause is right to be examining how big money erodes the democratic debate on some national issues, particularly those that might restrain some aspect of corporate self-interest, but the fracking debate merits a fuller, in-depth discussion of the specific expenditures of “independent” (c)(3) and (c)(4) groups shilling for the oil and gas industry.—Rick Cohen