From Climate Denial to Democracy Denial: Big Oil Money is Polluting Politics and the Planet

by Andres Chang

October 13, 2022

Big Oil is donating huge sums to the Sedition Caucus and politicians stripping back our democratic rights.

With more than 70% of Americans concerned about the climate crisis, Big Oil CEOs stand to gain the most from drowning out our voices. That explains why the industry isn’t just watching attacks on our democracy unfold: it’s fueling them.

The January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a violent effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, but it was not an isolated event. The former president and his cronies spent months before the attack pushing voter fraud claims, filing baseless lawsuits, and colluding to deliver “fake electors.” Even after the attack, 147 congresspeople ignored our country’s democratic values and clung to Trump’s false narrative by voting not to certify the election. They’ve become known as the “Sedition Caucus.”

Since the January 6 attack, we’ve seen election denial become a tool to advance voter suppression. Extremist politicians are spreading misinformation about the 2020 election to give cover to their racist voting laws — and in some states, it’s worked. At the same time, they are enacting “anti-protest” laws, in many cases authored almost word-for-word by Big Oil lobbyists. These laws are a win for right-wing extremists and a loss for democracy.

Big Oil is donating huge sums to the Sedition Caucus and politicians stripping back our democratic rights. At the same time, industry-linked groups are backing efforts to block legislation with overwhelmingly popular electoral reforms, allowing Big Oil to grow their influence and profits. The good news is that midterm voters care about threats to our democracy, and we can implement strong democratic reforms if we make our voices heard.

The Greenpeace Thermal Airship flies a banner that reads “Don't Let Big $$$ Rig our Democracy.”

The Greenpeace Thermal Airship flies a banner that reads “Don’t Let Big $$$ Rig our Democracy.”

Big Oil is fueling deniers… again

The Sedition Caucus and Big Oil are pushing a radical, unpopular, and unscientific agenda. Not only did the Sedition Caucus deny the results of the 2020 election, they also have a record of voting against climate policy 94% of the time and denying the scientific consensus of climate change. By comparison, a supermajority of Americans support strong climate policies.

The watchdog organization CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) is tracking donations from companies giving the most to the 147 congresspeople denying our elections. They uncovered that just six Big Oil PACs have donated more than $2.2 million to fuel the Sedition Caucus since the January 6 attack. Koch Industries, an oil corporation that is the second largest privately-held company in America, is at the top of the list at more than $1 million in PAC donations.

But these donations are the tip of the iceberg. The industry has donated more than $13 million to fuel the Sedition Caucus this election cycle when all its corporate PACs and large individual donations are counted. That includes $3.1 million to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which sells MAGA-branded T-shirts with the slogan “STILL MY PRESIDENT,” and $5.4 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose Deputy Chairs for the 2022 election cycle are all Sedition Caucus members. The rest went straight to Sedition Caucus members, most of whom are running for re-election in November. “Shadow groups” with fossil fuel ties have also spent big on the election, including the Koch-linked group Americans for Prosperity Action.

Fueling the politicians who are stripping back our democratic rights

Greenpeace USA found that 22 companies involved with producing, transporting, or distributing fossil fuels donated $1.26 million to sponsors of state anti-protest bills in the last election cycle (2019-2020). Many of these bills are almost word for word copies of language provided by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), which has received millions of dollars from Big Oil. These bills threaten peaceful protesters with long-term imprisonment, felony charges, and unpayable fines at a time when civil disobedience remains a crucial tool for protecting our democracy and the environment. Some bills even grant immunity to drivers who hit protestors with their car.

Big Oil’s money is also funding politicians that are attacking our right to vote. During this election cycle, 8 fossil fuel companies have donated $778,000 to politicians who supported anti-voter legislation, according to Accountable.US. Working class people of color will have a harder time voting and their ballots will more likely be disqualified because of the racist voter suppression measures these laws impose.

Activists protest in front of the White House during The No More Excuses: Voting Rights Now! Action.

Activists protest in front of the White House during The No More Excuses: Voting Rights Now! Action.

These attacks on our democracy are fueled by disinformation, as well as corporate donations. Despite some fossil fuel companies having condemned the January 6 attack, the industry has a decades-long history of spreading disinformation that is not entirely separate from what we see now. The fossil fuel industry has funded groups involved with planning the “Stop the Steal” rally, or whose senior personnel promoted the rally online, in the past.

Blocking popular electoral reforms

Special interests have an enormous amount of political power in the United States. Industries like Big Oil can and do spend astronomical amounts to influence elections, often with poor disclosure practices.

The problem is now worse than ever: secretive spending has gone up by 20 times and billionaire spending has multiplied by 70 since 2006. Yet, a national poll showed that Americans in both parties do not want billionaires buying our elections. To the contrary, there is overwhelming support for reeling in unchecked political giving and influence.

So why hasn’t Big Oil’s political influence been reeled in? The blame lies in part with the Koch family’s vast political network. According to The New Yorker, the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together has coordinated closely with Republican leadership to oppose electoral reform, even when it was supported by conservative voters. These groups decided to ignore the will of the American people by plotting to block the Freedom to Vote Act: John R. Lewis Act (originally titled the For the People Act), a landmark electoral reform bill, earlier this year. More recently, the Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation, which have received funding from fossil fuel companies, opposed the DISCLOSE Act that would have required increased transparency into political donations.

The Fossil Fuel Industry is trying to suppress the power of the people and silence our voices. But we won’t stop fighting.

Big Oil’s support for the insurrection caucus, anti-democracy politicians, and secretive political spending follow a broad pattern of stoking attacks on the rights of average Americans. Their support feeds into racist voter suppression and the spread of dangerous disinformation that undermines the fabric of our democracy.

What we must do:

    • Vote on November 8 (or sooner, if your state has early voting). The good news is that recent polls have found that the threat to American democracy is one of the top concerns of likely midterm voters. Whatever our color, background, or zip code, we must come out in droves to vote for new leaders who will protect our freedom to vote and pass laws that will enable progress on our climate goals. Now’s the best time to make a plan to vote, and encourage your family and friends to do the same.
    • Continue pushing for strong democracy reforms at the state and federal levels. That includes rolling back voter restriction laws and pushing for pro-democracy reforms.
    • Counter disinformation. We must continue to fight back against disinformation by educating ourselves and one another, and, even more importantly, holding Big Oil accountable for decades of misleading the public.


Andres Chang

By Andres Chang

Andres Chang is a Senior Research Specialist who supports the Climate and Democracy campaigns.

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