OPINION AND ANALYSIS
By Kevin Hall
The headline reads, “API Plans Major Disinformation Campaign: Industry opponents of a treaty to fight global warming have drafted an ambitious proposal to spend millions of dollars to convince the public that the environmental accord is based on shaky science.”
It’s from a New York Times article dated April 26, 1998. API is the American Petroleum Institute.
It’s been a long two decades of lies, deceit, corruption and killing, but oil and gas industry executives—members of the most powerful interest group on Earth—continue their heartless methods of exploitation here and abroad. As evidenced by the violence in Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq, Venezuela, South Sudan and more, oil executives know few moral bounds.
“Essentially, it’s legalized corruption. It’s legal. Companies can spend as much as they want to elect people who are going to do what they want.”
—ARVIN MAYOR JOSE GURROLLA
And they walk among us. In California, these individuals have successfully delayed or diluted every major piece of climate legislation enacted by state lawmakers, relying on Republicans and moderate Democrats to do their dirty work and rewarding them richly either through campaign contributions to stay in power or employment connections after leaving office. Sometimes both.
Take former State Senator Michael Rubio and former Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon of Valley Democratic politics. The oil slick spreading from the travesty of their political careers is now coating the feathers of local politicians.
These two men are the poster boys for all that is wrong with the blue party’s politics as practiced in the San Joaquin Valley. Both were career politicians with little or no private- or nonprofit-sector experience. Both reneged on their oaths of office to leave elected office a year early to join the ranks of Big Oil & Gas and Big Pharma in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Perea easily slipped on an oil suit a year later when he joined Western States Petroleum Association.
But a sharp-edged pendulum of environmental justice appears to be swinging back hard and fast. As the Times again reported, a generation later on April 18, 2019, 84% of likely Democratic voters now rank action on climate change and the move to clean energy as essential or very important; voter support is even higher among Latinos and higher still among Spanish speakers.
Driving the call for direct action is the climate science–fueled movement growing rapidly under the inspirational leadership domestically of 29-year-old Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) and in Europe of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg where tens of thousands of students now go on a climate strike from school every Friday.
Lagging behind are local and state Democrats, many of whom claim to be concerned about environmental justice issues but who often vote against the interests of the frontline communities who want pollution eliminated at its source. Nor do they grasp the level of general public growing panic and emerging bloc of single-issue—climate change—voters.
In short, now would be a good time for Paul Caprioglio, Luis Chavez, Nelson Esparza and Esmeralda Soria to get out their campaign account checkbooks and return some tainted contributions. Nearly $100,000 in Big Oil money made its way into Fresno politics last year, and these Democrats on the Fresno City Council have received direct and indirect contributions from Chevron and the California Independent Petroleum Association.
And there’s plenty more where that came from. As of November 2017, the California Democratic Party no longer accepts money from oil and gas PACs or their representatives in Sacramento, so now it’s gushing directly into political action committees and independent expenditure committees that circumvent campaign contribution limits by running their own campaigns in support of candidates.
According to CalMatters, during the 2017–18 election cycle, Big Oil & Gas pumped $19.2 million into state politics, including $14 million into independent committees with one spending $343,000 to reelect Assembly Member Rudy Salas (D–Bakersfield). Another $2 million went straight into the coffers of the Republican Party.
Soria’s contributions came directly from the Irvine-based petroleum association in the form of a pair of $2,500 contributions on Feb. 24 and June 4, according to City of Fresno Electronic Filing System reports. She has a direct connection to the organization through Willie Rivera; they both worked for Rubio when he was in the State Senate. After Rubio quit, Soria went to work for then Assembly Member Perea.
It only gets oilier from here.
As it turns out, Rivera is a Democrat who holds elected office, too. He’s a Bakersfield City Council member, but his day job is as the regulatory affairs director for the California Independent Petroleum Association, and that organization’s political action committee contributed $3,000 in 2018 to Rivera’s campaign account.
Rivera is apparently so serious about his job as an oil industry junkyard dog fighting off government regulation that he works after hours for them, too. In 2018, the association PAC launched a $20,000 campaign against Democrats in Arvin where a group of young, progressive Latinx officeholders led by Mayor Jose Gurrola had dared to update the highly polluted city’s oil and gas code from 1965. The move was prompted by a gas line leak in 2014 that forced the evacuation of eight homes. Rivera’s employer wanted the ordinance overturned. Gurrolla’s majority held after a lot of door-to-door grassroots campaigning.
In light of some Democrats’ newfound sensibilities regarding climate change, air pollution, environmental racism and human survival, you know, the basics, Soria, who entered this year with $107,485.81 in her campaign account, should now make a clean break with her tainted former colleagues and return the $5,000. Because any organization or individual seeking to reverse progress in Arvin is attacking a frontline community that has taken a stand against the most destructive industry in human history.
Similarly, Caprioglio, Chavez and Esparza need to break out the checkbooks, too. Chavez and Esparza each received $5,400 and Caprioglio, who ran unopposed, took in $500.
Although they are probably unaware of it, oil money seeped into their campaign accounts last year via the Fresno Chamber of Commerce PAC. The business group received a $90,000 contribution from Rubio and Chevron in May 2018. The money covered all of the PAC’s campaign contribution costs for the year.
Rubio’s paymaster also moved more than $350,000 through Rivera’s petro-bosses’ PAC in the 2017–18 cycle, which accounted for half of the group’s spending.
Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil have spent hundreds of millions over decades to delay action on climate change, leading the world to the brink of catastrophe. As the people living in frontline communities courageously advocate for a just transition off fossil fuels, including a 50% reduction by 2030 to avoid runaway climate chaos, now is the time for local leaders to lead by example.
When the next oil executive offers a contribution to a candidate, committee or PAC, he/she should be sent packing. And when Valley Democrats attend their party’s statewide convention later this month, they should sign the environmental caucus’s pledge to refuse all fossil fuel contributions.
Consider what Mayor Gurrola told KGET News in Bakersfield: “Essentially, it’s legalized corruption. It’s legal. Companies can spend as much as they want to elect people who are going to do what they want.”
He signed the pledge.
Kevin Hall hosts Climate Politics from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Fridays of each month on KFCF 88.1 FM. He is on Twitter at @sjvalleyclimate and @airfrezno. Contact him at email@example.com.