It is a maxim in American politics that oil and gas companies are among the mightiest forces in Washington, second perhaps only to the big banks. They block any kind of meaningful action to reduce the country’s consumption of dirty energy; they enjoy billions in public subsidies—and they even put oil men in the White House.
That is no doubt true. But what’s remarkable is how little the industry actually has to spend to keep DC under control. This table from the Center for Responsive Politics shows the top oil and gas industry contributors in 2013 and 2014, as crucial midterm elections approach. In total, the top twenty contributors spent $6,222,245:
There are few Americans who could muster that kind of spending. But for the oil companies? It borders on trivial. North American oil, gas and coal companies generate $271 billion in profit each year. So take even the highest-end number—$536 million to influence Congress in 2011 and 2012—and compare it to the profits the industry generated over those two years. The money spent on Congress is around .09 percent of those profits.
So picture an American earning the median income—if he or she was able to control Congress as easily, it would cost $31.
Exact spending can be hard to pin down, and the real spending may be higher than what we can quantify, thanks to the millions no doubt pouring into undisclosed groups. But the fundamental point is, the oil industry can control our politics for but a fraction of its wealth.
The payoffs are garish. The industry gets as much as $52 billion in taxpayer dollars back every year in the form of federal subsidies, which is many magnitudes higher than the amount the industry spends to buy Congress. Most of the subsidies are not challenged, as this graphic from Oil Change International shows:
And beyond this direct largesse, the industry benefits by continuing to operate freely. In a sane world, the people living on a rapidly warming planet would scale back the production of the dirty fuel that’s causing the problem. Surely there’s been some progress around the margins—but by and large, the industry still controls our politics. It barely costs them a thing.