Texas oil executives come out against anti-transgender legislation

Rarely a friend to progressive causes, the industry sees looming “bathroom bills” as a costly liability.

Libby Gonzales, a transgender girl, stands with her mother, Rachel, as members of the transgender community and others who oppose Senate Bill 6 protest in the exterior rotunda at the Texas Capitol as the Senate State Affairs Committee holds hearings on the bill, Tuesday, March 7, 2017, in Austin, Texas. The transgender "bathroom bill" would require people to use public bathrooms and restrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Libby Gonzales, a transgender girl, stands with her mother, Rachel, as members of the transgender community and others who oppose Senate Bill 6 protest in the exterior rotunda at the Texas Capitol as the Senate State Affairs Committee holds hearings on the bill, Tuesday, March 7, 2017, in Austin, Texas. The transgender "bathroom bill" would require people to use public bathrooms and restrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Transgender rights activists have a surprising new ally in their fight with the Texas government: the state’s affluent and powerful oil industry.

In a letter sent to Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Monday, a number of prominent oil executives joined a group of more than 50 Houston business leaders in denouncing legislation targeting the transgender community. Speaking out against the legislation, which includes an updated version of SB6 — a bill requiring transgender Texans to use bathrooms that correlate to their “biological sex” — prominent members of the industry called attention to the toll anti-transgender legislation could take on business in Texas.

“As members of Houston’s business community, we write to express our concern with the proposed ‘bathroom bill’ being considered in this special legislative session,” the letter reads. “We support diversity and inclusion, and we believe that any such bill risks harming Texas’ reputation and impacting the state’s economic growth and ability to create new jobs.”

Signatories included ExxonMobil global services president Linda DuCharme, BP America chairman and president John Mingé, president of Shell Oil Company Bruce Culpepper, and Halliburton president Jeff Miller.

The letter comes in the midst of an acrimonious special session of the Texas legislature. While the legislature typically meets biannually, Abbott called the special session after must-pass legislation for governmental agencies failed to make it to his desk in the spring. Activists and advocates argue that happened on purpose — largely so that bills like the anti-transgender “bathroom bill” currently being considered would get a second look (an initial effort to pass SB6 failed in May). Now, lawmakers will have to take up the legislation again, and business leaders are growing concerned.

Monday’s letter echoed one sent last month to Abbott by Dallas business heads, expressing similar levels of concern. But while that letter featured signatories representing businesses like Southwest Airlines and AT&T, the displeasure expressed by oil executives has garnered more attention, in large part thanks to the outsize influence of the fossil fuel industry in Texas.

Oil and gas are major drivers of Texas’ economy. Almost half of U.S. drilling activity is concentrated in the Permian basin, largely located in West Texas. Drillers in the area are able to pump more crude oil at a lower cost than in many other locations, adding to its appeal. Companies like Exxon and Chevron consider projects in the Permian to be among their most important globally, making Texas an industry darling.

That status hasn’t helped progressive causes in the state, particularly when it comes to the environment. A July report from Environment Texas and the Environmental Integrity Project claimed that Texas has ignored 97 percent of all illegal polluting incidents reported at oil and gas industries. According to the report, only 588 out of 24,839 incidents incurred a fine from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality — only 3 percent of those reported.

While some have blamed legal loopholes for that oversight, it’s undeniable that the oil lobby enjoys significant power in Texas. In 2011, worsening air quality across the state prompted efforts to curb emissions, sparking a heated reaction from industry executives. A short time later, the state legislature passed SB1134, a bill shielding the Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas from the new safeguards being instituted. One champion of the bill was Republican State Rep. Tom Craddick, who held stock in nine oil companies — five in Eagle Ford. The bill was later signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry (R); at the time, Perry had collected more than $11.5 million in campaign contributions from the industry since 2000.

That undeniable industry leverage usually plays well for Texas conservatives. But now it could be backfiring, as business interests increasingly view anti-transgender legislation as a costly liability.

Those concerns are rooted in recent history. One clear example of where Texas could be headed is North Carolina, which saw hefty ramifications for state businesses following the passage of HB2, another “bathroom bill.” Numerous artists canceled events in the state, and plans for a PayPal facility, set to bring in an estimated $2.66 billion, were scrapped. Those hits keep coming: according to one estimate in March, HB2 will cost North Carolina $3.76 billion over the next 12 years.

That’s exactly the scenario Texas executives want to avoid, even if it means compromising on ideology. And while it’s unclear how much of an impact Monday’s letter will have on the outcome of the special session, activists have reason to hope. Similar legislation failed to pass in the spring after heated opposition from businesses, including IBM, which took out full-page ads in state newspapers opposing the effort.

With oil industry officials arguably in a more privileged position, Texas politicians will be under more pressure to oppose the legislation being considered — and, activists hope, more likely to move against it.