This group is taking on the biggest obstacle to climate action in the country

A grassroots group wants politicians to say no to fossil fuel money.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos

Earlier this election, Massachusetts State Senator James Eldridge was asked a question he had never heard before: would he sign a pledge promising not to take any political donations from employees who work for fossil fuel companies or utilities?

For Eldridge, a Democrat and the vice chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, the choice was an easy one. He signed the pledge, becoming one of 70 candidates and politicians statewide who have promised not to accept any money from fossil fuel or utility employees, since Massachusetts campaign finance laws prohibit companies but allow their employees to make political donations.

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“I think there’s increased scrutiny by the public about how politicians raise money and where that money comes from, especially in a post-Citizens United environment,” Eldridge told ThinkProgress. “I’m a strong believer that when you’re accepting donations from whatever interest, it definitely does have an influence.”

The pledge, which launched at the end of August with the goal of getting a response from every candidate or incumbent politician in the state, is the brainchild of 350 Mass Action. But beyond trying to get every candidate and politician on the record about fossil fuel and utility donations, the campaign’s larger goal is to make accepting money from corporate interests “political poison.”

Senator Marc Pacheco and Senator Pat Jehlen speaking at a 350 Mass Action climate rally. CREDIT: Better Future Project/350 Mass Action
Senator Marc Pacheco and Senator Pat Jehlen speaking at a 350 Mass Action climate rally. CREDIT: Better Future Project/350 Mass Action

“There are a lot of different ways that you can fix the problem of money in politics: you can have a Constitutional amendment, you can write a law, or you can just make it unacceptable and make people pay attention and start to think,” 350 Mass Action communications coordinator Katherine Anderson said. “There’s some financial reason — it’s an investment that is clearly yielding positive benefits over time for them, and that’s why they do it.”

Even in a state as historically progressive as Massachusetts, Anderson and the people at 350 Mass Action have experienced the power of money in politics — particularly when the fossil fuel industry sets its sights on defeating something. Since their inception in 2011, getting fossil fuel and energy money out of politics has been an organizational priority, something members all felt was key to advancing any kind of meaningful climate action through the political process. But the group was spurred to act on fossil fuel money in politics in a tangible way after the most recent legislative session, when grassroots efforts to block fossil fuel-friendly policies didn’t yield any meaningful climate legislation.

During the 2016 session, the Massachusetts state legislature was considering a pipeline tax, which would have added a charge onto ratepayers utility bills in order to subsidize a massive natural gas pipeline project. Climate advocates got to work, getting 97 out of 160 state representatives to not only publicly voice their disapproval of the tax, but ask the Speaker of the House to ban pipeline taxes in general. In the state Senate, a similar ban on pipeline taxes made its way into the chamber’s version of an energy bill.

But though the final energy bill did not include the unpopular pipeline tax, the pipeline tax ban that so many had publicly supported wasn’t even mentioned.

“I would argue that part of the reason for that is corporate special interests, especially the utility industry and their lobbyists, giving money to elected officials,” Eldridge said.

Protesting pipelines outside of the Massachusetts Statehouse. CREDIT: Better Future Project/350 Mass Action
Protesting pipelines outside of the Massachusetts Statehouse. CREDIT: Better Future Project/350 Mass Action

Oil and natural gas strongholds like Texas, Alaska, North and South Dakota, and Oklahoma, or coal bastions like West Virginia and Kentucky, might seem like more natural fits for a campaign to get fossil fuel money out of politics. After all, of the politicians who have received the largest donations from some of the most notable fossil fuel attached climate deniers — Exxon and the Koch Brothers — none are from Massachusetts.

Large donations from fossil fuel interests are often associated with politicians who support fossil fuel-friendly policies. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R), for instance, whose presidential super PAC got half of its money from the fossil fuel industry, is one of the Senate’s most vocal climate change deniers. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R), who has received $1.7 million in campaign donations from fossil fuel industry lobbyists and employees since his first term as a Congressman in 1994, has voted against allowing the EPA to regulate carbon as a pollutant, and supports offshore drilling.

In Massachusetts, however, the political influence of fossil fuel interests — especially the state’s two largest utilities, National Grid and Eversource, is more subtle. Since 1999, the two have given a combined $727,789 to state and local candidates. And while the utilities claim to support renewable energy, both companies are also heavily invested in natural gas — and had petitioned the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities for 20-year contracts on the pipeline that would have been financed by the failed pipeline tax.

Eldridge, who has served in the state Senate for 14 years, has also noticed the influx of money from utility companies in Massachusetts politics, explaining that they “absolutely do give money, whether they are lobbyists or executives.”

“There is no explanation for why we are so behind and why we aren’t taking a bolder role in leading the nation towards actually confronting the climate crisis.”

And that money, 350 Mass Action argues, is the reason historically progressive Massachusetts lags behind other states on climate action.

“It is an extremely big deal for Massachusetts because we have the potential to lead on climate policy, and we don’t at all,” Anderson said. “There is no explanation for why we are so behind and why we aren’t taking a bolder role in leading the nation towards actually confronting the climate crisis.”

No explanation, she said, except for the influence of fossil fuel interests tied to political donations.

But utilities aren’t the only section of the fossil fuel industry the pledge targets — even though big fossil fuel companies like Exxon, Chevron, BP, and Shell give little to no money to Massachusetts political candidates, 350 Mass Action nonetheless included them on their list of 10 companies from which candidates who take the pledge cannot accept money.

That’s because while they view fossil fuel influence in politics as a problem in Massachusetts, they know it’s hardly unique to their state. They hope their idea of a pledge will spread to other states — and eventually, to the federal level, where fossil fuel giants like Exxon are especially active. And that’s where fossil fuel money can have major national consequences: In the 2014 midterm election that saw a wave of Republicans elected to Congress, for instance, fossil fuel groups spent over $721 million dollars.

This election cycle, some groups have already begun working at the national level to collect and publicize political contributions from the fossil fuel industry in federal races. NoFossilFuelMoney.org, a tool launched by ClimateTruth.org Action, tracks contributions from oil and gas, electric utilities, coal mining and related sectors to both congressional challengers and incumbents, in an effort to “shine a light on how fossil fuels influence our democratic process.”

Ultimately, Anderson said, that’s the goal of the 350 Mass Action Pledge: To show voters that fossil fuel money in politics is the key obstacle to meaningful climate action.

“To the extent that we are able to make that [money] an unpopular thing to accept, and also reduce the amount of money that is accepted, we think that alone will have positive ramifications for climate policy,” she said.

For now, 350 Mass Action is working to increase the number of candidates who sign the pledge before Election Day — but their work won’t stop on November 8. With at least 30 incumbents on board thus far, the group expects to enter the new legislative session with a cadre of lawmakers who have already pledged to refuse donations from utilities and fossil fuel companies. And that, Anderson says, is an important start.

“We want to make sure that it is less popular to take money from fossil fuel companies by the end of this election cycle, and that less money is being accepted,” she said. “And then we think we will essentially be removing a problem that will allow people to make whatever independent decisions a rational politician that represents the people would make.”