A powerful fossil fuel industry trade group is holding a conference this week at President Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C., a venue that has been at the center of conflict-of-interest concerns.
Oil and gas officials are gathering at the hotel as part of the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s (IPAA) annual “Congressional Call-Up” where the officials get the opportunity to discuss top policy issues with members of Congress and the Trump administration.
This is at least the third energy industry group to select the Trump International Hotel as the site for a conference since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
The IPAA represents oil and gas production companies of various sizes, with ConocoPhillips Co. its largest member. As opposition to oil and gas drilling began to grow in the late 2000s, the trade group created Energy In Depth, a rapid response group that provides information about the industry as a counterweight to resistance from anti-fracking organizations.
On Monday, the meeting kicked off in a room at the back of the hotel — the Lincoln Library — where attendees, numbering about 60, were scheduled to receive a game plan for the three days of the conference. Inside the hotel, no signs or corporate sponsor banners marked the location of the meeting, which was not open to the news media. Anti-fossil fuel activists were organizing a protest against the IPAA for Monday evening outside the Trump hotel.
Asked why the association chose the Trump International Hotel for this year’s meeting, IPAA spokesperson Neal Kirby told ThinkProgress that price, location, and availability were the primary reasons. “IPAA’s choice of venues are completely unrelated to our advocacy efforts,” he said.
Officials from IPAA member companies come to Washington each year for the Congressional Call-Up because they view the oil and gas industry as burdened by too many regulations at the federal level. Kirby said the IPAA is encouraged by how the Trump administration, in such a short time, has promoted “pro-American energy jobs.” But he emphasized the group believes more can be done at the congressional level to reach the “nation’s full energy potential.”
Since the hotel opened almost 18 months ago, energy industry trade groups have joined foreign governments in choosing the Trump hotel over other venues. Located on Pennsylvania Avenue, it is only a few blocks from the White House.
Lobbyists working on behalf of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, spent $270,000 on rooms, catering, and parking at the hotel during its first six months in operation, Time reported.
And in 2017, both the American Petroleum Institute (API) — one of the most powerful industry trade groups in Washington — and the National Mining Association (NMA) held conferences at the hotel.
The Trump Organization leases space for the hotel, which opened in October 2016, from the federal government.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke at API’s board of directors’ meeting in March 2017. Three members of Trump’s Cabinet — Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta — spoke at the NMA meeting last October. The NMA’s board of directors has included chief executives from mining firms such as Peabody Energy, Drummond Company, and Cloud Peak Energy.
Heads of NMA member companies, including Robert Murray, raised money during the 2016 election for Trump. Since Trump took office, Murray has repeatedly met with administration officials, including at least three times with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt. Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for Murray Energy is awaiting a Senate vote on his nomination to the No. 2 position at the EPA. Murray also pressed Perry to provide federal help to the ailing coal industry.
Previous presidents often divested their business assets or placed them in a blind trust administered by an independent third party to avoid both conflicts of interest and the appearance of them, according to a Time magazine report. Unlike his predecessors, Trump has stepped away from the operations of his business, but he has not relinquished ownership.
“He is one great big example of exploiting public office for private gain,” Kathleen Clark, a law professor and ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis, told Time. “Of course it’s a scandal.”
The Trump hotel charges guests well above their competitors in Washington. It’s not just industry, though — members of the Trump administration have also stayed or lived at the hotel, the Washington Post reported last year.
This is “part of the reason they’ve been able to turn an unexpected profit on a relatively empty hotel,” according to Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The Trump Organization had projected that it would lose a couple million dollars at the hotel during the first four months of 2017 as it established a new hotel and convention business. The hotel has 40,000-square-feet of meeting space and 263 guest rooms. But the hotel reported a $1.97 million profit during the period despite the fact that its occupancy rate is much lower than its competitors in Washington.
“I think it’s pretty clear that groups use his business to attempt to curry favor with the president,” Libowitz told ThinkProgress. “Even if he’s not getting a report from the business itself, there are plenty of reports in the media — he knows. It’s also become abundantly clear that many in Congress are fine with turning a blind eye towards this practice as long as he supports their legislative goals — many have even taken to spending campaign money at his properties.”
The IPAA held its 2017 congressional call-up meeting at the Loews Madison Hotel, which is now owned by Hilton, located about 10 blocks north of the Trump hotel. Two years ago, the congressional call-up was held at the Hay-Adams Hotel, just north of the White House.
The group’s main themes at this year’s meeting at the Trump hotel will be access to public lands for oil and gas drilling, the permitting process for pipelines, and wildlife issues.
“While IPAA members are located throughout the nation, the single largest hindrance stifling independent producers is the application and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act,” the IPAA says in a fact sheet distributed at the meeting that highlights the group’s legislative and regulatory priorities for 2018.
Endangered species advocates note the Endangered Species Act has protected iconic animals like the bald eagle, the California condor, and the Florida panther, and helped preserve wild areas. Since January 3, 2017, Congress has seen the introduction of at least 63 proposals that would strip federal protections from specific species or undercut the Endangered Species Act. These attacks from industry-friendly lawmakers build on an already existing 303 pieces of legislation that attempted to weaken the Endangered Species Act from previous Congresses, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Kirby said the IPAA has almost 130 meetings set up with members of Congress on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the meeting attendees plan to travel to the EPA’s office, located across the street from the Trump hotel, to meet with federal environmental officials.
In a statement on Monday, Stephanie Tulowetzke, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, an nonprofit environmental group composed of young people, said: “There could be no better symbol of the corrupting influence of Big Oil over our government than having a high-dollar fossil fuel lobbying event at the Trump Hotel.”