This story was updated Wednesday, Feb. 3, to include 2009 totals for individual companies.
Oil and gas companies spent at least $154 million on lobbying last year, potentially besting a field of rivals battling to shape climate and energy policies and setting a new record for the industry.
Influence efforts by the oil and gas sector grew at least 16 percent in 2009 from the $132 million spent in 2008, according to an early analysis of new lobbying disclosures by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The total reflects spending for the first nine months of 2009 plus 80 percent of reports filed for the past three months.
The electric utility industry, meanwhile, spent at least $134.7 million on lobbying last year. Combined, the two traditional energy sectors paid out nearly 10 times the $29 million that alternative energy companies allocated for lobbying efforts. Environmental organizations spent at least $21.3 million last year on lobbying.
"When a business's livelihood is at stake, they'll put a lot of money down on the table to influence the policies that will affect it," said Sam Thernstrom, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who worked at President George W. Bush's White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Although President Obama in his State of the Union address criticized what he called "the outsized influence of lobbyists," Thernstrom said, "the policy proposals he puts forward are the kind of policy proposals that attract lobbyists."
The oil and gas industry lobbied on a number of issues other than climate legislation including taxes, health care and spending bills. It is not possible to know how much of the $154 million total went toward climate policy efforts. The total also includes some of money paid for political advertising. Oil companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp., report those costs in lobbying totals, but other large petroleum companies like Chevron do not include advertising costs in lobbying reports.
The spending came during a year that saw climate legislation stall in the Senate after passage in the House. The oil and gas industry condemned the House bill as one that would drive up energy costs and kill jobs. Portions of the electric utility industry supported climate legislation but had concerns with the House bill. The two sectors worked for changes in the Senate. Alternative energy companies and environmental groups largely wanted passage in the Senate, while also lobbying for new policies like a national mandate that utilities generate a portion of their power from renewable sources.
As 2010 starts, oil and gas companies are pushing for new access to offshore drilling, welcoming Obama's State of the Union comment. Utility companies are debating whether to back an energy bill that would cap carbon emissions just for the power sector, instead of an economywide mandate. And all sectors want help in any jobs bill Congress puts forward.
Both industries described their lobbying in 2009 as focused on sharing information with lawmakers.
"We had a lot of work to do trying to educate people on these issues and contribute to a more fact-based discussion," said Bill Bush, spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for oil and gas companies.
"We hope we were successful," Bush added. "Others are contributing other perspectives. In the end, Congress is going to make its own judgments for its own reasons."
Power companies are pleased with playing "a constructive role in the still-evolving climate change debate, and especially by our role in helping forge a consensus" that carbon pollution permits in the main House and Senate bills "should be allocated to utilities for the direct benefit of their customers, rather than being auctioned," said Jim Owen, spokesman for the trade group Edison Electric Institute.
One government watchdog, however, said that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on lobbying bought concessions for the oil and gas industry in particular.
"They're not looking at a new climate law that they didn't want," said Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen's Energy Program director. "They've now got a consensus approach with John Kerry and Barack Obama beating the drums out there saying we've got to drill for more oil. That's a pretty remarkable situation."
Obama in his State of the Union address said that "we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. ... It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development."
"They're in a far better position in February 2010 than they were in February 2009," Slocum said of oil and gas companies. "They have the ability to move the issue better than they did a year ago."
One lobbyist with a pro-climate legislation business said portions of the traditional power sector attacked the proposed cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions with a strategy of tying it to jobs and the health of the overall economy.
"And it worked," said the lobbyist, who asked not to be identified to speak more openly.
But Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, questioned how much lawmakers act in response to lobbyists. Interest groups on both sides tend to lobby their political allies, Binder said.
"My assumption is that more spending [by environmental groups] would not have produced a bill out of the Senate," Binder said.
If you got rid of all lobbyists, Thernstrom said, the central arguments about climate legislation probably would not change.
Spending totals for each of the oil and gas and utility sectors, which are expected to grow when 100 percent of the fourth quarter reports are computed, still are less than the previous record for the energy sector.
Electric utilities in 2008 paid out $161.3 million for influence efforts. But the $154 million spent by the oil and gas industry is the most it has spent annually, according to Center for Responsive Politics records that date back to 1996.
Exxon Mobil topped the oil and gas industry's spending with at least $27.4 million in lobbying expenditures in 2009, according to Center for Responsive Politics.
"ExxonMobil's lobbying efforts reflect the company's size and the number of high-profile issues we are currently addressing and monitoring," spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman White wrote in an e-mail. She declined to comment further.
Chevron spent at least $20.8 million on lobbying last year.
"Through our lobbying efforts, we work to help shape an effective and responsible U.S. energy policy," Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw wrote in an e-mail. "We do so by providing perspectives to the administration and Congress on a broad range of energy-related and international issues.
"We continue to make recommendations to policy makers on a number of matters regarding the economy, climate change, energy security, international issues, education, research and development," Crinklaw said.
Spending in the alternative power sector, while still small compared with traditional energy, grew at least 31 percent from 2008's $22.1 million level.
"Their future is if not entirely, substantially dependent on policy decisions here in Washington," Thernstrom said. "I would be surprised if you didn't see it climb every year."
Even if oil and gas companies and utilities did not have lobbyists, Thernstrom said, the industries' arguments would get a receptive ear in Congress because so many consumers use their products. There are not as many people, he said, calling to complain about the high cost of solar energy.
Although the alternative arena is growing, Solcum said, "the big voices are still the same old ones, the utilities, the petroleum guys. Those are still the big lobbying voices to contend with when it comes to climate policy."
Leaders in the green power industry included the American Wind Energy Association, which spent $4.6 million on lobbying in 2009. The association primarily lobbied for passage of a national renewable electricity standard, that national mandate that utilities generate some green power. That has not yet passed. The wind trade group also advocated for expansion of some programs in the stimulus act, said Christine Real de Azua, American Wind Energy Association spokeswoman.
"A stable market for wind power would enable U.S. manufacturers to expand their U.S. operations and to seize the historic opportunity we have today to build up a thriving renewable energy industry," de Azua said.
Clean Energy Group, a coalition of electric generating companies that want action on climate policy, spent at least $1.6 million on lobbying last year. Members of the coalition include Pacific Gas & Electric Corp., Calpine Corp., Entergy Corp., Exelon Corp., Florida Power & Light Co. and Sempra Energy.
The group lobbied for progress on climate legislation in the Senate, said Michael Bradley, Clean Energy Group executive director.
When it became clear votes for the bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were not there, Clean Energy Group worked to see "if there were some softer alternatives," like a bill that had more cost-control mechanisms, Bradley said.
"Obviously we were outspent," Bradley said. "It's very difficult to compete on an advertising communications level."
He added, "We feel like we have sound positions that we can communicate."
As 2010 starts, Bradley said, "We're trying to figure out where things are and what we need to do." He added, "I'm not tremendously optimistic. I'm hoping for that breakthrough that's going to be needed."
The Solar Energy Industries Association spent at least $1.6 million on lobbying last year.
The solar trade group worked to push money from the stimulus bill forward so that solar projects could start construction this year, which was necessary in order to qualify for the funds, said spokeswoman Monique Hanis. Solar lobbyists talked to lawmakers about the jobs bill that is expected this year. Hanis declined to comment on the politics of climate legislation not moving forward in the Senate.
Spending in the environmental group sector grew at least 16 percent from $18.3 million paid for lobbying in 2008.
Pete Altman, a climate campaign director at Natural Resources Defense Council, said green groups had challenges in taking on the lobbying efforts of some in the traditional energy sector who were opposed to aspects of climate legislation.
"We absolutely can compete in the quality of the ideas and the thoughtfulness of the policy," Altman said. "But it's a lot harder to get the thoughtful policy across when you've got oil and coal interests spending ten times what environmental interests did to communicate their perspective.
"It just means they keep showing up in [congressional] offices more, throwing information at lawmakers," Altman added. "It is harder to break through."
The strategy for 2010, Altman said, is "keep at it and work harder and work smarter."
"I don't look at it that something killed the climate bill, we just haven't passed it yet," Altman said.
Climate legislation failed to move forward, Slocum said, in part because the public never got behind the bill despite polls showing that a majority of Americans want action on climate. The House bill was a "corporate giveaway," he said, designed to have votes for passage "versus what Obama campaigned on, polluters pay, 100 percent auction, and you get a check every month." The Senate bill largely was based on the House measure.
"This legislation failed to inspire everybody," Slocum said. "That's because Washington listened to the special interest lobbyists.
"The lobbying money that's flowing in from these industries," he added, "is shaping this legislation."