Oil behemoth BP poured millions of dollars into lobbying and campaign contributions over the past two decades, courting allies in Congress and the White House.
Now that it needs friends following a massive oil spill, there's skepticism that it will find any.
The company faces congressional investigations into the causes of an oil rig explosion that has led to a massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The company asked for and has received federal help to stop the oil from hitting shore. But the Obama administration has talked tough, with the president stating that BP must repay the costs and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on a Sunday morning talk show saying, "Our job is basically to keep the boot on the neck of British Petroleum."
"My hunch is that we will see a pretty tough congressional response," said Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank, noting that following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress passed legislation clarifying oil company liability for spills. "These are sort of classic opportunities for Congress to sort of push along legislation that in the past might have been opposed."
With this disaster, BP and other oil companies potentially face pushes on a number of issues, including an effort to eliminate tax breaks they get, changing how much they pay in royalties, and forcing them to contribute more to funds for such spills, said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's Energy Program.
"They need a lot of friends, and they need a lot of people speaking on their behalf," Slocum said, noting that trade group American Petroleum Institute and other oil companies already are rallying to defend the overall safety record of oil companies and try to prevent a legislative crackdown.
In an interview yesterday, API President Jack Gerard said that there was a unified effort to help stop the spill.
"The entire industry is engaged on multiple levels," Gerard said, adding that he had been in touch with the Obama administration on a regular basis. "The best thinking around the globe has been assembled."
BP and other oil companies are among the biggest spenders on lobbying and campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which has analyzed reports filed with the House and Senate.
BP paid $6.2 million in campaign contributions since 1990, landing on the list of 107 "heavy hitters" compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The company's political action committee has helped the re-election efforts of many, including Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee; Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has backed expanded drilling; and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who sits on key committees and whose state right now stands to be the most affected by oil headed for land. Landrieu also is considered a swing vote in climate legislation.
And that's just part of BP's political spending.
Just in the past year, BP doled out nearly $16 million for influence efforts, using both its own lobbyists and those with eight other firms, according to Center for Responsive Politics. BP tapped one of the town's most plugged-in advocators, Tony Podesta, as well as lobbyists who had previously worked for Landrieu; former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.); the Senate Commerce, Science & Technology Committee; and the Congressional Black Caucus.
That lobbying total made BP the fourth-biggest spender among all oil and natural gas companies tracked by Center for Responsive Politics.
"Certainly in every industry, campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures play a huge role in the influence that corporations have," said Lisa Gilbert, an expert on money and politics with U.S. PIRG. "I don't think that you can necessarily point fingers and say that there's a quid pro quo, but the system itself, the money is corrosive. When you need money to be re-elected and you're aware of it, the money factors in."
Others doubted it will make much difference.
"I don't think at this point lobbying and campaign contributions are going to help them being radioactive as a company," said Ken Green, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. "I don't think there's enough lobbying money and campaign contributions to fix the black eye that this is going to give offshore drilling."
BP did not respond to requests for comment.
BP was far below the top lobbying spender for oil and gas companies last year. Exxon Mobil Corp. doled out $27.4 million for influence efforts in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. For the first quarter of 2010, BP was second in spending among oil and gas companies, paying $3.53 million on lobbying, more than Exxon Mobil but below the $6.4 million spent by ConocoPhillips.
And while BP is on the list of "heavy hitters," it's number 106 of 107. Chevron and Exxon Mobil also rank among the top campaign contributors. The top spender on that list, AT&T Inc., gave almost $45 million in campaign contributions since 1990, more than sevenfold the amount spent by BP.
Other analysts said there are many factors that go into a lawmaker's policy decisions, and that the calculations on how to vote probably don't include campaign contributions.
BP has lobbied on a number of issues, including taxes, financial reform legislation that would regulate derivatives, a bill to fund Interior that also includes a study on hydraulic fracturing, an Interior proposal to shorten leases for deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and the House climate bill and other climate legislation efforts.
BP has enriched the campaign coffers of Landrieu, giving her $16,250 in the 2008 campaign cycle, when she was up for re-election. That contribution made Landrieu third for the highest amount received from BP's political action committee or BP employees. The first two were then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee John McCain. A moderate Democrat, Landrieu sits on the Appropriations, Energy and Natural Resources and Homeland Security committees.
"Campaign contributions, from energy companies or from environmental groups, have absolutely no impact on Sen. Landrieu's policy agenda or her response to this unprecedented disaster in the Gulf," said Landrieu spokesman Aaron Saunders. "The senator is proud of the broad coalition she's built since her first day in the Senate to address the energy and environmental challenges in Louisiana and in the nation. This disaster only makes the effort to promote and save Louisiana's coast all that more important."
After touring part of Louisiana with Obama administration officials last Friday, Landrieu said she supported President Obama's 30-day hold on new offshore oil drilling. She said that she did not want oil companies "to retreat, but we must make sure that all deepwater operations are safe."
"I have told BP that not only their reputation, but the reputation of the entire deepwater drilling industry, is on the line," Landrieu added.
BP gave McConnell's re-election campaign $8,500 in 2008. McConnell's office did not directly address the campaign contributions. McConnell yesterday morning on the Senate floor spoke about the spill.
"Our focus at the moment is on stopping the leak and mitigating the damage as quickly as possible -- so we'll be paying close attention to the administration and to local officials on the ground to assist them in those efforts as the oil comes ashore," McConnell said.
"No one is ignorant of the impact this spill has already had and could potentially have on the environment, the economy of the Gulf, or on the thousands and thousands of individuals and families whose lives and livelihoods have been rooted, in some cases for generations, in the fish and wildlife that live in these coastal waters," McConnell added.
Murkowski has received $7,000 from BP this campaign cycle, according to Center for Responsive Politics. Murkowski's campaign said the total was $6,000.
BP and other petroleum companies "are residents in the state of Alaska, as oil companies," and they not only extract oil and natural gas but have offices in the state, said Mary Hughes, chief administrative officer for Murkowski's re-election campaign.
BP and other petroleum companies "are residents in the state of Alaska," said Mary Hughes, chief administrative officer for Murkowski's re-election campaign, adding that they not only extract oil and natural gas "but they also have headquarters in the state."
"Sen. Murkowski is going to do as she does every day and think about what's best for Alaskans," Hughes added. "If that coincides with what's best for contributors, that's probably coincidence."
BP in the past two election cycles has given $10,200 to Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who is on the House Appropriations Committee. His aide did not respond to a question about the contributions, but provided a statement from Culberson on the spill and oil drilling.
"The loss of life and environmental damage caused by last week's explosion is tragic, and I support a full investigation into the causes and response," Culberson said. "That said, offshore drilling remains a vital component of our country's economy and energy supply.
"As President Obama has said, ultimately BP should and will be responsible for funding the clean-up operation," Culberson said in response to a question about whether he would be looking to fund any efforts in response to the oil spill. "Beyond that, I am fully committed to making sure the Coast Guard has the resources it needs to continue leading the response effort."