The fossil fuel industry had already managed to shape a bill moving rapidly through Congress last summer, gaining provisions to ease its ability to export natural gas. But one key objective remained elusive: a measure limiting the authority of local communities to slow the construction of pipelines because of environmental concerns.

Then, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who chaired the House Energy Committee, gave the industry an opportunity to amplify its influence. Joining forces with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who chaired the Senate Energy Committee, he launched a so-called joint fundraising committee, a campaign war chest that would accept donations from a range of contributors, with the proceeds divided between the two lawmakers.

Executives at one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies soon deposited more than $80,750 into the joint fund’s coffers. The very next day, Upton delivered on the industry’s aspirations: He rushed a bill through his legislative panel that would not only streamline the approval process for new pipelines but also empower federal officials to impose tight deadlines on state and local governments seeking to review their potential environmental impacts.

Joint fundraising committees, which pool donations and then distribute them to their overseers, have been around for years, but they have typically been organized to help political parties raise money in bunches or to enable multiple lawmakers serving the same geographic area to share donations, making fundraising more efficient. The Murkowski-Upton committee presented an innovation: a joint fundraising committee organized around specific public policy, appearing to link the influx of money from a powerful special interest to a particular set of legislative goals.

While Murkowski and Upton represent constituencies separated by thousands of miles, their joint bank account allowed them to vacuum in cash from the very industries with business before their legislative panels. It also provided an easy means of boosting their campaign donations by enabling them to tap each other’s contributors.  

Lisa Murkowski Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, hits the gavel to start a markup hearing on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jan. 8, 2015, on Capitol Hill. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

“They are basically saying to their supporters, ‘You’ve already given to me, now you can give the maximum to both of us,’” said former Federal Election Commission (FEC) counsel Larry Noble, now at the Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy group that calls for tighter restriction on campaign finance. “Using committee chairs is a very powerful way to do that because it allows the industry to get basically one-stop shopping. It also makes it very clear what these contributions are about.”

Murkowski and Upton did not respond to questions from International Business Times. Their respective committee representatives declined to discuss the propriety of the joint fundraising panel while asserting that both lawmakers have championed boosting natural gas exports as a means of creating American jobs.

‘Companies Can’t Help But Make Campaign Contributions’

While joint fundraising committees have been a part of politics for decades, they have emerged as an especially favored means of gathering funds in recent years. According to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2010 election cycle, 370 joint fundraising committees collectively raised $92 million. By the 2014 cycle, that number had grown to 521 joint fundraising committees, which took in $191 million.

The Murkowski-Upton committee stands out as a uniquely explicit means of influencing legislation, say campaign finance experts, because it takes in contributions reaching chairs of both the House and Senate energy committees. That gives the oil and gas industry an opportunity to write one check knowing the proceeds are reaching the leaders of the two panels that write the rules regulating their business.

“These companies are going to make sure that all their senior executives who can afford it join in and chip in,” said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “This is staking out the turf. This is essentially the chairs almost setting up a situation in which these companies can’t help but make campaign contributions.”

Noble, the former FEC counsel, said the timing of the donations from the industry to the joint fundraising committee is especially troubling, presenting the appearance of influence for sale.

“Raising money from an industry at the same time a bill is being considered raises all sorts of appearance issues,” he told IBT. “There have been real ethics problems with that, because the obvious implication is that the money is being given to help you decide how to vote on a bill.”

Since the joint fundraising committee was created in July, it has taken $168,000 in campaign contributions, according to the most recent federal disclosures. Roughly 94 percent of its dollars came from the oil and gas industry, according to an IBT review of campaign finance data.

The biggest single source of funds came from executives with Dallas pipeline construction and maintenance firm Energy Transfer, as well as a spouse and company lobbyist. Together, they have provided nearly half of the committee’s total resources. Those donations were first cited by Political Moneyline. Energy Transfer operates 71,000 miles of pipelines, owns an export terminal in Louisiana and recently purchased another natural gas infrastructure firm. Energy Transfer employees have previously donated to Murkowski and Upton.

‘Dangerous And Unnecessary Changes’

The timing of the donations from Energy Transfer and other contributors coincided with the introduction of legislation the industry had been seeking from the House and Senate panels. On July 22, Murkowski introduced a bill including provisions that would force the Department of Energy to issue a decision within 45 days on requests to export natural gas.

Consumer groups have warned that increased exports could limit the supply of U.S. natural gas, sending prices higher. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, then offered an amendment that would have given regulators additional power to limit natural gas export approvals. The Murkowski-led committee voted that proposal down.

On July 29, Murkowski and Upton filed the paperwork launching their joint fundraising committee, called the Murkowski Upton Victory Committee. The next day, the Senate committee passed Murkowski’s bill, with the natural gas provisions intact.

At the time, Energy Transfer was facing local opposition to its pipeline construction plans in Texas and Ohio. The company executives, the spouse and the lobbyist contributed a combined $80,750 to the Upton-Murkowski committee on Sept. 28. The next day, Upton introduced additional legislation in his committee to tighten the deadline for federal export approvals to 30 days after an application was filed.

The same bill empowered federal regulators to impose similar deadlines on state and local governments seeking to review the environmental impact of proposed pipelines. That drew objections from Rep. Paul Tonko, a New York Democrat.

“The public has a right to be part of large projects that impact their given communities,” Tonko said as he introduced an amendment that sought to lift the deadlines from Upton’s bill. “Does that take extra time? Yes. Is it less convenient and more costly for the company? It may be. But these pipelines are in service for many decades. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right. The pipeline companies do not have a problem. The public does.”

With Energy Transfer’s campaign cash freshly deposited in his joint fundraising account and with the company lobbying on his bill, Upton led the charge to defeat Tonko’s amendment. He told lawmakers that his legislation was “a common-sense approach that introduces greater public transparency and accountability for federal and state permitting agencies.”

Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the committee’s ranking Democrat, countered that Upton was championing “dangerous and unnecessary changes” that he said would weaken requirements for natural gas companies to provide environmental data to federal agencies, effectively giving those companies “the ability to circumvent property owners’ rights.” Citing a deadly 1994 pipeline explosion in his home state, Pallone also argued that the bill did not give government officials enough time to adequately assess complex pipeline proposals.

“Regulators must be given the time needed to carefully and thoughtfully review applications for the construction of natural gas pipelines, and these applications must contain thorough environmental documentation that show a pipeline can be built in a safe and environmentally friendly manner,” Pallone said.

Upton and the natural gas industry carried the day. The committee voted down Tonko’s amendment and passed Upton’s bill.

In the 2016 election cycle, Energy Transfer employees have donated $23,500 to seven other members of Upton’s energy panel and two other senators on Murkowski’s committee, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Over the last two election cycles, the firm’s employees have delivered more than $300,000 of contributions to Republican congressional lawmakers. The company did not respond to IBT’s questions about its campaign contributions or its lobbying efforts.

Murkowski and Upton’s bills were both lauded by America’s Natural Gas Alliance -- a trade association for the natural gas industry.

“The bill's provisions to provide greater certainty for natural gas infrastructure permitting and for LNG [liquefied natural gas] export approvals will better allow our nation to take advantage of the many opportunities associated with our abundant natural gas resource,” the group’s president, Marty Durbin, said of Murkowski’s legislation. He also declared that he was “encouraged” by the Upton bill’s “streamlining of pipeline permitting.”

In a letter to Murkowski, 11 environmental groups said the language speeding up approvals does not give regulators “sufficient time to consider all factors including full economic and environmental reviews in approving [liquefied natural gas] export terminals.” Among such factors that conservation organizations have spotlighted are the terminals’ effects on fisheries and estuaries, as well as the potential for explosions.

An official with Earthjustice -- one of the groups that signed the Murkowski letter -- told IBT the House bill also would help natural gas companies get around longstanding laws designed to prioritize environmental stewardship and encourage local input in pipeline siting decisions.

“What we want is a process that enables all of the involved agencies to take the time they need to do a good environmental review -- but the process under this bill does the opposite,” Earthjustice’s Deborah Goldberg said. “The process under this bill is weighted to get pipeline applications approved as opposed to making legitimately independent decisions about whether a project should even go forward. It also tells state agencies they really have no power to assert any control over the permitting processes.”

Oil Exports On The Committees' Agenda

The recent natural gas legislation is not the only government business that donors to the Murkowski-Upton fundraising vehicle may have before the two lawmakers’ legislative committees.

According to federal records from recent months, Energy Transfer has lobbied on "issues associated with pipeline infrastructure development, pipeline safety, and environmental compliance” -- all issues that Murkowski and Upton’s congressional panels oversee. Upton’s committee also periodically holds hearings to scrutinize corporate mergers. On the same day that Energy Transfer officials cut checks to the Murkowski-Upton fundraising committee, the company announced a $37 billion merger with the Williams Companies, a natural gas pipeline company. A combination of Energy Transfer and Williams would create one of the world's largest energy companies.

Beyond the contributions from Energy Transfer, the Upton-Murkowski joint fundraising committee took in money from top executives at major oil industry concerns, $5,400 from Hunt Consolidated CEO Ray Hunt and $10,800 from Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson has publicly called for a lifting of the ban on the export of American crude oil, a controversial aim that Upton has recently come to support: Weeks after Tillerson’s donation to the fundraising committee, Upton pushed a bill through his panel that would deliver that result.

According to 2014 federal financial disclosures, Upton’s family stood to benefit from Exxon Mobil’s increased fortunes: Upton’s wife owned between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Exxon Mobil stock.

In the Senate, Murkowski’s committee passed legislation aimed at lifting the oil export ban while encouraging greater offshore oil and gas exploration. Murkowski publicly praised federal regulators’ approval of a natural gas export terminal linked to Exxon Mobil.

Tillerson’s donation also came just before Democratic legislators began demanding congressional committees investigate the company over reports that it hid data about climate change.