WASHINGTON -- On any given day, Congress is likely to be considering some type of legislation that would funnel taxpayer cash to a handful of rich men. Tuesday will be no exception when the Senate looks to shovel heavy subsidies at backers of the natural gas industry, including four billionaires: T. Boone Pickens, Aubrey McClendon, Stephen Schwarzman and George Soros.
The Senate is set to vote on a natural-gas-related amendment to the transportation bill that would send about $5 billion to the industry. For Pickens in particular, the measure is a return on the years and money invested in his relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The natural gas amendment, which looks a lot like an energy policy plan that Pickens proposed in 2008, would help build the infrastructure needed to, among other things, allow the U.S. truck fleet to convert to cleaner-burning natural gas. That's a high priority for Reid, who is a longtime supporter of natural gas. For big investors in the industry like the four billionaires, taxpayer-subsidized conversion would guarantee a faster-growing market and rising demand.
Despite Reid's support, the natural gas measure had been considered dead last year. Its revival now shows the power that money can wield in Washington -- sometimes without even being spent.
Pickens remains influential on Capitol Hill even though he has largely shied away from making contributions to either political party since 2008.
In 2010, Roll Call wrote that Pickens said he had made a pledge to stay out of the elections game. "Once a prominent Republican donor, Pickens told reporters last week that he has pledged not to make federal campaign contributions and to work with Members of both parties. Pickens also said Reid will be able to move an alternative fuels subsidy bill during the lame-duck session, in part because of the promise. Pickens declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed for this article," Roll Call reported.
A similar story emerged out of a fundraiser last month for a Republican Senate candidate from Nebraska. According to a GOP source who was in attendance, the candidate told some of those gathered that Pickens told him he couldn't financially back his bid. The reason given was that the majority leader was backing the natural gas bill, and Pickens had promised he would not target races that might cost Reid the Senate majority.
When it comes to Reid himself, however, Pickens hasn't exactly stayed on the sidelines. Pickens' wife and a Pickens company gave Reid and PACs aligned with him hundreds of thousands of dollars when he faced a tight reelection contest in 2010, according to an analysis of federal election records. The corporation's giving was made possible by the Citizens United ruling.
During the 2010 cycle, Madeleine Pickens gave $16,800 to the Reid Victory Fund and another $12,000 to the Nevada state Democratic Party. The Madeleine N Pickens Trust gave $50,000 to Patriot Majority, a super PAC targeting Reid's Republican opponent, Sharron Angle, and Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a natural gas company partially owned by T. Boone and Madeleine, gave another $175,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. (T. Boone owns roughly $360 million worth of that company, while Madeleine owns about $35 million.) Andrew Littlefair, the company's CEO and usually a GOP donor, gave $20,000 to Patriot Majority and another $4,400 directly to Reid that cycle.
Other than those to Reid, Madeleine Pickens' electoral donations are solidly Republican.
"For the last two decades, Senator Reid has been a champion of investing in clean energy to create jobs in Nevada and across the country, and reduce our dependence on oil. Senator Reid's support of clean alternative fuels, including natural gas, dates back many years," said Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson. "More recently, he has been proud to make common cause with Boone Pickens -- as he is committed to doing with experts and advocates across the political spectrum -- to work towards ending our nation's addiction to foreign oil."
"I do get the impression that Reid and Pickens have struck up a good working relationship," said Martin Edwards, vice president of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, a trade group for the natural gas pipeline industry.
For Democrats, it's nice to have Pickens (mostly) on the sidelines. In the past, he has poured millions into Republican electoral politics, becoming one of the largest donors to Progress for America and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which both attacked Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
Pickens' office did not answer Huffington Post requests for comment.
Federal subsidies for natural gas have been a goal of Pickens for a number of years, but the goal has repeatedly escaped his grasp, in part because of lobbying by the coal industry, which includes the billionaire Koch brothers, and by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents big oil companies. A few years ago, however, the natural gas industry succeeded in temporarily allying itself with wide swaths of the environmental movement -- by finding a common enemy in coal and, more importantly, by dousing the greens in cash.
Between 2007 and 2010, for example, the Sierra Club received more than $25 million from Chesapeake Energy, a leading natural gas company run by McClendon. McClendon has traditionally favored the GOP in his political donations.
For a while, environmentalists, such as Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, and their allies in the Democratic Party supported natural gas as a lesser-polluting fuel -- or at least tempered their criticisms of it. They focused their fire on the evils of coal.
Chesapeake Energy also funneled money to the American Lung Association for a campaign against coal, according to the association's 2010 financial statement.
A spokeswoman for the American Lung Association said Chesapeake's donation came with no strings attached and the money was used to promote a variety of activities. She noted that the organization also has concerns about natural gas.
More recently, the greens have mostly reversed course and rejected the natural gas option. When Michael Brune took over from Pope as executive director of the Sierra Club in 2010, he explained the decision in simple terms: "The first rule of advocacy is that you shouldn't take money from industries and companies you're trying to change."
More specifically, environmentalists have slammed natural gas for the destructive fracking process used to extract it and for the enormous investment that transitioning to a natural-gas-fueled automotive fleet would require. "Very simply, the natural gas option is higher cost, lower impact in reducing oil demand, takes longer to achieve its impact, and results in higher carbon emissions" than other non-oil alternatives, wrote one environmental blogger, A. Siegel, in discussing the proposed Senate amendment. (Siegel also blogs for The Huffington Post.)
The natural gas industry has also lost some GOP support. Five conservative groups, including the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, sent a letter to senators last week opposing the amendment on free market and fiscal conservatism grounds, National Journal reported. That put them on the same side as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club.
ALLIES ON THE HILL
Yet the alliance between Democratic lawmakers and Big Gas has remained intact. The natural gas measure is set to be submitted Tuesday as an amendment written by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and backed by Majority Leader Reid. Nor have Republican lawmakers abandoned natural gas. The measure is also supported, for instance, by Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), both of whom have personal investments that stand to profit from the measure's passage.
Environmental lobbyists think they have a chance of stopping the amendment by arguing that it will make the overall transportation bill -- a high priority for both parties -- more difficult to pass. But even if the amendment fails this time around, Senate Democrats appear determined to move it through.
And Pickens is not the only rich man who hopes they succeed. Late last year, Soros, a longtime supporter of progressive and liberal causes, bought more than three million shares of Westport Innovations, a company that makes natural gas engines and other related technology, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Those shares are now worth more than $130 million. Westport is eligible for up to at least $200 million in subsidies under the Senate package, according to a natural gas industry summary of the bill circulating on K Street.
McClendon's Chesapeake Energy also stands to benefit heavily from the legislation. Chesapeake has lobbied strenuously for the measure, spending some $500,000 last year on such issues.
Schwarzman runs Blackstone, a global investment firm that has recently moved heavily into the natural gas industry and that has lobbied for legislation that would promote alternative fuel engines.
While Pickens has been most successful at forging a relationship with Reid, he has also courted other elements of the Democratic establishment. In 2008 and 2009, he funneled $453,250 to the Center for American Progress, the Washington Post reported. CAP delivered a paper praising the Pickens plan -- a paper that Siegel's blog, Get Energy Smart! Now!, criticized as full of holes.
A CAP spokeswoman noted that Pickens' money came not directly from him but from his tax-exempt organizations to support the center's National Clean Energy Summit. She added that CAP remains critical of Pickens, pointing to a a number of other CAP-written articles. On the other hand, the group certainly doesn't shun the natural gas investor.
Where is CAP's National Clean Energy Summit held each year?
Las Vegas, Nevada. And Reid and Pickens are regularly featured speakers.
UPDATE: 4:15 p.m. -- The natural gas amendment failed 51 to 47, falling nine votes short of the threshold needed for Senate passage. Only six Republicans were willing to sign on to the amendment that many observers had expected to attract greater GOP support, while eight Democrats broke with their leaders to vote no.