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Erich Pica Headshot

Cleaning up Our Politics as We Clean up the Gulf

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BP's CEO Tony Hayward is testifying before Congress today, and his company's egregious record of putting workers' lives at risk and imperiling ecosystems in pursuit of steeper profits is sure to be a centerpiece of the hearing. Rightly so.

BP's bucking of safety protections and disregard for the consequences of its actions have culminated in 11 deaths and a deluge of crude that's devastating the Gulf Coast environment and the people who depend on it.

But there's more than one irresponsible company and its apparently callous CEO behind the disaster in the Gulf.

There's the Mineral Management Service's repeated rubber stamping of dangerous drilling projects without ensuring proper environmental safeguards were in place. And behind that the agency's infestation with oil industry cash and cronies, which continued to fester under the leadership of President Obama's Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

There's the drive to exploit less accessible, riskier sources of oil. And behind that the failure to reduce our nation's oil dependence with investments in clean energy and a smarter transportation system.

There are the billions in taxpayer handouts that Big Oil and the fossil fuel industry receive each year. And behind that there are the swarms of industry lobbyists choking the halls of Congress and the stacks of polluter cash filling too many politicians' campaign accounts.

Behind all of this, there's one deep-rooted problem: increasing corporate infiltration and control of our government.

Fossil fuel industry influence in Washington has perpetuated the dirty energy status quo that led to the oil spill in the Gulf. It's time for a fumigation.

Here's what needs to happen:

  1. Give the tainted money back. Politicians should cleanse their campaign accounts of the BP and other oil money they've taken and donate it to oil spill recovery efforts. Then they should pledge to take no more.
  2. End polluter payouts. Congress should finally eliminate all of the taxpayer subsidies that line the fossil fuel industry's pockets, perpetuate our addiction to dirty, dangerous energy, and delay the urgently needed transition to cleaner, safer alternatives.
  3. Restore a democracy of, by and for people. The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens' United vs. Federal Election Commission gives corporate behemoths like BP, ExxonMobil, Monsanto and Goldman Sachs the right to pour unlimited cash into influencing elections. All under the guise that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as people. Congress can and should pass legislation to reverse this disaster for democracy, even if it requires a constitutional amendment.

Today the organization I lead, Friends of the Earth, is launching a campaign to advance the first step: separating oil money from politics.

In just the 2008 and 2010 campaign cycles, the oil and gas industry has poured $48,401,891 into campaigns and political action committees.

We're calling on members of Congress and President Obama to donate the contaminated contributions they've accumulated in these cycles to the Gulf Coast Fund, an organization that's helping community groups across the Gulf region respond to and recover from the economic, environmental and health impacts of the oil spill as well as Hurricane Katrina. And we're inviting our more than 100,000 members and supporters -- and citizens across the country -- to join us in pressuring their representatives in Washington to come clean.

The money Big Oil pumps into our political system is not idly spent. It buys more delay in the transition to clean energy and more policies that put the interests of polluters before those of the public. Behind every corporate polluter attempt to hamstring clean energy and climate solutions, there are enabling politicians.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a member of the group of five House members and five senators who have taken the most money from BP in the last few years (the "BP Ten") is a case in point. She's repeatedly voted to expand dangerous drilling and give tax breaks to Big Oil. Most recently, she colluded with polluter lobbyists to spearhead a narrowly defeated attempt to eliminate the Clean Air Act as a tool to fight global warming.

Many members of the panel grilling Mr. Hayward today have also received big pots of dirty oil money. Congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas), who's spouted off about the "benefits" of climate-disrupting carbon emissions, has alone taken more than $300,000 over the past two campaign cycles. One of his counterparts in the Democratic ranks of the subcommittee, Congressman Gene Green (D-Texas), has reaped a still-not-shabby $128,000 and continues to support more offshore drilling.

The tough questions deservedly piled on Mr. Hayward today will ring hollow if committee members don't also ask this tough question of themselves: Whose interests are they serving? The public's or Big Oil's?

That's a question we'll be asking all members of Congress to answer in the coming weeks and months. If they respond to this step of treatment -- and return their tainted oil money to aid in Gulf recovery efforts -- our work will hardly be finished, but it will send a powerful message. A message that the days of corporate polluters dictating policy in Washington are on their way out. And that the days of implementing serious solutions to protect our environment, our economy, and people's health from potentially catastrophic climate change impacts are finally on their way in.

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