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Even as American Families Struggle, Oil Companies Triumph at the Pump and in Congress

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You may have thought the Democrats controlled the Senate, but it became clear after Tuesday that the oil industry is calling the shots on Capitol Hill.

The oil industry got 48 Senators, including three Democrats, to continue handing over wasteful federal subsidies for oil drilling. That means a bill to end giveaways to the five largest oil companies failed to get the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. There were some hopeful signs, though. A majority of the Senate did vote to end the federal largesse, including two Republicans, Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Still, the failure of the Senate to take this simple, common-sense step is staggering. Many Americans are paying more than $4 a gallon for gas. Our economy is still reeling from the worst recession in decades. And the federal budget is experiencing a deficit crisis of historic proportions.

Yet many lawmakers want to hand over our money to an industry in which the top five companies made $35 billion in the first quarter of this year alone. This same industry received $51 billion in federal subsidies and favorable tax treatment between 2002 and 2008, and yet still they ask for the subsidies to keep flowing.

They expect Americans to pay twice for oil profits: once at the pump and once on tax day.

The subsidies are bad enough, but the Republican leadership is also trying to hand over more federal waters to oil companies. The House recently passed a package of bills that would make offshore drilling rules weaker than they were before the BP oil disaster and mandate drilling from Maine to North Carolina, off Southern California, and in the Arctic Ocean and Bristol Bay.

The Senate is poised to consider its own version of two of these bills on Wednesday, and while the measure is unlikely to pass, far too many senators are likely to vote for it.

I got a close-up view of the oil industry's influence when I served on the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. Through months of exhaustive investigation, I saw that not only did oil companies completely outgun regulators in the field -- in terms of size, manpower, technical expertise and money -- but they also overpowered them in Washington.

The commission's report concluded that past efforts to tighten safety requirements or expand federal oversight were either "overtly resisted or not supported by industry, members of Congress, and several administrations."

It's no mystery why oil companies command so much power. They provide a resource our economy depends upon, but they also spread their money around Capitol Hill.

The industry spent more than $145 million on Washington lobbying in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That doesn't include the millions of dollars the industry spent lobbying officials in Texas, Louisiana, Alaska and other states. Nor does it include the money spent on advertising designed to influence public opinion on climate change, offshore drilling, and fuel efficiency standards for cars.

The oil industry's influence on the political process is holding America hostage. Rather than giving handouts to fabulously wealthy companies that pollute our air and endanger our coastal communities, we should be investing in the clean, 21st century technologies that will save Americans money and cut down on dangerous pollution.

This fall, for instance, President Obama is slated to release draft clean car standards. If he raises them to 60 miles per gallon by 2025, we could cut driver bills at the pump in half. With gas at $4 a gallon, a car that gets 60 mpg would save the average American $513 this summer and $8,900 over the life of the vehicle.

These new standards would also reduce our nation's oil consumption by at least 38 billion gallons and cut at least 400 million metric tons of carbon pollution by the year 2030 -- the equivalent of taking over 100 coal-fired power plants off line. These are the kinds of solutions our lawmakers should be supporting.

We shouldn't be surprised that Big Oil keeps grasping for more taxpayer money and more access to the public's natural resources: they have received so much already. But we can be disgusted with the lawmakers who continue to hand it over in a time when so many American families are struggling.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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