THE BLOG
04/11/2016 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

IOGCC: The Most Powerful Oil and Gas Lobby You've Never Heard Of

Cross-Posted from DeSmogBlog

The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) is far from a household name, but a new investigation published by InsideClimate News' Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Lisa Song may have just put what is likely the most powerful oil and gas lobbying node you've never heard of on the map.

Image Credit: Google Maps

Titled, "Is the IOGCC, Created by Congress in 1935, Now a Secret Oil and Gas Lobby?," the article's origins lay in the hundreds of documents obtained from open records requests and historical archives by me and Jesse Coleman, a researcher at Greenpeace USA, that are part of an ongoing investigation into IOGCC.

Song's article for the award-winning InsideClimate News reveals documents that show for the first time that it was IOGCC at the front and center, and not just Halliburton, which created what many now know as the Halliburton Loophole.

That regulatory loophole exempts the oil and gas industry from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act as applied to hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and is seen as what opened the Pandora's Box for industrial high volume slickwater horizontal drilling in the United States. 

But before getting too far into the weeds of IOGCC's deeds, what exactly is it?

Simply put, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission is a quasi-governmental organization founded and headquartered in Oklahoma City and located on property adjacent to the Governor's Mansion and on Oklahoma state property given to the organization via a land deed.

IOGCC exists due to a 1935 act of Congress that allowed the oil-producing states to compact together, under authority of the U.S. Constitution, in an effort to conserve oil and limit what were then wasteful production practices.

All of the oil and gas producing states of the United States are dues-paying members, with dues paid based on production stats: the more you produce, the more money that goes into the pot. IOGCC"s official members, gubernatorial appointees of each respective member state, are generally the top oil and gas regulators of each state. Caveat: sometimes Governors pick lobbyists or industry attorneys instead.

Beyond official IOGCC state representatives, Governors can and often do also pick at-large IOGCC members. IOGCC has hundreds of those and many work for the oil and gas industry.

Image Credit: InsideClimate News

IOGCC does not file U.S. Internal Revenue Service 990 reports and does not post its budget online, so its budget details remain murky. Technically, IOGCC is not industry-funded (if you don't count the fact it's entirely funded by drilling productivity), but it's twice-annual conferences are also industry-funded and that's where a lot of the real action happens, including passage of IOGCC model resolutions.

And that action, from 1999 through 2005 as told in Song's story, included pushing for what it called a "simple fix" in a September 2005 newsletter of something it saw as broken: the pesky Safe Drinking Water Act getting in the way of fracking in the United States.

IOGCC's anti-Safe Drinking Water Act activity continued into 2009, when it beat back against the advocacy group and congressional push to close the loophole through the FRAC Act of 2009. That year, IOGCC proudly demonstrated in its own legislative tracking document, that its model resolution to maintain the regulatory exemption status quo passed in nine states.

InsideClimate News created a graphic that shows that, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), these bills were passed as law in a nearly copy-paste manner in those statehouses. In fact, ALEC liked the resolution so much that it adopted it as one of its own.

Image Credit: InsideClimate News

Is IOGCC Lobbying?

While the InsideClimate News article mostly centers around IOGCC's anti-Safe Drinking Water Act advocacy, numerous other examples exist -- several of them touched upon within InsideClimate's piece -- of IOGCC working to derail federal regulatory safeguards on the most pressing oil and gas-related issues of the day.

The stories of those efforts, the names of the people who made it happen, and the victims of those efforts will receive space here soon on DeSmog.

It is fairly safe to say -- based on the thousands of historical documents, court documents, documents obtained from interlibrary loan and documents obtained and reviewed from public records requests -- that IOGCC has sat at the epicenter of the oil and gas industry's battle against the myriad U.S. environmental laws passed in the 1970s.  

The facts raise a simple question: is it lobbying? IOGCC told InsideClimate News it doesn't think so.

"IOGCC does not lobby," IOGCC spokeswoman Carol Booth told InsideClimate. "It does inform and educate state regulators, federal officials, policymakers and the public at large."

IOGCC's former Washington, D.C. representative (read: lobbyist) Kevin Bliss, a former industry attorney who worked at USAID and the U.S. Department of Energy before landing the gig at IOGCC, claimed to Song that by definition IOGCC cannot lobby. Bliss, in the 2005 IOGCC newsletter published by InsideClimate News first discovered by DeSmog, gets credit along with a few others for working on the IOGCC subcommittee that inserted the Safe Drinking Water Act loophole into the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

"States don't lobby," Bliss told Song. "We were just communicating, state government to federal government."

According to lobbying disclosure records, some IOGCC member states -- including California, Oklahoma, Utah and North Dakota -- register to lobby the federal government on other issues.

And what about all of the IOGCC industry members and representatives, Song asked Bliss, are those the "states" too? 

"As far as I was ever concerned, the only people I ever paid attention to were the state oil and gas regulators," Bliss answered. "Those were the ones that carried the punch."

Yet IOGCC's own newsletter boasts that Bliss pushed alongside fellow subcommittee member and industry attorney and executive Michael Linn, founder of Linn Energy, to get the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption placed into the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

DOJ Weighs In

The U.S. Department of Justice didn't agree with IOGCC's assessment of its activities, according to historical documents cited in the InsideClimate piece and originally tracked down by DeSmog. Those documents center around a 1978 congressional testimony given by then-DOJ antitrust attorney Donald Flexner, now the namesake partner of the powerful law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner.

In short, Flexner stated that IOGCC was no longer living up to the spirit of the original mission of its compact -- conserving oil and gas -- and should not receive congressional blessing to exist as a lobbyist organization.

As history would prove, Congress itself did not care quite as much about this notion, and the DOJ has done nothing by way of actual enforcement or legal accountability to date as it relates to IOGCC. DeSmog has dozens more documents pertaining to this historical episode, with obvious contemporary relevance, and they will be the focus of future articles on DeSmog. 

Climate Denial

InsideClimate News also got IOGCC on the record to convey its organizational position on climate change, with spokeswoman Carol Booth claiming IOGCC does not have a stance on the issue. 

"We're not scientists," IOGCC's Carol Booth told Song, with Song pointing out that this talking point has become commonplace among GOP politicians asked about whether they think climate change exists and is caused by humans. "[A]nd we cannot comment on things we don't know."

DeSmog also got IOGCC on the record on climate change back in October, when IOGCC executive director Carl Michael Smith wrote us a letter in response to questions sent through email. As with InsideClimate News, IOGCC claimed not to have a stance on the issue.

Booth also claimed to Song that IOGCC had no stance on the issue of methane emissions, fracking and its relationship to climate change. Well, that's not quite true.

At IOGCC's 2015 annual meeting in Oklahoma City, we obtained a copy of a proposed model resolution dictating that states, and not the federal government, should regulate methane emitted from oil and gas exploration and production.

And IOGCC, as a subsequent article will show, definitely has taken positions on climate change before too. More on that later.

Have Cake, Eat Too

IOGCC also claims an exemption from open records law and, at some point in the past decade, eliminated a provision within its by-laws that formerly said its records are open to the public.

It is not a state, it says in denying requests, and it is also not a federal agency even though it often describes itself as an agency in its own materials and is described as such by the Oklahoma government's websiteIOGCC even utilizes Oklahoma government email addresses and a Oklahoma web domain platform www.iogcc.state.ok.us/.

And as a compact, according to its top brass, IOGCC does not have to register to lobby either. That's the case even though other compacts like the Interstate Mining Compact Commission have in the past registered to lobby the federal governmentIOGCC's Carl Michael Smith formerly served as Oklahoma's state representative to the Mining Compact.

So what gives?

"To what degree is this entity having its cake and eating it too?" Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, asked hypothetically in a quote given to InsideClimate News. "Then to whom is it accountable, and to what degree is there transparency?"

As our investigation has shown so far, the paper trail certainly exists and is thick in the way of transparency. But relatively little of it has come directly from the IOGCC itself. 

"This [IOGCC] is an agency that merits further scrutiny," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen in the closing sentence of the InsideClimate story.

Stay tuned to DeSmog for much more IOGCC scrutiny in the days and weeks to come.