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Lobbyists cash-in on COVID

New registrations show polluter spending bonanza

by Lukas Ross, senior policy analyst

As the United States continues to lead the world in both coronavirus infections and deaths, some of the biggest lobbying firms in the country are seeing a spike in business. Their new clients? The oil, gas and plastics industries, looking to exploit the crisis for bailouts and other giveaways.

A review of new lobbying registrations filed since February 2020 indicates that polluters are preparing to further exploit the crisis of COVID-19. These filings show that the oil, gas and plastics industries have hired new lobbyists specifically to manipulate the policy responses to the coronavirus, including the spending of scarce stimulus dollars.

The relevant piece of paperwork is called an LD-1, which is a required filing when a federal lobbyist begins work on behalf of a new client. Although a somewhat clearer picture of coronavirus-related lobbying will appear when the Q1 disclosure filings for activities through March 31, 2020 due today are posted online, the new registrations released in recent weeks give an early picture of the companies and trade associations acting with the most speed to exploit the crisis.

The highlights of the new LD-1s include:

Prominent fracking company Range Resources has acquired the services of FTI Consulting. As of April 8, 2020, FTI has been lobbying on behalf of Range Resources specifically around issues of, “Economic Stimulus Package assistance relating to the COVID-19 crisis.”

The fact that Range Resources is seeking stimulus aid is not surprising. Between 2017 and 2019, the company reported nearly half a billion in negative free cash flow and it has $566 million in Total Current Liabilities due in the next year. The major ratings agencies have noticed the company’s plight and downgraded its debt accordingly. On March 31, 2020 S&P reduced its issuer credit rating to B with a negative outlook. Two days later on April 2, 2020, Moody’s followed suit and downgraded Range to B2, also with a negative outlook.

As Friends of the Earth noted in a recent analysis, fracking companies with credit ratings this low are ineligible for a major new corporate debt purchasing program being implemented with stimulus money. However, the standards for the program have already been relaxed considerably from their original design and there is nothing stopping them from being lowered further.

The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a trade group representing the likes of ExxonMobil, Shell and many others, has acquired the services of Big Sky Bluewater Strategies. As of 1 April 2019, Big Sky has been lobbying for the trade association around “economic incentives for offshore energy production in Gulf of Mexico.”

Although there is no mention of COVID-19 in the initial registration, the trade association has made no secret of exactly which “economic incentives” it is seeking, and has publicly called for “suspending or reducing” royalties — the share of payments due to taxpayers for resources extracted from public lands and waters. Indeed, the lobbying may have already begun to work, since Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist himself, has confirmed that at least one company has already applied for royalty relief in the Gulf of Mexico.

At least two major plastic or plastic-related trade associations have purchased additional lobbying help. On April 8, 2020, the Vogel Group officially registered itself on behalf of the ​National Waste & Recycling Association, specifically to lobby on “issues relating to COVID-19 response in the waste and recycling industry.” Slightly before the crisis was headline news, the Association of Plastic Recyclers hired Bracelwell LLP on March 1, 2020, with “COVID-19 response,” specifically listed on the form.

The timing of two additional registrations are of interest, despite the fact that neither filing mentions the coronavirus explicitly. On April 1, 2020, Serlin Haley LLP officially began work on behalf of the American Institute for Packaging and the Environmental (AMERIPEN), a trade association that represents plastic manufacturers like Dow and food processors like Nestle. Back in February, weeks after the first coronavirus case was reported in the US, the Plastics Industry Association hired Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber and Schreck. One of the lobbyists listed on this account is Nadeam Elshami, former Chief of Staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

This flurry of lobbying comes as Big Plastic seeks to use the coronavirus to restore its badly damaged brand. The industry has wasted no time pushing dubious science to claim that reusable bags are less sanitary than single-use plastics — and a number of states like New York and Massachusetts have already delayed or suspended bag bans. This influence-peddling is matched on the federal level and includes a letter from the Plastics Industry Association to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, calling on him to make a public statement supporting their scientifically questionable claim that single-use plastics are safer.

It is sad but not surprising that polluters are willing to spend big to distort the direction of coronavirus aid. Instead of listening to influence-peddlers on K Street, Congress should heed the demands from across the country for hazard pay, a rent and mortgage holiday, a moratorium on utility shut-offs, and protective gear for first responders. Big Oil doesn’t need a bailout. Workers and communities on the frontlines of the crisis do.

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