Big Oil and Big Guns: Not so strange bedfellows

Questions arise over why oil and gas companies are donating money to gun groups with seemingly opposing political aims

The oil and gas industry spent nearly $145 million on lobbying last year.
Eddie Seal / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series investigating the complex relationship between the oil and gas industries, major gun groups and the hunting community. The second installment can be found here. The third installment can be found here.

Oil and gas companies give hundreds of millions of dollars to political campaigns and lobbying groups to further their interests in Congress. In 2012 and 2013 oil and gas spent a combined $24 million on contributions to (mostly Republican) lawmakers in the Senate and the House. In 2013, OpenSecrets.org reported, the oil-and-gas industry spent almost $145 million on lobbying.

Oil and gas donations to advocacy groups relate to issues of oil and gas exploration on land and offshore, climate change, tax increases and approving the Keystone pipeline. But recent research by liberal groups suggests that millions of dollars have also been going to gun groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Safari Club International (SCI), for purposes that seemingly contradict the platforms those groups purport to represent.

In a report released in April, the Center for American Progress (CAP) argued that the top 20 congressional recipients of donations from the political action committee of SCI received more than $1.5 million from oil and gas during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles.

According to the report, investments in sportsmen’s associations enable energy companies to influence NRA and SCI lobbying efforts, particularly in areas such as privatizing public lands, expanding drilling activities in national forests and fighting “the nation’s most effective wildlife recovery law, the Endangered Species Act.”

Oil and gas and gun groups have overlapping interests: privatizing public lands.
David Becker / Getty Images

On some of these issues, the two groups share overlapping interests. SCI and the NRA have battled the inclusion of certain animals on the endangered species list because of the restrictions that would place on hunting those animals, as well as for the limitations it would place on the habitats where they still exist, which affects hunters’ ability to target other game.

Restrictions on any land exploration is something the oil and gas industry has long opposed, says Jessica Goad from the Center for Western Priorities, a left-leaning organization based in Denver. “We’ve seen that in their opposition to national monuments, national parks, they don’t like things being off-limits.”

But why would gun groups partner with oil and gas to privatize public land? If the oil companies win access, most of these lands might ultimately become areas of exploration for energy development and less likely places for hunting wildlife.

“The majority of oil and gas executives are Texans, so there’s the cultural affinity to start with,” says Chris Tomlinson, a columnist who writes about business, energy and economics for the Houston Chronicle. “And Texan deals don’t get done on the golf course as much as they’re done on a hunting trip, on safari or a shooting range.”

Whatever differences there may be over preserving land access for hunting alongside energy development would be overcome down the road, Tomlinson says, in pursuit of their common goal: undoing red tape to open access to federal lands.

“We’re talking about such a huge amount of space, I think the NRA and oil and gas and renewable folks can agree there’s room for everyone,” he says. “Since both are desperate to get federal lands opened up, I think they’ll figure out how to keep hunters away from oil wells later.”

Beyond the cultural affinities, however, are business ties. At least one president of an oil-and-gas company out of Houston, Ralph “Sandy” Cunningham Jr., of Eagle Ford Oil & Gas, has also served as president of SCI. Another, Archibald “Archie” Nesbitt, president and CEO of Marksmen Energy Inc., is on SCI’s board of directors.

John Green, CEO of Crossroads Strategies (a lobbying group that has represented the NRA) and self-described as active in legislative policy and politics, is a life member of SCI and a benefactor member of the NRA. C.R. Saulsbury, co-founder and manager of Perry Gas Processors, in Texas, is on the board of directors of SCI, while Richard Childress, who heads his own NASCAR team and is on the board of Growth Energy, a trade association for ethanol and renewable fuel producers, is a member of the board of directors of the NRA.

The SCI has lobbied for hunters to be able to bring ivory and other hunting trophies into the country.
Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal / AP

To some, SCI, a hunting group that largely focuses on big game, is more concerned with easing laws to allow hunters who shoot animals overseas to import their trophies — either the entire animal or parts of it, such as ivory, that are considered endangered or illegal in the U.S.

A priority of the group’s advocacy relates to engaging the U.S. government to “adopt the global definition of hunting trophy to reduce regulatory hurdles to importation.” 

In April, watchdog groups Corporate Accountability International and Gun Truth Project released a report outlining donations made by Texan millionaire and former gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams Jr. to the NRA.

Williams and his oil and gas company, Clayton Williams Energy Inc., “made $2 million in donations to charitable and 527 organizations in 2012, but did not disclose the recipients,” the report said. “In 2013, Williams and his wife Modesta were inducted into the NRA’s Golden Ring of Freedom, which is reserved for those who have donated between $1 million and $4.99 million.”

The reports of corporate donations have caught the attention of New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who wrote in April to the board of directors at Clayton Williams Energy to say he was concerned that the company was “making very large donations that further the political views of its Chairman and CEO” and demanded that the board disclose all the corporation’s political spending over the past four years.

Stringer’s office says it has yet to receive a response. 

The NRA shares an advertising firm with energy clients, according to reports.
Aaron M. Sprecher / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The NRA, which also does not publicly disclose the details of its corporate contributions, is reported to have received donations from at least six oil and gas companies totaling $1.3 million to $5.6 million in 2012, according to CAP.

Its April report also says that the NRA shares an advertising firm with several energy clients and has hired Crossroads Strategies to lobby on its behalf.

The NRA did not respond to repeated requests for comment. SCI said some of its representatives were on safari in Africa and unable to be contacted. Those in Washington DC declined to comment for this report.

Matt Lee-Ashley, the author of the CAP document, says the revolving door of lobbyists between the gun groups and energy is constant and that the motivations for cooperation between the two industries “seem to be financial and political.”

“The oil and gas industry brings big money to the table to help NRA and SCI stop gun safety efforts, and, in return, industry gets a powerful ally to battle against protections for public lands and wildlife in energy-producing regions,” Lee-Ashley says in an interview.

“For the most part, this all happens out of view of the groups’ members, in an inside-the-Beltway game of political donations, revolving doors and back-scratching. Teddy Roosevelt would be rolling over right now if he knew that the NRA and SCI were helping the oil and gas industry roll back protections for the wildlife habitat he fought so hard to protect.”

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