The energy industry might be hedging its bets in a 2018 U.S. Senate race that is likely to be hotly contested.
In an analysis of campaign contributions from Jan. 1 to March 31, various direct stakeholders in America's oil, gas and coal sectors, including firms' employees or corporate political action committees, contributed $54,600 to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for his 2018 re-election bid. They also contributed $56,550 to his strongest announced challenger, Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., who announced plans to contest Manchin last week.
Along with the direct stakeholders, indirect stakeholders, including employees of law firms that practice (although not exclusively) in energy law, corporate PACs under the same or similar firms and energy consulting groups contributed $39,200 to Manchin and $8,450 to Jenkins.
All Jenkins' contributions mentioned came in before he announced his Senate run.
Unless an outside or unannounced candidate wins, some companies' PACs are guaranteed to have picked a winner, as they have contributed to both mainstream campaigns.
For instance, PACs registered under energy companies such as ExxonMobil, Honeywell, Arch Coal, General Electric, the American Petroleum Institute and Dominion Energy, along with COALPAC (tied to the National Mining Association) donated to both campaigns.
Along with the campaign contributions, Manchin and Jenkins have a vested interest in energy, as well.
According to Manchin's 2016 Senate financial disclosure forms, he owns Enersystems Inc., a coal company. His stake in the firm is valued between $500,000 and $1 million, and he earned $365,635 from it in 2016.
He also owns between $100,000 and $250,000 in accounts receivable from Farmington Resources Inc., another energy sector company, yielding him $5,000 to $15,000 in interest throughout the year, according to the same disclosure.
Jefrey Pollock, a spokesman for Manchin's campaign, said the senator votes independently of his holdings and contributions.
“Before Senator Manchin votes, he asks himself one important question: Will this help the people of the state of West Virginia? That is how he has and always will cast every vote,” Pollock said.
Pollock also noted that Manchin has had the companies in a blind trust since his days as governor.
Jenkins has personal energy interests, as well. He owns between $1,000 and $15,000 in General Electric (which has contributed to his campaign) and an amount in the same range from Franklin Natural Resources, according to his 2015 House financial disclosure forms.
He has filed for an extension on his 2016 forms.
Andy Sere, a spokesman for Jenkins' campaign, said that although Jenkins is a pro-coal candidate, his holdings in energy are fairly marginal and do not affect his policy decisions.
“Congressman Jenkins is proud to have the support of West Virginia's energy producers and others who admire his dedication to Mountain State jobs, including those in the coal, oil and gas industries,” he said. “Evan's commitment to West Virginia values and interests is the guiding force of every decision he makes in Congress.”
Although she already knew energy companies would pour money into the Senate race, Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said the doubling down is concerning.
“It's interesting that there are some common donors between the two candidates. What that tells me is that those donors, whoever wins, are still expecting to have influence in politics,” she said. “It raises the question of how that influence favors the energy sector and decisions made in their favor over other sectors of our economy, what that might mean to stifle economic diversification or economic growth in West Virginia.”
Rosser also said energy's donations are an example of such companies having too much say in legislative affairs.
“It's not surprising, it's an indication of what we've seen for many decades here in West Virginia — that the energy interests dominate our state politics and politicians. And it seems like, moving into this election, that that's still going to be the case.”
However, Chris Hamilton, senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the contributions are not an attempt to buy influence, but a show of support for two candidates who have fought for the energy industry.
“I think it's fair to say that both Senator Manchin and Congressman Jenkins have been pretty staunch advocates of your fossil fuel industries and your energy, generally,” Hamilton said. “So it would stand to reason [that] they have a lot of support from a lot of individuals looking to support their campaigns.”
Hamilton said it's not entirely fair to say the companies donated to both Senate candidates, as all reported donations occurred before Jenkins announced, when he could have been considering another run for the House of Representatives. Although Jenkins said he was “strongly considering” running for the Senate months ago, Hamilton said it would be inaccurate to say the donors saw it coming.
He said he believes the contributions are a response to stricter environmental regulations for energy companies under the Obama administration.
“The fossil industry faces unprecedented challenges,” he said. “Coal, in particular, over the last near-decade now, has been under the gun and has been trying to withstand perhaps the biggest challenge of its history, and that is against a sitting U.S. president that's using every resources he has available to him to ratchet down on the fossil fuel consumption and production. The time has come for individuals in support of the industry to really champion the issue.”
That rationale is countered, though, by calculations from an April report published by Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, which shows increased competition from natural gas contributed to 49 percent of coal's recent downturn, compared to 26 percent from decreased energy consumption, 18 percent from boosts in renewable energy, with the remainder attributed to environmental regulations and other factors.
Beyond Jenkins and Manchin, the launch of 35th PAC, a super-PAC critical of the two candidates, has ties to Republican West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, suggesting that he will enter the race, as well.
Although no fundraising data is available on Morrisey, his wife is a co-owner of Capitol Counsel, a D.C. lobbying firm that made nearly $200,000 lobbying for energy sector firms in 2017, according to data from the Senate Office of Public Records, curated by the Center for Responsive Politics and his own financial disclosure forms.
Also, Bo Copley, a laid-off coal miner who came to fame questioning Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about comments she made about the coal industry, is planning to run.
The only candidate in the race thus far without immediately apparent ties to the coal industry is Paula Jean Swearengin, who announced her candidacy last week. Her website identifies her as the daughter of a coal miner, who is pushing a renewable-energy platform.
According to Corbin Trent, communications director for Swearengin's campaign, Swearengin has raised roughly $54,000 from 2,759 donors, all but one of whom gave less than $200, meaning they do not need to disclose their employers.
Spokesmen from the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association did not respond to interview requests for this report.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.