The Longview Power Plant, a coal-fired plant, stands on August 21, 2018 in Maidsville, West Virginia. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Fossil Fuel-Funded Think Tank Takes Tonko to Coal Country

in Sludge
on June 17, 2021

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C. think tank that presents itself as being above the fray of petty politics and concerned instead with the very serious business of crafting policies built on “the best ideas from both parties.” It was founded in 2007 by four former Senate majority leaders who had moved into the lobbying industry and is funded by a mix of major foundations, large corporations, and wealthy individuals. 

One of its programs is the American Congressional Exchange (ACE), a series of trips for members of Congress to spend weekends, one-on-one, with members of the opposite party in their districts. The idea, as BPC explains it, is to build trust and friendship across the aisle in order to create conditions for successful bipartisan negotiations. Along the way, however, BPC connects the lawmakers who take part in the program with lobbyists and corporate representatives who have interests in matters before them. 

In May, New York Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko took an ACE trip to West Virginia to visit with Republican Rep. David McKinley. Tonko and McKinley both serve on the Energy Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Tonko is a member of the Natural Resources Committee. The trip focused on visiting energy industry sites in the district, which is home to many coal and gas companies. 

McKinley has been a strong supporter of the coal industry in Congress. In 2013, he won House passage of his bill to limit the EPA’s authority to regulate the management and disposal of coal ash, a toxic substance that causes cancer. His lifetime environmental voting record from the League of Conservation Voters is 8%.

To kick off the trip, Tonko was picked up on Capitol Hill by Jonathan Perman, a senior adviser of government affairs with lobbying firm Jascula Terman. According to the firm’s website, Perman’s expertise is working with regulated industries including energy and utilities. Jascula Terman’s websites says BP is a client. Perman also runs The Perman Group, a consultancy with clients including trade group American Fuels and Petrochemical Manufacturers and natural gas company Tenaska Energy.

Perman, along with Olympia Snowe’s former chief of staff John Richter, drove Tonko and his senior policy adviser Brendan Larkin down to West Virginia, according to a trip itinerary filed with the House Clerk.

In West Virginia, Tonko, McKinley, and their BPC guides visited several fossil fuel industry operations. 

One stop was at Blue Racer Midstream, a natural gas company that is involved in shale gas drilling and pipeline operations. 

Another stop was at rail transportation company CSX to hear about the company’s work in bulk commodity shipping. CSX operates coal trains and serves more than 100 active coal load-out sites in nine states, according to its website. 

The group also visited the site of a future ethane cracker plant, where ethane, a natural gas derivative, will be processed to create plastics products. 

Josh Jefferson, who guided the group on much of the trip, is the president of the Regional Economic Development Partnership, a trade association that promotes businesses tied to the portion of the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia. 

The Bipartisan Policy Center has been funded by the fossil fuel industry. According to annual reports, its donors have included America Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Gas Association, American Natural Gas Alliance, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Dominion Resources, Marathon Oil, and several other companies and trade groups in the sector. 

One of the ACE program’s leaders is former Republican Sen. Trent Lott, who is the co-chair of an oil industry lobbying group called Americans for Carbon Dividends that promotes the Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividend Plan to address climate change, which proposes taxing carbon emissions and giving the revenue to all Americans as dividend payments. The plan is supported by many of the same companies that fund BPC, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and ConocoPhillips. While the Baker-Shultz plan does have bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of the oil industry, some environmentalists oppose it because it is purely market-based and would not regulate emissions.

CORRECTION: This article previously stated that the Climate Leadership Council’s plan includes a proposal to shield fossil fuel companies from climate liability lawsuits. The Council eliminated that proposal from its plan in 2019.