Fossil Fuel Allies in Congress Stand With Embattled Rep. Henry Cuellar

Cuellar, who has the worst environmental voting record of any Democrat of Congress, faces a competitive primary challenge from Green New Deal-backer Jessica Cisneros.

Fossil Fuel Allies in Congress Stand With Embattled Rep. Henry Cuellar
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX)

Although the Democrats in control of Congress and the White House haven’t taken strong action to address climate change, they usually shy away from aligning themselves openly with the fossil fuel industry whose carbon emissions are the primary factor behind the crisis that threatens the future of civilization as we know it. But there is still a small contingency of the party who are proud to stand with the industry⁠—mostly representatives from heavy fossil fuel-producing states⁠—and right now one of their most senior members is at risk of being ousted by an environmentalist. 

Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, who has been dubbed “Big Oil’s Favorite Democrat,” often votes with Republicans on energy policy matters. Last year, he was one of four House Democrats to vote with all Republicans against the ESG Disclosure Simplification Act that would require publicly-traded companies to publicly disclose their climate change-related risks, including their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel-related assets, among other things. In 2019, Cuellar voted with Republicans against protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas exploration, against banning offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and against a permanent moratorium on offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is 50%, the lowest score of all Democrats in Congress and lower than several Republicans. He’s so supportive of the oil and gas industry that the American Petroleum Institute spent $1.3 million to back his 2020 election campaign through a pop-up dark money group. The oil and gas industry has given Cuellar more than $1.1 million in campaign donations since 2001, making it his top donor industry according to OpenSecrets. 

This year, Cuellar is facing a strong primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a progressive who supports strong climate action including the Green New Deal, because, her website says, “the way we address climate change needs to be as aggressive as the threat it poses.” Cuellar and Cisneros are heading to a runoff election on May 24, after neither got more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 1 primary election. Cisneros has raised more money than Cuellar, and she is benefitting from more than a million dollars of spending by outside super PACs on ads that promote her.  

The FBI raided Cuellar’s House and campaign office in January and recovered computers and personal belongings. ABC News reported that the raid was part of a federal probe into Azerbaijan and several U.S. businessmen, and it is uncertain whether Cuellar is a target in the investigation. Likely in part because of the raid, the congressman, who has been in office since 2005, has received only tepid support from his Democratic colleagues this election cycle, with just a handful of members sending him donations from their campaigns or leadership PACs. There are some exceptions, though, mainly among Democrats who share his support for the oil and gas industry. 

On March 31, Cuellar got a campaign donation of $2,500 from Country Roads PAC, the leadership committee of Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. Of all members of Congress, Manchin has received the most money this election cycle from the oil and gas industry, by far, with more than $687,000 according to OpenSecrets. Manchin, who owns a coal company, has nearly single handedly held back the Democrats’ budget reconciliation package of legislation that includes several measures to mitigate climate change and he specifically opposed a program that was in an early version of it, the Clean Energy Performance Program, that would have would have made payments to electricity companies that meet renewable energy targets and penalized those that don’t meet the targets. 

Rep. Filemon Vela, a Texas Democrat who is a founding member of the Oil and Gas Caucus in Congress, has given Cuellar a total of $6,000 this election cycle, most recently chipping in $2,000 on March 31. The purpose of the Oil and Gas Caucus is to “assure that there is support on [the Democratic] side of the aisle for the oil and gas industry,” its founder and chairman, Vincente Gonzalez (D-Texas), said in 2017. The oil and gas industry has given Vela more than $176,000 since 2011, when he first ran for office. Vela voted with Cuellar and House Republicans in 2019 against a bill to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas exploration, and against permanently extending the moratorium on offshore drilling on the Florida Gulf Coast.

The House Democrat with the fourth-worst environmental voting record according to the League of Conservation Voters, Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, donated $3,000 to Cuellar through his Three Rivers PAC in three donations last year. The oil and gas industry is Schrader’s second-largest donor industry this cycle, according to OpenSecrets, having given the congressman $79,000 since January 2021. Three Rivers PAC this cycle has received donations from fossil fuel interests including the National Propane Gas Association, Sempra Energy, Pacific Gas and Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway Energy. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also among the handful of Democrats financially supporting Cuellar this cycle. Her campaign gave Cuellar’s campaign $4,000 in November and December last year, and following the FBI raid Pelosi reconfirmed to reporters her endorsement of the congressman. “I support my incumbents. I support every one of them from right to left,” she said. House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries’ campaign also gave Cuellar $5,000 on March 31.

Besides these Democrats, two former Republican House members donated to Cuellar this year from their leftover campaign funds, both of whom raised much of their money from oil and gas interests. 

Former Texas House Republican Ted Poe gave Cuellar $4,000 through his leadership PAC, including a donation of $2,000 on March 16. Poe’s top career donor industry, according to OpenSecrets, was oil and gas, which gave him more than $523,000 over the years. During his years in Congress, Poe strongly advocated for more oil and gas drilling. “We need to be drilling anywhere there is crude oil or natural gas,” Poe said in 2008 at a Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce. “There is one exception. We won’t drill in cemeteries, but in Texas, we know how to do slant drilling.” 

Lamar Smith, another former Texas Republican, donated $4,000 to Cuellar in February 2021 and another $2,000 in March 2022. Smith was a prominent skeptic of climate science during his years in Congress, including years where he chaired the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In 2015, for example, Smith accused federal scientists of fabricating temperature data and rushing to publish a paper in Science in order to bolster President Obama’s arguments for greenhouse gas regulations. Smith’s top career donor industry, from 1989-2018, was oil and gas with more than $746,000, according to OpenSecrets. Smith is now a federal lobbyist for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank funded by oil billionaire Charles Koch, as well as by oil companies Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips. He also lobbies for anti-wind energy project group ​Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, co-chaired and funded by Bill Koch, a lesser-known Koch family member who is the founder and CEO of petroleum coke marketing company Oxbow Carbon.  

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