How money in politics may have kept dangerous chemicals secret
By Keya Vakil
September 6, 2019

Does money in politics matter? In Virginia, oil and gas companies have long been some of the biggest political donors in the state. Among the primary beneficiaries of those donations is House Speaker Kirk Cox, who has received nearly $430,000 from energy companies during his time in the House of Delegates, including $116,711 from Dominion Energy, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

Dominion has also donated another $101,000 to Cox’s Majority Leader PAC and $81,466 to the Colonial Leadership Trust PAC which Cox founded. Other Republicans, like Del. Chris Jones have also garnered Dominion donations. Jones has pocketed $242,352 from energy companies, including $41,432 from Dominion and a combined $48,000 from Dominion executives. Del. Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) has received $11,500 from the company and $3,500 from its CEO.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of General Assembly candidates in Virginia – primarily Democrats – have pledged to refuse donations from the company. Among those candidates who have taken the pledge are Sheila Bynum-Coleman, Cox’s opponent; Clint Jenkins, who is running against Jones; and Nancy Guy, who is hoping to unseat Stolle in November.

How might that money influence politicians’ votes? One bill from the 2017 session could be illustrative. Back in 2016, Virginia’s Department of Mines Minerals and Energy adopted new regulations governing oil and gas production, one of which forced companies to disclose chemicals used during the fracking process. This didn’t sit well with oil and natural gas companies, who worked with Republicans to oppose the regulation.

Del. Roxann L. Robinson (R-Chesterfield) introduced a bill to provide companies with a “trade secrets” exemption under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This bill would have exempted companies from having to disclose the exact concentrations of chemicals they used for fracking in Virginia. 

Robinson’s HB 1678 passed the House 59-37, earning votes from Republican leaders such as House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), House Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), and Del. Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).

HB 1678 was met with significant backlash from civiliansenvironmental groups, and elected officials alike, some of whom cited a 2016 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which found that some of the nearly 700 chemicals used in the fracking process were found to cause skin irritation, chemical burns, headaches and blurred vision. The report also found that “under some circumstances,” fracking impacted drinking water.

In an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Ruby Brabo, the then-Chair of the King George County Board of Supervisors, wrote that legislation like Robinson’s “would mean that companies would have the power to pick and choose which “trade secret” chemicals they would disclose and which they would keep secret from the public, regardless of risks to public health or the environment.”

Del. David Bulova (D-Fairfax) also criticized the bill, saying that disclosing the quantity of a chemical used was just as important as disclosing the chemical itself. Bulova made an analogy referencing swimming pools to get his point across. “A little bit of chlorine in that water is great,” Bulova said. “If you put in too much chlorine, that can be exceptionally dangerous.”

Despite these concerns, Cox, Jones, Stolle and nearly every other Republican in the House of Delegates voted to pass Robinson’s bill. 

HB 1678 died in the Senate, much to the dismay of the oil and gas industry, which has long flexed its muscles in Virginia and donated tens of millions of dollars to political candidates in the past two decades.

An August 2019 poll from Quinnipiac University found that 56% of registered voters in the United States believe climate change is an emergency, with those numbers surging to 84% among Democrats and 63% among independents.

In Virginia, a 71% of registered voters believe global warming is happening, 62% are worried about climate change, and 58% want local lawmakers to do more to address global warming, according to a 2018 poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Should those numbers translate into votes in November, it could spell trouble for Republicans.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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