Unmasking Dark Money: How Fossil Fuel Interests Can Undermine Clean Energy Progress

The fossil fuel industry uses anonymous "dark money" contributions to fund misinformation about clean energy and promote nonrenewable resources, influencing legislation and elections and undermining a renewable energy transition.

Say the term “dark money” and people tend to assume you’re talking about something related to conspiracy theories; it connotes a sort of sinister feeling, perhaps calling to mind other forms of shady activity. In many ways, this initial judgement is not far off from the truth. Dark money refers to political campaign donations where the source of the donation, and often the amount, is not disclosed. As OpenSecrets explains, “politically active nonprofits such as 501(c)(4)s are generally under no legal obligation to disclose their donors even if they spend to influence elections. When they choose not to reveal their sources of funding, they are considered dark money groups.”

This anonymous intervention by special interests acts to prevent politicians from being elected to pass the necessary legislation to drive significant energy reform. Through dark money donations, exceedingly wealthy stakeholders in the fossil fuel industry are able to sow wider divides around energy policy at a time when developing it is of the utmost importance.

While it is no surprise that Big Oil and Gas have been lining the pockets of politicians for decades, the past year has seen growing literature on the influence of dark money in funding misinformation about clean energy and supporting continued use of nonrenewable resources. Threatened by growing cries to reduce CO2 emissions and begin the just energy transition, fossil fuel companies have mobilized, promoting conservative political candidates and measures to de-regulate.

One such example is Ohio House Bill 507, signed by Governor Mike DeWine this December redefining green energy to include natural gas under its umbrella. “Recognizing American natural gas as a ‘green and clean’ energy source is vital” argued U.S. Representative Troy Balderson (R-Oh) in an op-ed for The Columbus Dispatch. Vital for whom is the question we should be asking.

Records unearthed by the clean energy watchdog organization Energy and Policy Institute revealed the influence of The Empowerment Alliance (TEA) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on HB 507— groups notorious for their relationships with conservative politicians and fossil fuel organizations. Within the exposed documents lie emails between TEA executives and Ohio state Senators Mark Romanchuk and George Lang, pushing the senators to support natural gas use. “I will be leaving the ALEC convention with some model legislation to define…that natural gas is clean energy” Senator Lang wrote in an email to Tom Rastin— TEA leader, major Republican donor, and executive at Ariel Corporation, the largest manufacturer of natural gas compressors in the world.

The Energy Policy Institute’s investigative journalism has also brought to light records of TEA as spending millions of dollars on ads attacking renewable energy sources. Many of these ads run through their covertly affiliated PAC the Affordable Energy Fund, deeming natural gas the only way to secure “America’s energy independence” and keep prices low. As laid out in TEA’s 2022 Plan, these ads specifically target voters in swing states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin. “Pigs will fly before wind energizes a significant portion of America” reads one Facebook ad sponsored by TEA.

Considering uncovered documents have shown top benefactors of the Affordable Energy Fund PAC to be directly involved with the dirty energy industry, such support of TEA is predictable. Amongst the PAC’s patrons are Entergy, a gas utility and member of the American Gas Association and 501(c)(4) One Ohio United who previously received donations from American Electric Power, supporter of HB 6 which acted to lower Ohio’s renewable energy standards and subsidize fossil fuels.

And Ohio is just the tip of the iceberg. There were traces of dark money donations in the tight Georgia Senate race between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker exposed this past December as well. Just a few days before the runoff, a reported $1.5 million was donated by TEA to assist the super PAC Run Herschel Run in their $11.5 million campaign to get Walker elected. Unsurprisingly, Run Herschel Run also received large donations from the owner of Texas oil company Midland Energy. Documents leaked by the Intercept disclosed the joint plan to target voters concerned about renewable energy’s impact on energy affordability to “Win Georgia for Walker and take back the Senate.” This statement indicates a larger overarching goal of the fossil fuel industry to ensure they continue to operate sans regulation through shaping the Senate.

Funneled through nonprofit organizations, wealthy special interest groups can influence the political process under full anonymity. Dark money donations not only pose a threat to those advocating heavily for renewable energy policy, but to the legitimacy of the American democratic process.

This insight is a part of our Undergraduate Seminar Fellows’ Student Blog Series. Learn more about the Undergraduate Climate and Energy Seminar.

Lotus Kaufman

Undergraduate Seminar Fellow
Lotus Kaufman is a student in the College of Arts and Sciences studying Communication and Environmental Humanities. Kaufman is also a 2023 Undergraduate Student Fellow.