U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose southern Texas congressional district sprawls across one of the nation’s largest potential sources of oil and natural gas, may be Big Oil’s favorite Democrat.
Four times this year, Cuellar has voted in favor of bills that environmental groups say would benefit the oil and gas industry while weakening regulations.
He also is the top Democratic recipient in Congress of oil and gas campaign contributions over the 2015-16 campaign cycle, receiving $165,305, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. Since he assumed office more than a decade ago, he’s received over triple the amount of money from the oil and gas industry that his fellow Texas Democrats in the House of Representatives have, on average.
Since 2006, in fact, the campaign donations Cuellar has received from the oil and gas industry inversely track his environmental voting record, according to a McClatchy analysis of his votes and his donations. Now, in the first few months of the Trump administration, Cuellar could become a key vote from the other side of the aisle for the GOP’s energy agenda.
“The best rationale for supporting candidates is by looking at their voting records and how they voted on our key issues,” said Jeff Eshelman, senior vice president of operations and public affairs at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a D.C.-based organization of oil and gas producers that donated $2,000 to Cuellar in 2015-16.
“Cuellar has shown a consistent understanding of our industry and the importance of American energy,” Eshelman wrote in an email. “The proof is in his voting records.”
Cuellar represents the 28th Congressional District of Texas, which covers a portion of the Eagle Ford Group, a geological formation that contains a large amount of natural gas and oil, as well as over 100 active rigs. There are around 100 active companies and lease operators at the Eagle Ford Group, according to the Eagle Ford Shale website — and 11 of them donated to Cuellar in the 2015-16 cycle, with many providing his largest donations.
Cuellar declined to participate in a phone interview for this story, but he defended his voting record in a written statement, saying, “ I vote to represent my district – not any particular political party, industry or ideology.”
“I’ve also never allowed any contribution to influence a vote. I take each bill on its merits and make decisions case-by-case,” Cuellar wrote. “ . . . Oil and gas is part of the culture and the history of Texas. The millions paid in taxes by energy companies each year fund our local schools and keep property taxes low. Generations of families have found well-paying jobs supplying energy that powers our nation and our economy.”
Cuellar has received an average of $90,305 from the oil and gas industry for each two-year campaign finance cycle since 2005, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. That far exceeds the roughly $26,000 other Texas Democrats in the House have averaged from the 2005-06 cycle on.
The Texas Republican House delegation has a combined average of $101,305 from the oil and gas industry using the same metrics and time frame; Cuellar has a higher industry donation average than 15 of those 25 Republicans when calculated individually.
For Luke Metzger, founding director of Environment Texas, Cuellar’s environmental voting record has long been a point of contention.
“I can’t count how many press releases I have released about a vote in the House where I have said, ‘We are disappointed by the entire (Texas) Republican congressional delegation and Cuellar,’ ” Metzger said in an interview. “ . . . It’s pretty clear that the oil companies reward the members that vote with them, and that has been the case with Cuellar, who continually sides with them; they definitely get their money’s worth by funding him.”
Throughout the House, Cuellar was the lone Democrat to co-sponsor — and one of only three to vote for — the HONEST Act this year. The bill would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from using scientific studies to propose rules and regulations unless the data is publicly available and replicable.
It passed the House in March by 228-194, on mostly partisan lines.
David Jenkins, president of Conservatives for Responsible Stewardship, a national nonprofit group that aims to prove “environmental stewardship and conservation are inherently conservative,” said he opposed the bill because many scientific studies took a long time to complete or contained private medical information.
“What is the outcome? That someone will replicate a 10-year study before we can do anything?” Jenkins said. “It seems like it is more designed to impede the use of science, and in our view, impeding the use of science is impeding the use of facts.”
But Daren Bakst, a research fellow from the D.C.-based conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, said the HONEST Act was necessary to strengthen public trust in the EPA.
“It is important to figure out how the findings were achieved,” he said. “That way, you can have faith in what is actually supporting the policy decisions the EPA is coming up with.”
Cuellar was the sole House Texas Democrat to vote this year for the “Searching for and Cutting Regulations That Are Unnecessarily Burdensome Act” — which would establish a commission to help Congress identify “excessively burdensome” regulations for elimination. He was also the lone House Texas Democrat to vote this year in favor of a resolution that would undo the Bureau of Land Management’s methane waste prevention rule and another that would nullify the Obama administration’s Stream Protection Rule, which sought to reduce water contamination from coal mining.
All three, like the HONEST Act, passed the House largely on partisan lines, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats opposed.
Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, said her organization — which ranked Cuellar as the third-lowest Democrat in terms of environmental voting record last year — opposed those bills because they “put a thumb on the scale for industry.”
“That’s what this whole anti-regulatory movement is about,” Foote said. “They’ll call it regulatory reform, but it’s not any reform. It’s anti-regulation and getting rid of safeguards.”
There also appears to be a strong relationship between Cuellar’s voting record and his score from the League of Conservation Voters, a left-leaning environmental advocacy group that rates legislators on their environmental voting records.
In the 2005-06 campaign finance cycle, Cuellar received $75,950 from the oil and gas industry and earned an average two-year rating of 20.5 out of 100.
In the next two cycles — 2007-08 and 2009-10 — his contributions fell to just over $37,000; his two-year League of Conservation Voters rating average rose to 71 and 85 during those cycles.
Oil and gas industry donations sharply rose in his final three campaign finance cycles, peaking at $165,305 in 2015-16. His score from the League of Conservation Voters consistently fell as the money rose, with his average rating from 2015-16 ending at 26.
Cuellar did, however, join Democratic Party ranks in voting against the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017, another bill that many in the scientific community oppose. It would bar scientists currently receiving EPA grants from joining the agency’s Science Advisory Board but would allow people from industries that have incentives to weaken regulations to serve if they disclose any potential conflicts of interest.
Cuellar views his voting record as a balancing act.
“I believe in protecting our environment, and my record reflects that,” he wrote in his statement. “I’ve consistently supported funding for clean drinking water and sewage treatment programs on the border, for example. I strive to strike the balance that protects our environment, and grows our economy, based on the needs of my district.”
Metzger pushed back against the idea that Cuellar’s voting record is due simply to financial interests in his district.
He pointed to other House Texas Democrats such as Reps. Filemon Vela Jr., with an average oil and gas industry contribution of $32,250, and Vicente González, who received just $1,000 from the industry during his first campaign finance cycle. Both represent districts with industry interests, Metzger said, but maintain high ratings for their environmental voting records.
“It's not that he’s representing his district, because other Democrats represent their district but vote for public health,” he said. “The oil and gas industry makes an investment in Cuellar because he’s helping them out.”