NC senator who champions fossil fuels happened to get industry money for 20 years

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr speaks at the Kannapolis Rotary Club in Kannapolis, N.C., on April 7, 2015.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr speaks at the Kannapolis Rotary Club in Kannapolis, N.C., on April 7, 2015. The Charlotte Observer

With checkbooks in hand, executives from the embattled coal mining industry converged last year on the remote Olde Farm Golf Club near southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Unlike in 2010, when golf legends Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player played the elite course in Bristol, Virginia, to raise money for homeless kids, the beneficiaries of the gathering on June 10, 2015, were two political allies of the coal industry: Republican Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania.

The joint fundraising effort, which had begun weeks earlier, netted each senator’s campaign $73,750, at least $63,000 of it from coal industry political action committees, executives and their family members.

It’s little wonder. The National Mining Association, which calls itself “the official voice of U.S. mining,” says Burr sided with its positions on every one of 18 key votes it has tracked during this congressional session.

For Burr, a onetime landscaping equipment salesman who has made an improbable rise to the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the cash infusion was another testament to his longtime financial ties to major energy industries.

In votes over most of his nearly 22 years in Congress, Sen. Richard Burr has stood by the companies that mine and burn fossil fuels, even in the face of President Barack Obama’s “war on coal” – an initiative aimed at slashing carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants to combat global warming.

In votes over most of his nearly 22 years in Congress, Burr has stood by the companies that mine and burn fossil fuels, even in the face of what critics call President Barack Obama’s “war on coal” – an initiative aimed at slashing carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants to combat global warming.

The coal, oil and natural gas industries, along with executives and lobbyists for electric utilities and nuclear power companies that Burr also has supported, have rewarded him with nearly $1.7 million in campaign donations since he first won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1994, according to a McClatchy analysis of data from the Federal Election Commission, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and the watchdog group Oil Change International.

That breaks down to $157,551 from the coal-mining industry, $712,852 from oil and gas interests and $815,277 from electric utilities, including Duke Energy and nuclear power companies.

Sen. Richard Burr's campaign donations from energy and tobacco companies' employees and political action committees since his election to Congress in 1994.

Burr declined to be interviewed for this story.

In the past, he has said that financial support from business interests hasn’t compromised his independence – not while he raised $8.3 million through June 30 toward this year’s race against Democrat Deborah Ross, nor as his campaigns amassed more than $34 million over his congressional career.

“Sen. Burr evaluates all legislation and policy positions on their merits,” said his spokeswoman, Becca Glover Watkins. “Of course, outside groups never dictate his votes or positions.”

Decisions about energy policy can have a major impact in Burr’s home state of North Carolina. It’s not only home to Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electricity provider, but it also has been a setting for nearly every other type of energy production, including wind, solar and most recently biomass that converts hog farm waste into fuel.

Critics say Burr’s receipt of campaign cash and free travel, as well as his relationships with lobbyists, has created at least an appearance that he has gotten too cozy with big energy companies.

Sen. Burr evaluates all legislation and policy positions on their merits. Of course, outside groups never dictate his votes or positions.

Burr spokeswoman Becca Glover Watkins

During a hiatus from serving on Burr’s Senate staff, Christopher Joyner worked from 2006 to 2008 for the oil industry’s lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute. Joyner returned to Capitol Hill in 2009 as Burr’s chief of staff and now serves as the Intelligence Committee’s majority chief of staff.

Brian Vanderbloemen, a legislative aide to Burr from 2001 to 2006, has since lobbied for onetime coal industry behemoth Alpha Natural Resources, Duke Energy and two other electric utilities, Dominion Resources and the Southern Co.

Watkins declined to say whether Joyner or Vanderbloemen lobbied or arranged meetings with their former boss.

Earlier in his career, as a House member, Burr accepted two expense-paid trips from the nuclear industry’s lobbying operation, the Nuclear Energy Institute. In 2001, the institute paid more than $18,400 to host Burr and his wife, Brooke, for eight days in Paris and Marseille while he toured French nuclear power plants. The next year, the group spent nearly $17,000 hosting the Burrs for five days in Barcelona and Seville, Spain, on a similar “fact-finding” trip.

There has been no indication that Burr or his staff violated Senate ethics rules or illegally traded legislative actions for financial backing.

“It could well be that Richard Burr just believes in the energy industry,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

But, he said, Burr “is now wed to the energy industry with that kind of money. He’s their champion.”

Holman said coal, oil, gas and nuclear interests “have made sure that he is going to feel obligated.”

A Senate aide to Burr said he had embraced an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, supporting fuel sources ranging from coal-fired power plants to solar energy, because it was crucial that Congress ensured a reliable supply of energy to all Americans.

Decisions about energy policy can have a major impact in Sen. Richard Burr’s home state of North Carolina. It’s not only home to Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electricity provider, but it also has been a setting for nearly every other type of energy production, including wind, solar and most recently biomass that converts hog farm waste into fuel.

“Sen. Burr has supported, through tax policy, energy policy, the ability of U.S. companies and citizens in the United States to take advantage of the natural resources that we have here,” said the aide, who was made available on the condition he remain anonymous, per office policy.

The aide noted that the solar industry employs 6,000 North Carolinians. The state ranks second in the nation in installed solar power capacity, based on an analysis by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Burr has parted at times from the agendas of energy industries, for example conditioning his support for offshore oil drilling and shifting his legislative emphasis in recent years to promote the use of natural gas, a cleaner-burning fuel, over highly polluting diesel in vehicles.

His financial support from energy industries is one manifestation of a campaign fundraising apparatus that has drawn an unusually large proportion of donations from business interests and wealthy people. From Jan. 1, 2011, through June 30, 2016, all but $282,526, or 3.4 percent, of the $8.3 million in contributions to Burr’s re-election campaign came from large donors – those giving at least $200.

Among employers, Reynolds American Inc., the tobacco giant headquartered in Burr’s hometown of Winston-Salem, accounted for the most donations to the senator. Burr has been a frequent ally, lining up with Reynolds in 2009 in a failed effort to block legislation authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco. Reynolds employees, lobbyists and political action committee have given Burr nearly $89,000.

Western Michigan billionaire Richard Devos, founder of the multilevel marketing firm Amway, and his family contributed $37,800, a similar amount to what they’ve donated to several other politically endangered Republican senators.

Burr’s donations from energy interests illustrate how industry-friendly policies can be a rainmaker for cash-thirsty re-election campaigns.

Clashing endorsements

No threat to the coal mining industry looms larger than global warming, which is widely blamed on a buildup of greenhouse gases high in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide emanating from coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration has sought to address climate change with a series of rules to compel states and electric utilities to phase out their dirtiest coal-burning power plants, a transition that Duke Energy has already begun in North Carolina, converting six of its 12 coal-fired plants to run on cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas.

The plummeting demand for coal has sent at least half a dozen coal-mining companies nose-diving into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, recently wrote that “the federal government has never had its boot on our throat like it has the past seven and a half years.”

Facing this predicament, coal company executives coordinated fundraisers for their congressional allies, including the June 2015 event for Burr and Toomey in Bristol, home at the time to coal industry giant Alpha Natural Resources. It, too, would soon land in bankruptcy court.

$88,000 The amount donated by coal industry executives, family members, PACs and lobbyists to Burr’s re-election campaign since last year

Burr is an avid golfer. His campaign declined, however, to say whether he or Toomey had golfed with donors on the Olde Farm course or to comment on Burr’s fundraising.

North Carolina has no active coal mines, but coal industry executives from as far away as Alabama, their family members, PACs and lobbyists have donated more than $88,000 to Burr’s campaign since last year.

Yet in addition to an endorsement from the National Mining Association, Burr also has won the endorsement of a super PAC focused on slowing planetary warming. The fund, ClearPath Action Inc., which is bankrolled by Charlotte business magnate Jay Faison, is offering to spend tens of millions of dollars to back Republicans who join efforts to fight climate change and has committed nearly a half-million dollars for internet ads supporting the re-election of Faison’s home-state senator.

In two Senate floor votes in January 2015, Burr appeared to signal uncertainty or skepticism about global warming. He voted for a resolution saying the Senate considers climate change to be real. Then he voted against a Democratic resolution stating that humans are significant contributors.

Watkins, Burr’s spokeswoman, said the senator believed “humans do contribute to some changes” in climate patterns but he objected to “partisan political theater” such as the Senate resolutions and favored “developing consensus on areas that will bring about effectual change.”

Burr’s “continued support for alternative energies like solar, natural gas and fuel cells underscores his belief that good stewardship of the environment and the development of new technologies together can reduce both carbon and particulate emissions,” Watkins said.

However, he has persistently voted for legislation to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating power plants’ emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

In 2011, he voted for legislation aimed at blocking the agency from compelling 27 states to curtail coal-fired power plants’ emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen blamed for acid rain and smog in states downwind of the plants. Also that year, he introduced a bill to combine the Department of Energy and the EPA to “reduce duplicative and wasteful functions” – an idea that two former EPA chiefs who served under Republican presidents were quoted at the time as criticizing on grounds it could undermine regulation of air and water quality standards.

Last year, he voted twice in favor of amendments that would have stymied the EPA from enforcing its newly announced Clean Power Plan, which would impose the first-ever limits on power plants’ carbon emissions and require states to cut those releases by 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

Ironically, Burr based his opposition on a North Carolina law, the Clean Smokestacks Act of 2002, that was enacted by a Democrat-dominated state Legislature to cut releases of toxic particulates from coal-fired power plants. The law got Duke Energy and the state’s other power company, Progress Energy (now owned by Duke), off to an early start in phasing out their use of coal.

The Burr aide said the law had reduced the state’s carbon emissions to 19 percent below 2005 levels, giving North Carolina the cleanest fleet of coal plants in the nation.

The senator contends the EPA ignored this progress in requiring an additional 36 percent reduction in carbon emissions, a “top-down mandate” that would be difficult to achieve and would drive up electricity bills, the aide said.

The EPA, whose program faces a stiff legal challenge before a federal appeals court, said in a statement to McClatchy that the plan was fair and afforded each state flexibility to design a program reflecting its circumstances. Citing North Carolina’s “significant renewable energy potential and natural gas facilities under construction,” the agency said, the state “is well positioned to meet the goals EPA outlined” and to be a Southeast regional leader in clean energy production.

Backed offshore drilling

Burr has long lined up with the oil, natural gas and nuclear power industries.

He was a staunch backer of the Keystone XL Pipeline, an ill-fated proposed project to carry crude oil in an enlarged pipe from Canadian oil sands in Alberta to the Gulf Coast. After the Obama administration blocked the project on environmental grounds, Congress authorized it anyway but lacked enough votes to override the president’s veto.

Burr also signed on to an amendment proposed by his North Carolina Republican colleague, Sen. Thom Tillis, that would have permitted offshore oil drilling from Florida to Delaware, with affected states sharing half of any leasing revenues. Burr’s aide said the measure would have forbidden drilling within 30 miles of the shoreline and that Burr had declined to sign on to proposals that would allow drilling from nonpermanent oil rigs within 3 to 30 miles of North Carolina’s coast.

$50,250 How much oil industry PACs have donated to Burr’s 2016 re-election campaign

As the vice chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2001, Burr was solid in his support of nuclear power.

He repeatedly co-sponsored, until it passed Congress, legislation limiting to an inflation-adjusted $13.6 billion a nuclear utility’s liability in the event of a disaster like the reactor meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant nearly 40 years ago.

In 2002, Burr co-sponsored legislation that designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as a permanent repository for the industry’s deadly spent nuclear fuel – a plan that stalled when Congress cut off funding for the project in 2011.

Despite the lack of a waste repository, Burr has favored licensing new nuclear power plants. All three of Duke Energy’s North Carolina nuclear plants – on Lake Norman north of Charlotte, outside Raleigh and along the state’s southern coast – will end their useful lives in the next 20 years.

As for the senator’s openness to renewable energy technologies, those firms haven’t left him empty-handed.

The solar power industry has donated at least $20,750 to his campaign. Executives and lobbyists for the California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which is expanding a nationwide system for refueling natural gas-powered vehicles, have given the campaign $28,950.

Greg Gordon: 202-383-6152, @greggordon2