Since January 2000, the oil and gas industry has spent $393,952 to transport and entertain members and staff of Congress's energy committees and top Energy Department officials in places such as Vail, Colo., London and Hong Kong.
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of trips by congressional and executive branch officials showed that those officials regularly spend time in some of world's most desirable destinations—at industry expense and as a captive audience for industry lobbyists.
The 191 industry-paid trips were divided almost equally among the Energy Department, the House and the Senate.
The champion frequent flyer was former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Frank H. Murkowski. The Alaska Republican and his personal and committee staff racked up $47,753 in oil industry-funded travel to locations that included Scottsdale, Ariz., Madrid, Spain, and Hong Kong.
Murkowski achieved first place despite leaving the Senate to become governor of Alaska in late 2002.
Next on the list came former House Commerce and Energy Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R.-La., ($31,961), Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., ($28,878) and Rep. Barbara Cubin, R-Wyo., ($11,974).
While the largesse is heavily slanted to the GOP, the oil industry did sponsor trips on both sides of the aisle. The Democrats who with their staffs were the biggest recipients of oil trips were: Sen. John Breaux, La., ($11,777), Sen. Tim Johnson, S.D., ($10,456) and Rep. John Dingell, Mich. ($9,750).
Some of the sponsors of the travel are household names such as BP plc. ($11,424), but many of the trips were paid for by much more unfamiliar entities such as the United States Energy Association* ($64,871), the Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc. ($36,469), and Moscow International Petroleum Club ($26,651).
Although the names of these organizations may be unknown, those they represent are not. For example, the United States Energy Association counts amongst it members ConocoPhillips, Constellation Energy Group and ChevronTexaco.
The Resource Development Council was founded in 1975 to lobby for what became the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. Its membership includes "businesses and individuals from all resource sectors, business associations, labor unions, Native corporations and local governments."
In that context, it hardly seems odd that in December 2002, the Club flew two staffers from the office of Sen. Conrad Burns, R.-Mont., to Moscow. The seven day trip was reported as an effort "to promote bilateral oil interests."
Burns spokeswoman Jennifer O'Shea, citing the importance of Russian and Caspian Sea region oil in reducing U.S. dependence on the Middle East, said the two staffers joined Burns at the Club's oil summit during a congressional delegation to Moscow, where Burns gave a speech.
"This trip was valid in terms of both Montana interests and national issues, and for those reasons Senator Burns and two staff members traveled to meet and work with officials concerning the oil and gas industry. We have a strict office policy regarding travel, and Sen. Burns himself signs off on every trip that is taken," O'Shea said in an e-mail.
The Club picked up $10,938 in transportation expenses, $1,600 for food and lodging and $14,113 for unspecified "other" expenses.
In February 2001, the Independent Petroleum Association of America spent $2,906 to fly Breaux to their annual "Wildcatters Ball," where he served as the keynote speaker and was given an award and toasted for his diligent efforts on behalf of the industry.
In March 2003, Citgo Petroleum Corporation flew Rep. John Sullivan, R-Okla., to Dallas to meet with company officials "about Citgo staying in Tulsa," according to a travel disclosure document obtained by the Center.
The one-day trip just happened to fall on the day that Citgo-sponsored racer Jeff Burton competed in the Samsung/RadioShack 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway. Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., picked up the tab for Sullivan's flight, food and a ticket to watch the big race.
The trip came just days before Sullivan voted with his party to pass the Bush administration's industry-friendly energy policy.
Sullivan's chief of staff said the congressman gives serious scrutiny to any proposed outside travel, generally rejecting trips paid for by those who are not constituents and not relevant to his district. She said Sullivan, like other members, has a policy of paying particular attention to travel requests.
"We don't have a written one (policy)," said Elizabeth Bartheld. "I don't and he doesn't approve of company XYZ taking you to Timbuktu."
For an issue as seemingly important as keeping Citgo in Tulsa, it garnered no mention amongst Sullivan's press releases. Other press releases announced a similar trip to Dallas to meet with American Airlines officials in April 2003 and a February 2003 trip to help dedicate a conservation easement.
At the time, Bartheld said, the possible move was a rumor that Sullivan — elected in 2002—wanted to investigate.
"They had a (NASCAR) car…and I think they were just trying to show it off and get to know us," she said.
Citgo eventually decided to move the majority of its Tulsa workforce to Houston, but consideration of those plans were not made public until August 2003.
Through a spokeswoman, Sen. Johnson also defended his industry-paid travel.
"The total dollar figure calculated by the Center for Public Integrity includes a trip to Pakistan by Sen. Johnson and his then-legislative director to visit American-owned businesses operating in Pakistan and public officials," said spokeswoman Julianne Fisher. "The far majority of the total is reflective of the airfare cost to Pakistan. All travel conducted by Senator Johnson and his staff is done so as official business and is cleared by the appropriate Senate entities where needed."
Governmental ethics watchdogs say such trips are troubling, even if they appear legitimate. "The question is why isn't Congress paying this," said Bob Stern from the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies. "I actually think it's very important that Congress and Congressional staffers attend industry events."
* The United States Energy Association is an industry group, but the travel in question was funded through a U.S. Agency for International Development grant to the group to run programs promoting cooperation between energy regulators in the U.S. and developing nations. A spokesman for the group said that it engages in no lobbying.