Wielding Power: Lessons from Oil and Gas for the Outdoor Recreation and Conservation Coalition

John Northington

Seasoned energy industry veteran John Northington gave the following presentation on November 2 at SHIFT. It has been edited so that we may present it here as an essay.


The title of this essay is “Wielding Power: Lessons from Oil and Gas for the Outdoor Recreation and Conservation Coalition.” But before I start telling you how outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists can crib from the energy industry’s wildly successful lobbying playbook, I would first like to tell you about my background to give you some perspective on where I’m coming from.

I’m a fifth-generation Texan and the fourth generation of my family to be involved in some aspect of the oil and gas business. I was raised in West Texas in a town called Midland. Midland, as many of you may know, is the business hub of the Permian Basin, which is now the largest oil producing region in the United States. For those of you less versed in the ins and outs of the oil and gas business, Midland is also known as the one-time adopted hometown of both Bush 41 and 43 and for being featured in Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights book and movie as the arch-rival city of Odessa’s Permian Panthers. I played at Midland High and my only football claim to fame is that I caught a touchdown pass against Permian. It was the only touchdown we scored against Permian. We got whipped 35-7!

After going to college in Virginia, I moved back to Midland in the early 1980s to work as a landman, whose job is essentially to secure drilling rights for various companies from mineral owners.

Since I was a young kid, I always had a strong interest in politics, and by the early nineties I wanted to work toward a career in politics, even with the economic challenge of a young wife and four little children at the time. What really convinced me to make the change and pursue the political route was an 8-day Outward Bound Course that I took in the Nantahala National Forest near Asheville, North Carolina. It changed my life and gave me the clarity and confidence to pursue that political career.

So I joined the Clinton campaign in Texas in 1992, working out of Austin, and eventually moved to DC after the election to work as a political appointee at both the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior.

I left the administration in the summer of 2000 and since then my business has been almost exclusively focused on the executive branch—the Department of the Interior in particular. I have primarily advised oil and gas companies, but have also worked with a number of conservation NGOs, including The Wilderness Society, Thompson Divide Coalition, Trout Unlimited, The Wyss Foundation, Yukon Conservation Society, and The Nature Conservancy. I’ve been able to make a career out of helping to solve the inevitable conflicts that arise between energy developers operating on public lands and the conservation/recreation communities who want to see the land protected for future generations.

I suppose from the outside looking in it may seem as if I’m a hired gun working for both sides, but I believe I’ve been able to be uniquely effective helping Team Industry and Team Conservation/Recreation see both sides of the issue and help create compromises that allow for responsible development in some cases and in some cases convincing oil companies that it is not going to be worth their while to drill in some special places on public lands, like the Rocky Mountain Front.

I grew up in the industry. It paid for me to be fed, clothed, and educated. It has also been the main reason that I have been able to feed, clothe, and educate my four now-grown children. But I have always had a strong conservation ethic thanks to my upbringing.

My family owned a farm in West Texas and the mineral rights underneath it, which meant I learned how to deal with oil companies and drilling operators from a young age since we leased out our mineral rights. We made sure those companies and operators left the slightest footprint on our land as possible when they drilled a well. My family also had the foresight to include, as part of the lease terms, requirements for the lessees to make improvements to the land, including drilling water wells for our livestock and improving our farm roads and fences.

I took these lessons with me when I started working for President Clinton and Secretary Bruce Babbitt at the Department of the Interior as a regulator and public land manager. And now, I strive to use my knowledge of the industry and my conservation ethic to advise clients on both sides of the land management aisle. At times, this has meant telling conservation and recreation groups that full-fledged preservation for a particular swath of the United States was a pipe dream or convincing industry that some places are just too special—either because of their history, location, or biodiversity—to be developed (e.g., Bear’s Ears and the other national monuments that are currently under attack.

I made the latter argument recently in an op-ed that ran in The Houston Chronicle in response to Secretary Zinke’s ill-advised national monuments review, but I’d like to talk now about why and how the oil and gas industry has had success lobbying in DC and where it might be useful to imitate their methods.

Learning from the Past: Repeal of the Oil Export Ban and Key Takeaways

Conservation and recreation groups have an especially tough row to hoe now that the legislative and executive branches are both controlled by the regulation-averse GOP. So how exactly can these groups wield the O&G industry’s weapons in D.C. to maximize their political impact?

I’ve always found it helpful to first look backward to past lobbying precedents—and when I say “lobbying” I want to be clear that I am referring to both the legislative and executive branches—when I’m advising clients about how they can get what they want in the future. One of the more important lobbying successes of the oil and gas industry in the last few years was the repeal of the oil export ban. Thanks to expert lobbying and communications campaigns, a significant energy policy that most people, including me, thought would never be changed was completely reversed. That might have been part of the reason I wasn’t hired to push for its repeal.

The export ban had been in place for more than forty years and it required congressional action to repeal it. Now, I primarily work on the executive branch side of things because of my professional background, but you all know that conservation and recreation communities can’t afford to ignore either branch of government if they want to be effective. There is, of course, the third co-equal branch of the government, the judiciary. I don’t have to tell you to not ignore the courts, even more so now given the efforts to roll back most, if not all, Obama-era regulations.

The policy rationale for keeping the ban in place, even decades after it was enacted, was pretty straightforward. The U.S. was a large importer of crude oil because there wasn’t enough oil being produced domestically to meet the daily crude oil demand of the American economy. Allowing domestic crude oil to be exported did not make any sense from either an economic or a national security perspective.

So, what happened here at home to help change the political calculus from “Oh hell no” to the industry mounting a massive successful effort to repeal the ban?

Here’s the main factor. Oil prices started dropping precipitously beginning late summer/early fall of 2014. The reason prices dropped from a high of $110 per barrel in September 2013 to a low of around $38 per barrel here in the United States was principally due to the shale revolution. That is, the rapid increase in domestic oil production that happened primarily in the Bakken in North Dakota and also the Permian and Eagle Ford shale plays in Texas. The domestic oil industry had become a victim of its own success. There was simply way too much crude oil supply in the United States compared to demand. And the excess crude oil produced here was banned from being exported even as oil prices tanked.

So, the industry’s business solution to get rid of the oversupply, and thereby increase the price of oil, was to convince Congress and the Obama administration to support lifting the export ban. Where the administration was concerned, the main task of industry and its lobbyists was to just prevent them from vigorously opposing the lifting of the ban.

However, it would be a hard sell to the Congress and the people they represent. The message that multibillion-dollar companies weren’t making enough money and therefore needed oil prices to rise wouldn’t quite resonate—hometown constituents would assume correctly that a rise in oil prices almost always means a rise in gasoline prices at the pump. Proponents of lifting the ban needed a new, more convincing set of talking points that would give members the political cover they needed to vote to repeal the ban.

The eventual chosen message, which was backed up by economic and policy studies from such think tanks as Brookings and the Heritage Foundation, was that eliminating the export ban would create jobs and drive down gasoline prices by encouraging more domestic crude oil production.

  • So, Lesson One from oil and gas is that finding the right message matters. (A corollary to this is a positive economic message, like the outdoor recreation and conservation coalition already has, will always be helpful in shoring up support among constituent-dependent politicians and average Americans alike.)

With the correct message decided, the oil companies and their lobbyists/spokespeople needed it to reach the correct stakeholders. In this case, they needed to recruit receptive, sympathetic policymakers. Luckily, industry had a ready, robust roster of allies in Congress thanks to the significant amount of campaign money that the industry has contributed to members of Congress over the years.

The oil and gas industry PACS spent $16.6 million during the 2016 election cycle. That number doesn’t include personal campaign contributions and dark money courtesy of Citizens United.

Conservation and environmental groups contributed about a tenth of that amount during the same cycle. It’s absolutely cynical to say that money really matters, but it’s also absolutely true! In most cases, contributions to members or candidates won’t translate automatically to votes that will help your side win. But donations will definitely get you in the door faster and in front of the priority members and staffers so you have a chance to make your case.

  • Lesson Two from oil and gas is also the most obvious lesson—Money Matters.

I believe the outdoor recreation/conservation coalition definitely needs to increase the amount of campaign contributions given to current members and candidates. You’ll never get to the level of contributions that oil and gas does. That’s not the point nor should that be your goal, but a sustained increase in contributions across more members and candidates will definitely help.

Being more strategic about contributions will also help stretch your dollars. Which members chair the relevant committees of jurisdiction or are from districts with constituents that can be activated to your benefit? Identify those lawmakers and donate accordingly.

In preparing this talk, one suggestion that came to me that is very much in line with the goals of The Center for Jackson Hole and SHIFT is to increase the diversity of this coalition. My recommendation would be to make a concerted and sustained effort to contribute to and build long-term relationships with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. As the demographics of this country evolve, CBC and CHC will only see their power and influence increase. Courting these groups—and recruiting more diverse members to your own organizations in tandem—is a smart and wise investment in the future. Some NGO PACs like League of Conservation Voters have contributed to these members, but it’s not enough.

Get the caucus members emotionally invested in your causes and how it relates back to their constituents so you’ll know they will be with you when it matters.

The inverse should be true as well. It would serve this coalition well to know and understand what issues are really important to these members and their communities. Black Lives Matter, DACA/Dreamers, education, voting rights, environmental justice: invest your time and energy with them and be invested in their issues as well. Given the current state of affairs in the country and the world, we all need a little more support.

Lesson Three from the success of the effort to repeal the oil export ban relates to maximizing the power of disparate corporate entities by ensuring they speak with one voice.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is the most recognized and effective oil industry trade association. It is also the best-funded trade association. There are a number of other industry trades that are effective, such as the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and regional trades like Western Energy Alliance. Many of you have heard of these groups or battled against them.

What these entities all have in common is that when a major policy issue is about to be changed—whether they support or oppose the changes—they all hew closely to the same messages. It may not be evident, but companies in the oil industry are extremely competitive with one another. There are companies that don’t get along with each other and there are CEOs that don’t get along with other CEOs.

But even if members of these coalitions hate each other, they know how important it is to deliver the same talking points to the executive and legislative branches and the general public. They never air their dirty laundry in public and they make use of their substantial budgets to deliver their chosen, unified messaging to friendly and persuadable audiences, the Hill, and the White House via social media, broadcast, and traditional media.

  • Lesson Three: Even if members of your coalition have different business or policy objectives, stay on message publicly as a group/coalition and don’t give the opposition ammunition to say your coalition isn’t on the same page.

Additional Recommendations

I’ve talked a lot about the repeal of the oil export ban both because it was radically successful and no one ever thought it would come about, but I do have a few other trademark O&G tactics that I think conservation and recreation groups would benefit from adopting on a larger scale. I say “trademark” as if the industry invented them, but really these are just effective, common-sense best practices they leverage all the time that you should also consider using to guide your advocacy work moving forward:

  • Coordinate across companies and trade groups on messaging and key asks/priorities. We touched on this above when we talked about API’s work on the oil export ban and how important it is not to air dirty laundry in public, but this also applies to identifying and agreeing on key priorities and raising them over and over again to all of the stakeholders who matter—whether that’s a BLM field manager, member of Congress, administration political appointee, or a CEO. The more people and trades you have banging down the doors of decision-makers about a predetermined set of priorities, the louder and more effective your messaging will be.

This coordination has been especially effective for the oil and gas industry in influencing or killing executive branch regulations. Let’s look at the proposed BLM fracking disclosure and well-integrity rule.

During the Obama administration, the industry trade association’s coordinated and consistent messaging went like this: 1. There is no need for BLM to do this because it will be redundant to what the states are already doing. 2. We can’t disclose what ingredients are used in a frac job because there are oilfield service company proprietary and competitive issues. 3. To the degree that we are able to be transparent about the ingredients, we share that information with the public through sites such as Frac Focus (which is not very transparent or user friendly).

The trades and many companies were lobbying very hard to modify and slow down the rule under Obama and then just plain get rid of the rule under Trump. There were however some companies, because it suited their business interests, that asked to come in and have one-on-ones with regulators and actually tried to be helpful in terms of the frac rule, as well as the BLM methane rule. The reality is that most of these companies are already operating the right way. They can’t afford not to.

I disagreed with industry on the BLM hydraulic fracturing rule and the BLM methane rule on the need for these rules, but I can’t really question how they worked to defeat these rules. It worked!

Recruit and hire members and supporters of your individual organizations and/or trade groups who have federal/state regulatory experience. As a former regulator, I can usually get meetings with key executive branch senior political appointees and career employees. If I don’t have an obvious in, then I call on friends and former colleagues that may have a relationship with the person I want to meet with. This is particularly helpful on Capitol Hill since I never worked there. I reciprocate with friends that didn’t work in the executive branch who might need advice/assistance in getting a meeting with someone in the executive branch.

The O&G trade groups are very effective at advocating for their issues not only by dint of political donations, but also because they employ former officials from the same government agencies that regulate the oil and gas industry. API has a good number of former Interior employees on its payroll. Depending on the political winds, these may be the same people the conservation and recreation community also need to work with. Regardless of which party has the White House, the career employees usually stay put (usually), so it’s important to have ongoing relationships with the careers. The outdoor recreation/conservation coalition does a much better job of this than the O&G industry does.

Of course, there is a reason for that. Most of the career employees in the public lands universe are usually going to be more favorably disposed to your ideas than industry’s ideas. As Secretary Zinke noted, most of the career folks at Interior are not going to salute this administration’s flag. I’m emphasizing the value of having government experience on your side not only for obvious reasons, but also because the value of personal relationships in advancing your public lands priorities cannot be understated.

PR is important, and it is much easier to find common ground with companies that care about their corporate reputation or put a lot of money into their CSR efforts. There are a number of companies that not only think about the bottom line, but also their public perception. Usually, almost without fail, these are going to be publicly traded companies. Even if a company seems like a natural opponent, it’s actually possible to find places to work together on narrow issues or projects—especially on the local level. All the big companies have PR folks—or hire expensive outside communications consultants—who are attached to the big oil and gas plays that look for these opportunities in particular. As distasteful as it may seem, companies that have been recently fined by the government or that are looking to rebuild their reputations for any number of reasons—like BP for the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, ExxonMobil for funding climate-denying groups, Anadarko and Noble Energy for the recent deaths caused by pipeline explosions close to folk’s homes—are usually more than open to collaborating with environmental groups on select issues. These companies also have large communications budgets that can be used to amplify preferred messaging or positions once there is an agreement.

The oil and gas industry has the trade groups take the positions that individual companies might not want to take because they are not always popular locally or politically correct. API, WEA, COGA, NMOGA represent numerous companies in the industry and do this all the time. These groups push really hard and lobby really hard and are worth more than the money they get from their individual members. (The best industry analogue I can think of for this comes from ALEC at the state side and API on the federal side working to repeal climate change-related regulations—they do the lobbying, drafting of legislation, and serve as the public face against these kinds of rules so the individual companies don’t have to.)


I’m definitely not here as a champion of the oil and gas industry, but I think you have to admit they are extremely effective and successful in their approach to wielding power and influence in DC. Whatever business differences these companies may have (and they are significant), they come together with a clear singular message, backed up by huge PR, advertising, and social media budgets. And they do this over and over again, 24/7, with every issue challenge that comes their way. Whatever policy makers in DC may think of the industry, they definitely know what they want and stand for.

My impression and my experiences tell me this coalition isn’t there yet. You have a much better story to tell, a significant economic impact on our economy, and, poll after poll, you have a majority of the American people on your side, but that isn’t being heard to the extent it needs to be heard in DC. There are too many competing interests telling their particular story to policy makers. My recommendation is for this coalition to come together and figure out how to cooperate more and deliver a relatable unified message to policy makers in DC over and over again.

Given this unprecedented assault on America’s public lands—our lands—this coalition has to come together and speak with one powerful voice. If not now, when?

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