Above: Former Texas Congressman Joe Barton speaks during a press conference outside the Capitol in 2015.
The legislation was marked with the number of the beast.
Joe Barton’s staffers, perhaps sensing some irony, insisted that he reintroduce his 2015 bill that proposed lifting the federal ban on crude oil exports. Were the bill to pass it would unleash a frenzied oil and gas boom in West Texas’ Permian Basin, which would, almost certainly, help fuel the effects of catastrophic climate change. So perhaps the bill’s original number—HR 666—would’ve been more appropriate.
Alas, Barton is a politician, not a poet, and he refiled his legislation, and, after an aggressive lobbying campaign, the ban was lifted.
After a private picture leaked in 2017, Barton opted not to run for the North Texas congressional seat he had held since 1985 and fell out of the public eye. But this week he reemerged with a lengthy retrospective in the Dallas Morning News humbly titled “I knew my bill to lift the ban on U.S. oil exports was important. I hardly expected it to change the world.” It’s an unusually revealing account of how Barton greased the congressional skids for one of the most consequential policies for oil and gas and the environment in modern political history.
In a newsworthy tidbit buried as an endnote to the column, readers learn that Barton is preparing to launch a “federal policy consulting business.” Knowing that, the op-ed—which reads as a blueprint for building political support for corporate America’s agendas—sure seems like a helpful way to gin up a client base.
The former lawmaker from Ennis paints himself as a shrewd legislative tactician with deep connections and policy know-how. He does not undersell the world-changing impacts of his handiwork. Not only is the U.S. now the top oil producer, but the introduction of American oil around the world has “destroyed OPEC’s ability to control world oil prices” and created a more “transparent” global energy market. Barton includes a glowing testimonial about his work product from Jim Teague, the CEO of Enterprise Partners, one of the largest crude oil exports in the country: “Without the crude oil export ban repeal, the United States would not be producing half of the oil it is today because it could not be exported.”
For years, Barton flew under the political radar, but around the early 2000s—thanks to a new era of Texan dominance in Washington—Barton finally found himself with power and influence. From 2004 to 2007, he chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee, a powerful position with influence over the energy sector and environmental regulations. There, Barton became known as a faithful waterboy for the energy industry, earning the nickname “Smokey Joe” for his zealous defense of his district’s belching cement plants (which were also major campaign contributors) against stronger federal pollution restrictions.
He was a particularly infamous climate-change denier who, as the top ranking Republican on the energy committee, said that global warming was a “net benefit” for humanity and later insisted that biblical flooding proves that humans have no impact on climate change. In response to House Democrats’ passage of climate legislation in 2009, he said, “You can’t regulate God.” When the White House demanded that BP create a $20 billion victims’ compensation fund after its oil spill along the Gulf Coast, Barton infamously apologized to the company’s CEO for what he called a “shakedown.”
Barton was a valuable ally for fossil fuel titans, always eager to deliver a favor for the industry that funneled more than $2.1 million into his campaign coffers over his career. In fact, he often found himself scrutinized for being too good of a friend to O&G. In 2009, he was the target of an ethics investigation after it was uncovered that energy companies had made donations to or in the name of Barton’s family foundation while the congressman, then the energy committee’s ranking Republican, advanced favorable legislation. Ultimately, no ethics charges were filed.
But as he details in his column, Barton set out to do the biggest favor of his career back in early 2014, when the Permian Basin was in the early days of a massive boom. New fracking technologies made it highly profitable to access the region’s huge reserves of oil hidden in dense shale formations. But fossil-fuel producers were sounding the alarm that the country’s existing domestic refining capacity couldn’t handle all of the newfound black gold.
So some of Texas’ oil behemoths began leaning on Barton to end the ban on crude oil exports from the United States, warning that the industry’s future depend on it. In 2015, Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. But Barton knew that he’d still need Democratic support if the measure had a shot at getting signed into law by Obama. He found a willing Democrat in Congressman Henry Cuellar, a conservative blue dog from Laredo whose district includes a big chunk of the Eagle Ford Shale—the site of another drilling boom in South Texas. While Barton lined up support on his side of the aisle, Cuellar lobbied his longtime political ally, then House-minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and others in Democratic leadership, successfully convincing them to not actively whip the Democratic rank-and-file to vote against the measure. Cuellar’s ceasefire was a “major tactical and strategic victory,” Barton recalled. “It would not have happened without Cuellar’s active leadership.” Critically, this allowed industry lobbyists to more effectively pressure Democratic members to back the measure.
Some well-orchestrated lobbying—which included the country’s top oil and gas industry groups and the Chamber of Commerce—then provided the political muscle to lobby lawmakers, business leaders, and other stakeholders. It was a classic Washington influence campaign, complete with visits to editorial boards, policy seminars, and briefings. “Consequently, think tanks and academics begin to publish articles on the pros and cons of repealing the oil export ban,” Barton wrote. “Overwhelmingly, the consensus was that repealing the oil export ban would provide economic benefit and enhance national security, as well as strengthen our hand in foreign policy.”
Meanwhile, Barton believes that the main opposition forces, environmental groups, were too distracted to focus on stopping the lucrative drilling bonanza. “Luckily,” Barton wrote, “their top legislative priority was stopping the Keystone oil pipeline, so while they opposed HR 702, they did not wage all-out war against it.”
The House easily passed the bill with backing from 26 Democrats (including Beto O’Rourke). Obama issued a half-hearted veto threat that left plenty of wiggle room. In late 2015, the measure was folded into a massive omnibus deal that paired the repeal of the export ban with an extension of renewable energy tax credits that passed through Congress and was signed into law.
Opening up crude oil exports transformed the oil and gas industry overnight, leading to a massive surge in production that has turned the Permian Basin into an “extraction colony” for global energy markets. To meet the growing demand, the energy industry has raced to build up an infrastructure capable of transporting oil and liquified natural gas from the Permian to the Gulf Coast, scarring hundreds of miles of land—including many sensitive habitats—with new pipelines and expanding the industry’s already-heavy footprint further along coastal Texas. The Permian Basin is looking more and more like a hellscape these days. Huge flames puncture the skyline as companies like ExxonMobil simply burn off the natural gas that comes out with the oil because it’s cheaper than bringing it to market. This creates a big uptick in greenhouse gas emissions.
Barton was rewarded handsomely for his efforts. In the 2016 election cycle, Pioneer Natural Resources pillowed Barton with more than $36,000 in campaign contributions, more money than they gave any other member of Congress.
Now, he’s apparently looking to set up his own federal policy consulting operation, typically a polite euphemism for lobbying. It’s not all that surprising that a congressman who was a faithful servant of industry would make the transition into the lucrative field of professional political influence. Lobbying has become the preferred occupation for retired members of Congress; former House members need only “cool off” for a year before they can start cashing in on their friendships with former colleagues still in office. John Culberson and Lamar Smith—two former Texas congressmen who left office in 2019—made the leap to top-tier lobbying firms in Washington soon after leaving office.
It’s unclear what Barton’s new policy consulting venture will entail, what sort of federal policy he’ll consult on, or whether he’ll file to be a registered lobbyist (though lax lobbying disclosure laws make it easy to wield influence in the shadows).
The Observer tried to ask these very questions, but messages left with his former campaign aide and executive director of his family foundation were not returned. Nary a Republican operative in Texas seems to have his contact information. Nor does his former chief of staff, who is leaving that same post in his successor Ron Wright’s office to start his own lobbying firm—which he said was unrelated to Barton’s endeavor. One thing is for certain: his number does not start with area code 666.