How Oil and Gas Helped Create the Conservative Supreme Court

How Oil and Gas Helped Create the Conservative Supreme Court
Protesters outside the Supreme Court on May 3, 2022. (Photo: Jose Luis Magana, AP)

As the Supreme Court prepares to hamstring abortion rights in a historic rollback of Roe v. Wade, it’s worth remembering that American industries, via campaign contributions to the politicians that vote in Court justices, are partially responsible for this mess. Data comparing oil and gas donations to senators since 2016 with those senators’ voting records shows a strong relationship between politicians who created the Court’s conservative supermajority and those who take money from Big Oil.

All of the 16 current sitting senators who have received more than $US500,000 ($694,100) in campaign donations from the oil and gas industry have voted to approve at least one conservative justice during their tenures, with 13 of those top recipients voting to approve at least three justices. (The “conservative” justices on this list are Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch; John Roberts, though he was appointed by a Republican president and often sides with the conservative majority, is excluded from this list since he is seen as more of a centrist.) In contrast, none of the 25 senators who have gotten less than $US50,000 ($69,410) in contributions from the industry over that same timeframe have voted to approve a conservative justice during their tenure.

The data was compiled by Earth Uprising, a climate-focused youth organisation, and was sourced off of federal campaign contribution information for the oil and gas industry published on the website OpenSecrets as well as the voting records of current U.S. senators in Supreme Court nominations. The names at the top of the list shouldn’t surprise most people who have been paying attention to American politics, but it’s a good illustration of how money from a powerful industry with a deep relationship with the GOP can shape politics and policies outside its wheelhouse.

The industry has handsomely rewarded some of the newer members of the Senate — many of whom have consistently voted in favour of the three most recent justices, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett, who were all nominated during the Trump administration and who pushed the Court’s conservative makeup into a supermajority. At the top of the list of donor recipients is everyone’s favourite big boy Ted Cruz of Texas, who has gotten a handsome $US2,830,623 ($3,929,471) from the oil and gas industry since 2016; the oil and gas industry is his fifth-most prolific industry campaign donor over the course of his career, and he has a perfect voting record in favour of conservative justices during his time in the Senate. Other oil-and-gas-friendly senators who have voted for every nominated conservative justice include Texas’s John Cornyn ($US1,502,701 ($2,086,050) in oil and gas money since 2016); Florida’s Marco Rubio ($US942,171 ($1,307,922)); Louisiana’s John Kennedy ($US920,720 ($1,278,144)); Oklahoma’s James Lankford ($US724,931 ($1,006,349)); and Wyoming’s John Barrasso ($US650,232 ($902,652)), just to name a few.

It’s important to note that oil and gas money doesn’t always correlate with politicians giving carte blanche to conservative justices. Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, for instance, famously voted against Kavanaugh’s nomination in 2018, breaking her streak of voting in conservative justices since she took office in 2002; the industry has given her $US942,171 ($1,307,922) since 2016. And while West Virginia Democrat (and current industry errand boy) Joe Manchin, who’s gotten $US894,002 ($1,241,054) in oil and gas money during that time, voted for Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, he took a stand in 2020 to vote against Barrett’s nomination. (Always funny when that guy chooses to take the moral high ground.) Meanwhile, Richard Shelby of Alabama has voted to confirm four conservative justices over the course of his career, but has gotten less than $US60,000 ($83,292) from the industry since 2016.

Only two senators, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have been in for all five sitting conservative justices, beginning way back in 1991 with Clarence Thomas’s nomination. While the industry has pitched in a healthy $US183,622 ($254,904) to Grassley, that’s modest compared to the $US748,000 ($1,038,374) McConnell got between 2016 and 2022.

The right’s long battle to consolidate control of the Supreme Court stretches back well before the public even knew about the dangers of climate change. Its success now is not thanks to the machinations of one industry but to a powerful influx of money from all sorts of conservative actors and business interests. Big Oil power players may not personally want to end safe abortions, but the anti-choice justices are also the friendliest to polluters: Justice Barrett, for instance, has a set of worrying family connections to Shell Oil and the American Petroleum Institute, while both Barrett and Alito have made comments that creep pretty close to climate denial. The conservative Court has already gotten to work agreeing to hear cases that challenge the EPA and bedrock water protections.

The conservative politicians who have helped sign the death warrant for abortion access — and possibly for LGBTQ rights and other reproductive rights like access to birth control — have been propped up by Big Oil money. So much for all those women’s initiatives and Pride month PR stunts.


Editor’s Note: Release dates within this article are based in the U.S., but will be updated with local Australian dates as soon as we know more.