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Rep. Joe Barton and oil industry have long history

The Texas Republican, who called the BP oil spill fund created at the White House's insistence a 'shakedown,' is among Washington's top recipients of industry donations.

June 18, 2010|By Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee who apologized to BP for what he termed a White House "shakedown," has a long history of helping the oil and gas industry on Capitol Hill.

Though energy interests have long played a big role in the lives of Texas congressional members and their constituents, Barton has strong financial ties that run through his personal and public life.

The industry has been Barton's biggest patron since 1999, donating more than $1.4 million to his campaigns. The figure puts him above all House members for industry donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Many of Barton's colleagues were stunned this week when he apologized to BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward for the establishment of the $20-billion escrow fund to benefit oil spill victims, which the White House negotiated with the company. At the nationally televised hearing, Barton said it was "a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown."

Within hours he apologized for his apology. But Democrats have already begun using it to raise funds and support, sending out Internet video advertisements and donation appeals.

Since 1990, Barton has received about $27,300 from BP officials and political action committees. The amount places him among the top recipients in Washington but well below President Obama, who has been the leading recipient of BP cash, with about $77,000, according to the center.

Barton has criticized BP in the past for its conduct in a refinery fire and a pipeline accident. But he is generally considered one of the industry's biggest backers on Capitol Hill, along with other members from oil states.

In 2005, Barton chaired a conference committee considering an energy bill to provide royalty and other breaks for oil and gas companies, including special incentives for drilling on the outer continental shelf.

The bill included $50 million over 10 years for the Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Resources Research Fund, a project supported by Walter Mize, the late Texas businessman who sold Barton an interest in a natural gas well in 2008.

The Mize-Barton deal was detailed in a February report in the Dallas Morning News that found property records documenting the sale. The investment provided Barton up to $100,000 in revenue in 2008 and up to $50,000 in 2009, according to the congressional financial disclosure reports.

Barton told the Dallas newspaper that he had disclosed his interest in the gas well at a public hearing in 2009. He said this year that his investment did not present a conflict with his legislative job.

"I don't think my position on any pending issue is going to be affected by me investing in oil and opportunity, as long as it's done straight up and reported — with my own money at risk," he told the Morning News.

The subsidies in the 2005 energy bill were ridiculed at the time by some Democrats, including Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, an opponent of government underwriting for the oil and gas industry.

Markey said at the time that Barton had deliberately delayed consideration of some of the biggest industry benefits in the bill until nearly 2 a.m. as a way of inhibiting debate.

Despite the objections, the legislation passed with support from dozens of Democrats on Capitol Hill including Obama, then a senator from Illinois.

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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