A coalition of governors headed by Gov. Paul LePage that seeks to open most federal waters to oil and gas exploration is staffed by employees of an oil industry lobbying firm, according to records obtained by the Maine Sunday Telegram.

The Outer Continental Shelf Governors Coalition, which LePage joined in 2015 and has chaired for the past two years, outsources all of its day-to-day staffing, research and communications tasks to an advocacy group purporting to represent energy consumers. But a closer look at the group – the Consumer Energy Alliance – reveals that it is funded by energy producers and staffed and run by senior officials of HBW Resources, a Houston energy-focused lobbying and consulting firm.

Gov. Paul LePage joined governors’ coalition pushing to expand offshore drilling nationwide in 2015. (Staff photo by Gregory Rec)

The coalition – whose five other members are all governors from oil-producing states – has sought to greatly expand the area open to offshore energy development, streamline permitting and increase the share of revenues states receive. The group has relied on HBW officials to organize meetings, draft responses to press inquiries, research and develop its talking points and even design its logo.

“If you want to put the fox in charge of the henhouse, that’s what these governors have done in using CEA to drive their work,” says Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the Conservation Law Foundation, which spearheaded the 1982 moratorium on drilling in New England waters that the Trump administration has proposed overturning. “They’re unabashedly an organization formed and staffed by oil companies and drilling companies with the sole purpose of fostering greater oil exploration both offshore and onshore.”

LePage’s spokeswoman dismissed concerns about the firm’s involvement, saying its employees answer to the governors. “The staff work at the members’ behest, so if the governor members want to go in a different direction, the staff need to go that way, no matter which outside organization they work for,” Julie Rabinowitz said via email.

While LePage supports exploration – a position that puts him at odds with all the other Atlantic Seaboard governors and coastal New England’s entire congressional delegation – he has not committed to supporting oil drilling off Maine, she added. All of the other governors in the coalition – three Republicans, a Democrat and an independent – are from oil-producing states on the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

ENTITIES ARE INTRICATELY LINKED

HBW communications director Emily Haggstrom, who is also the spokeswoman for CEA, defended the arrangement as well. “The Coalition … reaches out to CEA because of the broad base of our organization, knowledge, and nonpartisan approach to meeting our nation’s energy needs,” she said via email. “I’m sure these, and other governors, seek information from a wide variety of organizations to ensure that they have the most relevant and unbiased information.”

The governors coalition is a small part of CEA’s activities, as it meets infrequently. Correspondence to and from LePage’s office shows it typically holds three telephone conference calls and one in-person meeting each year, usually on the sidelines of National Governors Association meetings.

CEA presents itself as a nonprofit representing the interests of energy consumers, but its membership includes 78 energy producers, most of the major oil companies and state oil and gas industry associations among them, which contribute to its $2.3 million to $2.5 million annual budget. Its relationship with HBW is so close it can be difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.

HBW founding partner David Holt has been CEA’s only president and played a central role in its creation. CEA’s initial tax filing in February 2007 lists three founding officers: Holt, Holt’s wife and James Burke, whose LinkedIn page says he started working as HBW’s director of community outreach that year. HBW provides CEA’s staff, including those who support LePage’s coalition of governors; acts as CEA’s registered lobbyist before Congress and in state capitals; and receives $1.1 million to $1.2 million from CEA in management fees each year, according to CEA’s tax filings.

CEA has a separate board of directors – eight executives from major industrial energy-consuming firms – but Haggstrom declined to say who recruited them. It has 150 member firms and associations that are not energy producers, from General Electric to the Maine Motor Transport Association, which represents the state’s trucking industry. Its website says it exists to help “advance the needs of individuals, families, and businesses, both large and small who have been forgotten in the energy debate, mostly those who can least afford to pay more for energy, but (also) others who are struggling to meet budgets and keep their doors open.”

STAFFED BY ENERGY LOBBYISTS

Many conservation-minded groups view CEA as a front group, an entity created for the energy industry to give the appearance of representing a broad base of energy consumers. North Carolina’s League of Conservation Voters calls it an “oily creature in green clothing.” Mahoney of CLF says it’s there “to carry industry water, and there’s not one scintilla of a chance that it is going to provide advice and direction that is in the public interest.”

HBW and the people it sends to staff CEA and LePage’s coalition have extensive business ties to the energy industry. Last year Michael Zehr, HBW’s head of federal affairs and a federal policy adviser to CEA, lobbied Congress on behalf of the Association of Energy Service Companies, Noble Energy and another pro-industry advocacy group managed by the firm, the National Ocean Policy Coalition. That group’s president is HBW’s vice president for policy and offshore, Brent Greenfield, who acts as secretary of the governors coalition, organizing its events, drafting agendas, and serving as the primary point of contact for LePage and the other governors.

HBW partner Andrew Browning – who serves as CEA’s chief operating officer – lobbied for the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the oil industry. Partner Michael Whatley, who is also CEA’s executive vice president, has lobbying clients including power plant component makers Babcock & Wilcox and an organization dedicated to tar sands exploitation, the Center for North American Energy Security.

It is unclear how CEA and HBW first became involved with the governors coalition, but it predated LePage’s involvement. Emails obtained through a 2014 public records request by the Center for Public Integrity, a government watchdog group, revealed CEA personnel were interacting with the coalition’s first chairman, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in early 2011, before the group had even held its first meeting, and offered a logo to the group that May.

The coalition formalized its relationship in a July 2013 memorandum of understanding, whereby CEA was designated to staff the coalition and to be responsible for maintaining communication, designing, scheduling and executing all of its meetings, executing all day-to-day administrative writing and research needs, managing the website, and “assisting in the conceptualization and execution of all internal and external communication and media engagement.”

LePage was recruited to the body in 2015 by Pat McCrory, who served as governor of North Carolina from 2013 to 2017. Public records that this newspaper requested from the governor’s office Feb. 1 and finally obtained this month indicate McCrory’s office made the pitch in early 2015 via Maine’s environmental protection commissioner at the time, Patricia Aho, who had been the longtime lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute in Maine.

‘LET’S DO IT! & STEP UP’

In December 2016, the coalition appeared on the verge of shutting down. McCrory, who chaired the group, had just lost re-election as governor of his state and was having difficulty getting other members to take over for him.

He turned to LePage to rescue it. “The North Carolina staff is hoping a state will be willing to step in as chair to allow the group to continue,” acting Maine energy office head Angela Monroe wrote the governor 0n Dec. 16, 2016, noting that in the past the governor had not wanted to take a primary role in the group because its “focus is clearly more related to off-shore drilling” and “Maine is situated very differently in this regard than any of the other member states.”

But LePage seized the day. “Let’s do it! & step up,” he wrote across the top of her memo. (LePage spokeswoman Rabinowitz says the group would have carried on anyway, because Alaska Gov. Bill Walker subsequently said he would also be willing to chair it.)

Under LePage, the coalition’s major action has been the submission of a letter signed by its member governors calling on the Trump administration to open nearly all federal waters to oil and gas exploration, including potential lease fields adjacent to Georges Bank and the oceanographic entrances to the Gulf of Maine.

LePage was the lead signatory to the Aug. 17, 2017, letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, which emails indicate was drafted by LePage’s staff. In the letter, the coalition said it “believes it is prudent to include all leasing options” in the drilling plan, in part so that “states will have an up-to-date assessment of the potential resource base off their coast in order to inform decision making regarding offshore development.”

NOT AFRAID TO STRIKE OUT ON HIS OWN

On Jan. 4, the Trump administration proposed such policy changes in a draft drilling lease program, which was promptly condemned by Maine and New England’s entire congressional delegations. LePage is the only governor on the Atlantic Seaboard to support the proposed changes.

“Governor LePage has never been one to be afraid of striking out on his own, especially if his end goal is to bring lower energy costs and prosperity to the people of Maine,” Rabinowitz said. “If the other states don’t want offshore drilling, then perhaps they would reconsider their blocking of the gas pipelines through their states.”

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Offshore Energy Management is currently working on a final draft of its plan, which will be released by the end of the year, according to a department spokeswoman, Tracey Moriarty.

Bipartisan legislation to ban New England drilling was introduced in January and backed by every coastal New England member of Congress but remains stalled, the House bill having sat without action at the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee since Jan. 16.

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