Swamped With Cash

Political campaign contributions and the assault on America's wetlands laws

March 1, 1996

Swamped With Cash: Following the Money: Political Contributions from Anti-wetlands PACs

Proponents of wetlands deregulation have been lobbying for years, and lobbying hard, to substantially weaken the Clean Water Act's protections for wetlands. (See Note 3.) The most prominent anti-wetlands group in the nation, the misleadingly named "National Wetlands Coalition," includes a membership of corporations and industry associations that reads like a "who's who" list of major wetlands developers. Included in their membership is the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, a major oil prospector in Louisiana's threatened coastal wetlands; Exxon, Arco, BP America, and other major oil and gas companies; the National Association of Homebuilders; the International Council of Shopping Centers; the National Cotton Council, which represents major cotton producers, wholesalers and processors; and the American Petroleum Institute, a trade coalition of petroleum extraction and refining companies.

Nearly all the members of the National Wetlands Coalition, and most of the members of the American Petroleum Institute, have a direct financial interest in weakening the Clean Water Act's protections for wetlands. Section 404 of the Clean Water Act requires anyone who wants to drain or fill a wetland to obtain a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Analyses of the Corps' permitting record suggest that the Corps rarely denies wetlands permits. Nevertheless, the Corps does deny some permits, (See Note 4) and complying with Section 404 is sometimes costly for permittees wishing to undertake major projects in wetlands. Oil and gas companies, shopping mall developers, and agribusinesses would find many new and inexpensive sites for development if Clean Water Act wetlands protections were relaxed.

For the industries that would benefit financially from weaker wetlands protections, spending money to weaken Clean Water Act wetlands protections is a potentially lucrative investment. That's one reason why PACs associated with companies that are members of the National Wetlands Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute have spent more than $25 million on political campaign contributions, including presidential campaign contributions and contributions to unsuccessful candidates and candidates who have since left office, since 1989.


3. The Clean Water Act wetlands protection program, also known as the Section 404 program, requires a developer to obtain a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers before draining or filling a wetland. Permit applicants must try to avoid and minimize unnecessary damage to wetlands where practicable, and may be required to compensate for damage to wetlands by restoring other wetlands. The Section 404 permit process provides no absolute guarantee that all wetlands will be protected, but it does promote alternatives that may have lower impacts on wetlands.

4. Usually, wetlands permits are denied when there is a practicable alternative to the project that would have lower impacts on wetlands. According to data obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, only one half of one percent of all wetlands permits on which final action was taken in fiscal year 1995 were denied.