HOUSTON — Oil and gas companies have accelerated their spending on lobbying faster than any other industry, training their gusher of profits on Washington to fight new taxes on drilling and slow efforts to move the nation off fossil fuels.
The industry spent $44.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies in the first three months of this year, on pace to shatter last year's record. Only the drug industry spent more.
Last year's total of $129 million was up 73 percent from two years earlier. That's a faster clip than any other major industry, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
From the late 1990s through the first half of this decade, the oil industry spent roughly $50 million to $60 million a year on lobbying. It ramped up lobbying in 2006, when Democrats retook Congress, and further as President Barack Obama took office.
"They're under attack, they're ramping up their operations and they've got money to spend," said Tyson Slocum, who runs the energy program at watchdog group Public Citizen.
Billions of dollars in oil profits in recent years have made the industry a target for new and higher taxes on exploration and drilling. Oil companies and refiners are also trying to blunt the impact of costly climate change legislation pushed by Obama.
While most oil and gas executives acknowledge the nation needs cleaner energy, they say lawmakers are misguided about how quickly it can happen. They warn that taxes and tighter rules on exploration could cripple the industry before new technology is developed.
To a degree, the investment appears to be paying off. On Wednesday, a Senate committee voted to lift a ban on drilling across a vast area in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The provision, which the industry pushed for, is included in a bill that would expand the use of renewable energy such as wind and solar. The bill now goes to the full Senate.
Democrats from oil states have also managed to get rid of a provision in an anti-pollution bill that would have required refiners to meet a standard on low-carbon motor fuel. Refiners say it would be devastating to business.
The enormous amount of money funneled to Washington by energy companies comes after some members of Congress suggested slapping the big oil companies with a windfall profits tax last year, when Americans were seething over $4-a-gallon gas.
Democrats -- who also took the majority of state legislatures and governorships in 2006 -- traditionally have not been as cozy with oil as Republicans, and the energy lobby has spent the past few years trying to make inroads.
"You'll often see a correlation between spending and an industry or company that's in the hot seat," said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics' executive director.