March 8, 2002
BP has the right idea about throwing money at politics.

BP has the right idea about throwing money at politics.

Beginning Apr. 1, it won't throw money at politics. The only campaign contributions BP will make will be those passing through an employee-run political action committee in the US.

This veers sharply away from industry tradition.

But it's characteristic of BP, which likes to be different. The company benefits from isolating itself from an industry that the public tends to dislike.

It is no accident that the public tends to like BP.

Other oil and gas companies should consider similar changes to political giving.

There's nothing wrong with contributing to the campaigns of politicians and their parties. Companies should wonder, however, how much value they get for the investment.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, political contributions from the oil and gas industry during the 2000 election cycle totaled $33.8 million.

Some would say it was worth that much to keep former Vice-President Al Gore out of the White House.

But the money didn't all support Republicans and didn't all focus on the presidential campaign. Political giving doesn't affect outcomes of presidential elections much anyway.

It mostly buys access-attention from busy officials.

But access has backfired. Enron's political meddling has made contact with politicians look suspicious. And the Bush administration's refusal to disclose meeting records of last year's energy policy task force looks sinister.

New revulsion toward legitimate industry contact with politicians is influencing events. It has strengthened industry opponents in congressional battles over energy policy, for example.

Oil and gas companies need access to lawmakers and regulators. They must be able to voice their positions on issues that affect them.

But access bought with political contributions is losing value. It certainly doesn't equate to influence.

If oil and gas companies had public support instead of suspicion, they wouldn't have to spend so much in pursuit of official attention. If they had public support, the attention would be automatic.

Does it make sense, then, to spend less money on political access and more on public relations? BP will test the theory.

Here's betting its political influence grows.

(Author's e-mail: [email protected].)