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California lawmaker accepted donations from oil firm linked to spill in her district

By Hannah Schoenbaum, Medill News Service
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California lawmaker accepted donations from oil firm linked to spill in her district
U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel has accepted thousands of campaign dollars from oil and gas companies, records show. Photo courtesy of the Michelle Steel for Congress campaign

WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 (UPI) -- U.S. Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) has carefully monitored efforts to salvage Southern California's wetlands after a major offshore oil spill, but the lawmaker's record shows she accepted thousands of campaign dollars from oil and gas companies and voted against disaster relief funding for other cities.

A breached undersea pipe, apparently connected to the Elly oil rig, spilled an estimated 25,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach on Oct. 2, covering 13 square miles of the Pacific Ocean.

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Steel represents many of the communities impacted by the spill, and has been pushing for federal, state and local assistance to clean up the mess.

But less than a week before the spill, Steel voted against a government funding bill that provided $28.6 billion in disaster relief funds for communities devastated by Hurricane Ida.

RELATED Southern California beaches to reopen after no toxins found from oil spill

She also accepted $37,041 from oil and gas companies during her 2020 campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data. Among those donors was Phillips 66, the largest customer of the Houston-based oil company Amplify Energy, which owns the Elly oil rig.

Neither Steel's District 48 congressional office nor her campaign office in Surfside responded to multiple interview requests.

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Drilling ban sought

RELATED Officials investigate ship anchored near site of California oil spill

The oil spill drew lawmakers' attention to a provision of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act, which would ban future offshore drilling projects in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Many of Steel's Republican colleagues have remained united in opposing the bill, unwilling to hand Biden a substantial first-term victory.

Facing pressure from her constituents and colleagues, Steel has not stated her position on the bill. In Washington last Tuesday, she did not respond to reporters' questions about whether she would support an offshore drilling ban. Instead, she shifted attention to her efforts to clean up the coastline.

RELATED Damage from 126K-gallon oil spill in Southern California likely unknown for weeks

"Cleaning our beaches -- that's the priority," Steel said.

As she gears up to run for re-election in 2022, the freshman lawmaker has continued to accept money from donors in the energy industry, bringing her career total from 2019 through July 31 to $49,712 from oil and gas companies.

Steel, who represents communities affected by the spill, asked Biden to issue a major disaster declaration to free up federal funds for the district. And since members of Congress cannot formally request a disaster declaration, she also wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom, encouraging him to join her in asking Biden for federal funding.

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Newsom declared a state of emergency in Orange County last week, but has not requested a federal disaster declaration.

Reimbursement sought

Steel did send a letter to Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher on Oct. 8, demanding that his company cover the response costs of the federal government and cooperate with the U.S. Coast Guard on continuing cleanup efforts.

"Trust has been broken and accountability is required," she wrote.

And after federal investigators said Oct. 8 they were "convinced" that a ship anchor snagged the pipeline, the Republican lawmaker introduced legislation that would ban cargo ships from anchoring off the coast of Southern California for 180 days.

Investigators now believe the anchor of a 1,200-foot cargo ship dragged the 16-inch steel pipe an unknown distance across the ocean floor, several months before the leak was detected.

Steel has faced widespread criticism on social media since the spill, particularly after screen captures of the Energy and Environment page of her website, which featured an image of an oil rig, began to make the rounds. The image since has been replaced.

Connor Chung, an intern on Steel's 2020 campaign, and others in the community have shown up to pitch in with cleanup efforts. The Corona del Mar High School senior said he has been disappointed by what he views as the lawmaker's lack of concrete action on environmental issues.

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"Steel has done little to nothing yet to affect the spill," Chung said. "I don't have a solidified answer on if I will support her reelection, but I'm definitely watching how she will take action on the oil spill."

Opponent attacks

Democrat Harley Rouda, who Steel narrowly defeated in 2020, is capitalizing on his rival's hesitancy to take a stance on offshore drilling. Rouda held a press conference last Tuesday with environmental advocates outside Steel's Huntington Beach office, demanding that his opponent cut ties with the oil industry.

The Southern California district flipped in the last two election cycles, with Steel beating Rouda by fewer than 9,000 votes in 2020.

Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy at the non-partisan government watchdog organization Common Cause, said lawmakers in such competitive districts face heightened scrutiny from party members and donors to hold on to their seat.

"When the balance of power hangs on a handful of seats, you will see resources shifted and prioritized for those particular members in swing districts," Spaulding said.

"A candidate can face a number of pressures, but ultimately, it is up to the candidate to run the campaign pursuant to their vision and their values."

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