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Joe Manchin’s ties to Big Oil under renewed scrutiny after chief of staff leaves for job with lobbying group

Joe Manchin’s connections to the oil and gas industry are no secret. The West Virginia senator is among the leading recipients of donations from fossil fuel companies in Congress, and he still has substantial interests in a coal brokerage firm that he co-founded and which is now owned by his son.

But those ties are under renewed scrutiny following the announcement on Friday that his chief of staff, Lance West, is leaving his office for the top lobbying job at the American Petroleum Institute, a group that represents oil and gas interests.

“Lance joins API at a critical time for our industry,” API president and chief executive officer Mike Sommers said in a statement, which was reported by Axios.

“His position on Capitol Hill placed him at the center of some of our country’s more important legislative debates, and his deep relationships on both sides of the aisle will be a tremendous asset to our organization and the industry we serve,” the statement added.

The move by one of Mr Manchin’s closest advisers has been seized upon as further evidence of the influence of the oil and gas industry on Congress.

The Washington Post described it as “[m]ore evidence of the revolving-door phenomenon on Capitol Hill” — a reference to the common practice of lobby groups hiring the staff of politicians that they formerly lobbied, and vice versa.

According to data compiled by OpenSecrets, more than 60 per cent of oil and gas lobbyists working in Washington, DC have previously worked for the federal government in some capacity.

Last year, the door swung the other way when Mr Manchin hired a natural gas industry lobbyist, C.J. Osman, from the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, to work on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, of which he is chair.

As a former governor and current senator of the second-biggest coal producing state in the country, Mr Manchin has always defended his support of the oil and gas industry as vital to the interests of his constituents.

But he has faced criticism from within his own party for his ties to the industry, and his repeated blocking of legislation designed to reduce the United States’ reliance on fossil fuels in order to reduce the impact of climate change.

Mr Manchin was the last Democratic holdout on a landmark $369bn climate and energy package last year, and only joined with his colleagues to deliver his vote crucial vote in the one-seat Senate majority after securing several major concessions for the fossil fuel industry.

“We must stop pretending that there is only one way to combat global climate change or achieve American energy independence,” Mr Manchin said in a statement announcing the deal, which was struck in July last year.

“As the superpower of the world, it is vital we not undermine our superpower status by removing dependable and affordable fossil fuel energy before new technologies are ready to reliably carry the load,” he added.

During those negotiations, Democratic senator Bernie Sanders accused Mr Manchin of sabotaging climate change legislation.

“It ain’t Democrats. It isn’t the president. It’s the future of the planet. So when Manchin sabotages climate change, this is for future generations,” Mr Sanders told ABC.

“What’s going on right now in the West, all over the world, we’re looking at significantly increased, more and more heat waves, more drought, more flooding. This is an existential threat to humanity,” he added.

There is no suggestion that Mr Manchin has broken any laws with respect to his positions on supporting fossil fuel companies in the Senate.

API, a powerful lobbying group for the oil and gas industry that counts among its members Shell, Exxon, Chevron and BP, has been accused of misleading the public about the climate. The group is also the subject of several lawsuits relating to that alleged deception, including by the state of Minnesota.

The lawsuit accused API of having been a “member of at least five organizations that have promoted disinformation about fossil-fuel products to consumers.”

Senator Manchin’s office and API did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.