In the summer of 2013, well before he became an all-but-declared presidential candidate, Jeb Bush spoke to conservatives gathered in New York. He talked up the promise of education reform, immigration and policies to boost America’s economy — standard lecture circuit talk for which the former Florida governor often commanded $40,000 a speech.
Still, the part about “a patriotic energy policy” was especially timely, coming amid heated debate over whether Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo should lift the state’s moratorium on the controversial oil and natural gas drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing.
“Some states, like yours here in New York, are choosing not to grow. They won’t approve fracking,” Bush said, his veiled shot at Cuomo drawing roars of approval from Republicans gathered at a Sheraton in Manhattan. “Meanwhile, in parts of New York where huge opportunities exist for the restoration of economic activity, people languish.”
Bush left unmentioned that fracking in the Marcellus Shale beneath the New York-Pennsylvania border also presented a big opportunity for himself.
One of his private equity enterprises at that time was raising $40 million to back a Denver-based company acquiring fracking wells in hopes New York would lift its ban. The company, Inflection Energy, has active leases in Pennsylvania, and one of Bush’s equity partners sits on the board. He also has fracking ties through a separate business with both of his sons.
The intersection between Bush’s private and public life — calls for fracking have been a part of his speeches and came as recently as last month in San Francisco — triggers questions of disclosure.
“Voters have long been concerned about financial portfolios of politicians because they want to be assured there is no conflict of interest, that there is no potential personal enrichment involved in their policies,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“Voters may feel fine with his policy decisions and happy that he’s consistent in his beliefs, that he is walking the walk,” she added. “The main question is whether he’s open to debate and new information, good or bad, about fracking or any policy. We don’t want politicians who are inflexible.”
As Bush transitions from ex-politician — capitalizing on his smarts, vast connections and door-opening name to grow rich through speeches, consulting deals and direct investments — to presidential candidate, his enthusiasm for fracking stands to be one of his biggest potential conflicts of interests, and one of the toughest from which to extricate himself.
“Gov. Bush was not then, and is not now, a candidate for office. He has been in the private sector since leaving office. He is not a current office holder, nor is he a lobbyist. He is allowed to have opinions about issues,” said spokeswoman Kristy Campbell.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Bush suggested he was doing more than just reviewing businesses in which he had an ownership or partnership stake: “I’m unraveling from every aspect of my business, both the investing company as well as the consulting business. Pretty much there.”
Asked how he manages his private business with public advocacy, he replied, “Be totally transparent. At the proper time, should I go forward (with a run for president), I’ll give the people every opportunity to look at everything and they can make their own mind up.”
The Bush family has been in the energy business for decades, at least since 1950 when 26-year-old future president George H.W. Bush helped found the Bush-Overbey Oil Development Co. with financial support from his dad, U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut. President George W. Bush also worked in the oil and gas business, though he made his fortune with an investment in the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Similarly, fracking is not just a Jeb Bush investment, but also a Jeb Bush family affair.
Son George P. Bush, 38, was elected Texas Land Commissioner last year, two years after helping found Fort Worth-based FracStar Logistics, providing sand for fracking. One of FracStar’s managing partners is Coral Gables-based De Soto Partners, which is co-owned by Gov. Bush and 31-year-old Jeb Bush Jr. FracStar is now known as Proforce Energy Services.
Jeb Bush’s private equity group, Britton Hill Holdings, was established in May 2013, but his entry into the fracking boom and private equity business wasn’t publicly revealed until June 2014, when it triggered a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing for managing more than $100 million.
By then, Bush was looking increasingly like he would run for president.
The filing showed that the pooled investment fund had raised $40.4 million from 37 investors. Bush is chairman of Britton Hill, named after the highest point in Florida and based out of his office at the grand Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. His partners include former Lehman Brothers banker Amar Bajpai, former natural gas trader David Savett and private equity executive Ross Rodrigues. Bajpai is now on the board of Inflection Energy, the Denver company he and Bush invested in.
Bush and his partners “had more than five years consulting across various sectors, and a move into making direct investments was a natural extension,” said Campbell, Bush’s spokeswoman.
Bush’s fracking investments are not the only time his private business life has overlapped with his public policy advocacy.
His work as an education reformer coincided with his financial stake in Academic Partnerships, an online higher education company. Bush severed ties with the company late last year and his team has noted he did not invest in K-12, which has been his policy focus.
The former governor already has resigned from various corporate boards, including Tenet Healthcare, which has a bottom-line interest in the success of Obamacare, and he ended consulting contracts as he moved fully into the presidential fray in December.
But pulling out of ventures in which he is a partner or owner, including his fracking investments, is far trickier because Bush’s name and involvement presumably is part of what drew investors.
As Bloomberg reported last month, one offshore private equity fund on which Bush serves as chairman, BH Global Aviation, was raising tens of millions of dollars from foreign investors in September, even as Bush and his advisers were gearing up to surprise the political world by starting to raise millions of dollars for a likely presidential campaign.
Fracking is a process in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is blasted into the earth to release oil or gas. Rock is fractured by the high-pressure liquid, hence the term fracking. The process has gained popularity, leading to a resurgent domestic energy industry but also has roiled communities across the country in debate. Environmentalists have warned about earthquakes and contamination of water.
In announcing a ban in New York, which stands today, Cuomo called the debate “probably the most emotionally charged issue that I have ever experienced” as governor, topping gay marriage and gun control.
Bush has little patience with the critics, saying for years that America can and should adopt straightforward safeguards to protect the environment without stifling the industry. “It is not cool in San Francisco to talk about this,” Bush said in the speech last month. “If you walk outside, you might get a protester.”
At a political fundraiser in Colorado last spring, he scoffed at a proposed ballot initiative to give local governments more control over oil and gas drilling. “The idea that in Colorado you would have a referendum to eliminate hydraulic tracking and horizontal drilling that creates wealth and prosperity, high-wage jobs for people in Colorado, is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard,” Bush was quoted as saying.
The technology is not just a key part of his policy on energy and the economy, but foreign policy as well.
“It will create hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in our own country while lessening the balance of payments (abroad) and diminishing the need to have a large military footprint around the world in these far-away lands,” Bush said two years ago in a paid speech at St. Leo University in central Florida.
But the fracking industry in recent months has suffered considerably from the sharp decline in oil and gas prices globally.
Blasting oil and gas from rock formations deep underground is more expensive than conventional extraction techniques, and fracking companies generally need oil prices between $60 to $100 to break even. The price per barrel lately has hovered around $60, prompting widespread closures of fracking rigs and speculation that OPEC has declined to reduce its production in part to ensure low-enough prices to cripple America’s fracking boom.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and former Democratic National Chairman and ex-Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell have championed the process. President Barack Obama in 2014 suggested natural gas, “if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
A Pew Research Center poll in May found 41 percent of Americans favor increased fracking and 47 percent oppose it, a significant decline in support from March 2013 when Pew found 48 percent supported more fracking and 38 percent opposed it. Sixty-two percent of Republicans backed increased fracking compared with 29 percent of Democrats. Independents opposed it 53 percent to 37 percent.
Bush’s personal dabbling in fracking investments is unlikely to draw much criticism in a Republican presidential primary, but watchdogs say it illustrates the need for greater disclosure by politicians who straddle the line between candidate and private citizen.
Bush, 62, has not officially declared himself a candidate, but he is raising tens of millions of dollars, giving speeches across the country and building a stable of political aides and advisers.
“Whether you’re talking about Jeb Bush and his holdings or Hillary Clinton and all the (paid) speeches she’s giving to corporate audiences, they are essentially running for president, but because they’re not in office, there’s this wink and nod that they are still acting as private citizens,” said Meredith McGehee, an expert on political ethics at the Campaign Legal Center.
“Without disclosure, it’s impossible for the average American or even the press to understand the influences that are actually operating on that person. Someone could look at a holding and say, 'This looks like a guy trying to cash in.’ Another could say 'Hey, he is putting his money where his mouth is.’ ”