— Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), interview on ABC’s “Good Morning, America,” April 1
“Fifty-seven lobbyists from the industry have personally given to her campaign and 11 of those lobbyists have bundled more than $1 million to help put her in the White House. If you include money given to super PACs backing Clinton, the fossil fuel industry has given more than $4.5 million in support of Clinton’s bid.”
— Bernie Sanders campaign, in a news release, April 1
Who’s right in the Democratic spat over oil-industry contributions? A lot depends on what is counted –and how it is counted. Clinton made a strong accusation that the Sanders campaign is “lying” about the issue. Let’s see whether the Sanders campaign’s math hold up.
This all started when a Greenpeace activist approached Clinton on a rope line to ask her to “reject fossil-fuel money in the future” in her campaign. As a matter of law, campaigns are prohibited from taking money directly from corporations, though the Clinton campaign has not received money from oil-industry PACs either.
As Clinton noted in her angry response, she does get money from people who work at oil companies. (These calculations involve people who contribute at least $200 and provide an occupation or employer.) According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of March 21, the Clinton campaign has received nearly $308,000 from individuals in the oil and gas industry. The Sanders campaign has received nearly $54,000.
If you include contributions from outside groups supporting a candidate, Clinton’s total increases slightly to $333,000, compared to Sanders’ $54,000. Compared to Republicans, Democrats have received just a pittance from the fossil-fuel industry: 2.3 percent of oil and gas contributions in this election cycle. That should be no surprise, given that both Clinton and Sanders have been critical of the oil and gas industry — and have targeted it for higher taxes or reduced loopholes.
As our colleague Philip Bump noted, about 0.15 percent of Clinton’s campaign and outside PAC money is from the “oil and gas industry,” compared to 0.04 percent of Sanders’s contributions. So it’s pretty hard to describe that as “significant,” as Sanders did in his interview.
But the Sanders campaign has its own math, which is borrowed from a Greenpeace analysis. As noted in the campaign statement, the Sanders campaign is counting money raised by lobbyists with ties to fossil-fuel companies. Greenpeace tracked nearly $1.5 million in bundled and direct donations from lobbyists currently registered as lobbying for the fossil-fuel industry. (Lobbyists who directly work for such companies would have been counted in the direct contributions of $308,000.)
Then another $3.25 million in donations were directed by such lobbyists to Priorities USA, a Super PAC backing Clinton, Greenpeace claimed. We should note that under the law Clinton cannot coordinate with the Super PAC so she has no control over these donations. (Apparently, this figure reflects funds provided by just two individuals with somewhat tenuous links to fossil fuels.)
So that adds up to more than $4.5 million. That’s certainly a bigger number than $333,000, but it’s still only 2 percent of the total contributions received by Clinton and outside groups backing her. Indeed, the Center for Responsive Politics does not list oil and gas as one of top 20 industries contributing to Clinton’s campaign.
There’s a further problem with this calculation. Greenpeace counts all of the money raised or contributed by lobbyists as “oil/gas industry” funds, but these lobbyists have many other clients besides the oil industry. Ben Klein, one of the lobbyists highlighted in the Greenpeace report, also lobbies for American Airlines, Cigna, and Hearst, according to the lobbying disclosure database, so in theory his contributions to the Clinton campaign could also be labeled as funds for airline, insurance or media industry.
Some of the lobbyists listed by Greenpeace as “fossil-fuel” lobbyists even have clients in the renewable energy industry, according to a review by the CRP.
“When a lobbyist represents a number of different kinds of clients, it’s a little disingenuous to say that the money was bundled by ‘lobbyists for the oil and gas industry’ without a big caveat,” said Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director at CRP.
CRP is generally considered the gold standard for tracking campaign contributions, but the Sanders campaign rejects its method of counting. “When it comes to looking at how much a campaign has received from the fossil fuel industry, we believe that Greenpeace is the gold standard,” said senior adviser Warren Gunnels.
“Sen. Sanders made a pledge with Greenpeace to return any fossil fuel money from their PACs, their executives, and their lobbyists if it is brought to our attention,” Gunnels added. “It’s one thing to receive a small donation from an office clerk at a fossil fuel company. It’s quite another to have fossil fuel lobbyists who are fighting for legislation to advance their interests bundle money for her campaign.”
Generally, the Sanders campaign has suggested, without quite saying it, that Clinton’s votes and actions as a lawmaker and secretary of state have been influenced by campaign contributions. But Gunnels provided a list of examples that he said showed the “undue influence fossil fuel money has on the political process.”
Citing Big Oil campaign contributions made to Clinton when she was a senator, Gunnels pointed to votes she cast to expand offshore drilling and to thwart proposed restrictions on such drilling — and also actions Clinton took as secretary to approve a tar sands pipeline and help energy companies expand offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
There’s no evidence any of these actions were tied to campaign contributions. The link between such contributions and the State Department actions is especially weak because that reflects Obama administration policy, not just Clinton. (Indeed, pipeline approval authority had been delegated to a deputy secretary of state.)
Important context is also missing. The offshore-drilling vote cited by Sanders also banned oil and gas leasing within 125 miles off the cost of Florida. Moreover, Clinton voted against the 2005 energy bill, the energy industry’s top priority at the time.
The Pinocchio Test
The Sanders campaign is exaggerating the contributions that Clinton has received from the oil and gas industry. In the context of her overall campaign, the contributions are hardly significant. It’s especially misleading to count all of the funds raised by lobbyists with multiple clients as money “given” by the fossil-fuel industry.
Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail
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