Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Oil Spill

Obama says he doesn't take money from oil companies. We say that's a little too slick.


In a new ad, Obama says, "I don’t take money from oil companies."

Technically, that’s true, since a law that has been on the books for more than a century prohibits corporations from giving money directly to any federal candidate. But that doesn’t distinguish Obama from his rivals in the race.

We find the statement misleading:

  • Obama has accepted more than $213,000 from individuals who work for companies in the oil and gas industry and their spouses.
  • Two of Obama’s bundlers are top executives at oil companies and are listed on his Web site as raising between $50,000 and $100,000 for the presidential hopeful.


Sen. Barack Obama’s ad began running late last week in Pennsylvania and Indiana. In it, Obama talks about the United States’ reliance on foreign oil and the need for energy independence and alternative fuels.

 [TET ]

Obama ’08 Ad: Nothing’s Changed

Obama: Since the gas lines of the ’70s, Democrats and Republicans have talked about energy independence, but nothing’s changed — except now Exxon’s making $40 billion a year, and we’re paying $3.50 for gas.

I’m Barack Obama. I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won’t let them block change anymore. They’ll pay a penalty on windfall profits. We’ll invest in alternative energy, create jobs and free ourselves from foreign oil.
I approve this message because it’s time that Washington worked for you. Not them. [/TET]

Only Legal Contributions, Please

Obama’s right on both counts when he says that “Exxon’s making $40 billion a year, and we’re paying $3.50 for gas.” ExxonMobil’s profits in 2007 hit $40.6 billion, the highest ever recorded by any company.

The national average price for a gallon of gas in the week ending March 24, the most recent data available, was $3.26, but prices are higher than the average in some areas.

Our problem comes with this statement:

Obama: I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won’t let them block change anymore.

It’s true that Obama doesn’t take money directly from oil companies, but then, no presidential, House or Senate candidate does. They can’t: Corporations have been prohibited from contributing directly to federal candidates since the Tillman Act became law in 1907.

Obama has, however, accepted more than $213,000 in contributions from individuals who work for, or whose spouses work for, companies in the oil and gas industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s not as much as Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has received more than $306,000 in donations from people tied to the industry, but it’s still a substantial amount.

Here’s a chart we made, using the OpenSecrets.org database, of contributions to Obama from individuals employed by some of the largest oil companies in the U.S. Our numbers are conservative because the database doesn’t include donations of less than $200 (federal law doesn’t require the reporting of donations below that amount), and we haven’t included sums donated by the spouses or other immediate family members of the employees. Additionally, we haven’t included donations from people who work at smaller firms in the industry.

When the Clinton campaign criticized Obama’s ad, calling it "false advertising," Obama’s campaign quickly noted that he didn’t take money from political action committees or lobbyists.

We’d say the Obama campaign is trying to create a distinction without very much of a practical difference. Political action committee funds are pooled contributions from a company’s or an organization’s individual employees or members; corporate lobbyists often have a big say as to where a PAC’s donations go. But a PAC can give no more than $5,000 per candidate, per election. We’re not sure how a $5,000 contribution from, say, Chevron’s PAC would have more influence on a candidate than, for example, the $9,500 Obama has received from Chevron employees giving money individually.

In addition, two oil industry executives are bundling money for Obama – drumming up contributions from individuals and turning them over to the campaign. George Kaiser, the chairman of Oklahoma-based Kaiser-Francis Oil Co., ranks 68th on the Forbes list of world billionaires. He’s listed on Obama’s Web site as raising between $50,000 and $100,000 for the candidate. Robert Cavnar is president and CEO of Milagro Exploration LLC, an oil exploration and production company. He’s named as a bundler in the same category as Kaiser.

We’re not making any judgments about whether Obama is influenced by campaign contributions. In fact, we’d note that he singles out ExxonMobil in this ad, even though he’s received more than $30,850 from individuals who work for the company. But we do think that in theory, contributions that come in volume from oil industry executives, or are bundled by them, can be every bit as influential as PAC contributions, if not more so.


Lobbyist Loopholes?

We’ve noted before that Obama’s policy of not taking money from lobbyists is a bit of hair-splitting. It’s true that he doesn’t accept contributions from individuals who are registered to lobby the federal government. But he does take money from their spouses and from other individuals at firms where lobbyists work. And some of his bigger fundraisers were registered lobbyists until they signed on with the Obama campaign.

Even the campaign has acknowledged that this policy is flawed. "It isn’t a perfect solution to the problem and it isn’t even a perfect symbol," Obama spokesman Bill Burton has said.

– by Viveca Novak, with Justin Bank


Kornblut, Anne E., and Perry Bacon Jr. "Clinton Resists Calls to Drop Out." The Washington Post, 29 March 2008.







Mouawad, Jad. "Exxon Sets Record Profit Last Year." The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2008.

"Open Secrets" Database. Center for Responsive Politics, Accessed 31 March 2008.

Hillary for President. “False Advertising: New Obama Ad Falsely Claims He Does Not Accept Money from Oil Companies.” 28 March 2008.

Energy Information Administration, "Weekly Retail Gasoline and Diesel Prices," accessed 31 March 2008.