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

Clinton’s Fossil Fuel Money Revisited

Sen. Bernie Sanders uses padded data to back up his claim that “Hillary Clinton received $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry.”

The figure relies on a tortured definition of fossil fuel money. It includes contributions donated by lobbyists who represent many clients other than oil or gas companies. It also includes money those lobbyists raised from other donors who have nothing to do with the oil and gas industry.

And most of the $4.5 million total is tied to donations made to a super PAC supporting Clinton — which Clinton does not control — by two people who run investment funds that include investments in oil and gas companies. But those investments represent a fraction of the overall investment portfolio.

The issue of fossil fuel money going to the Clinton campaign reemerged when a Greenpeace activist questioned Clinton at a campaign rally in New York on March 31 about whether she would “act on your word to reject fossil fuel money in the future in your campaign?”

Clinton responded, “I do not have — I have money from people who work for fossil fuel companies. … I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me! I’m sick of it!”

As we wrote back in December, Clinton has received relatively little in contributions from oil and gas company employees (and nothing from the companies themselves, as that would be illegal). That hasn’t changed. According to more recent data cited by Sanders, contributions from oil and gas industry employees accounts for 0.2 percent of the nearly $160 million raised by the Clinton campaign so far.

Clinton’s total climbs slightly to $333,262 when including contributions from oil and gas company employees to outside groups that support her. But still, the overwhelming majority of money from oil and gas company employees — 97.7 percent — has gone to Republican presidential candidates.

Sanders says that’s missing the bigger picture of lobbying influence. Sanders demanded an apology from Clinton on April 1, saying, “We were not lying. We were telling the truth. The truth is that Secretary Clinton has relied heavily on funds from lobbyists working for the oil, gas and coal industry.”

Sanders pointed to a Greenpeace analysis that he says showed “Hillary Clinton’s campaign and her super PAC have received more than $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry.” He added: “In fact, 57 oil, gas and coal industry lobbyists have directly contributed to her campaign, with 43 of them contributing the maximum allowed for the primary.”

Sanders expanded on the point in an April 1 interview with Charlie Rose on CBS.

Sanders, April 1: Well guess what, according to a Greenpeace study, they look at campaign finance reports, Hillary Clinton received $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry. She has received individual contributions from over 50 lobbyists of the oil and gas industry.

Rose: FactCheck.org, as you know, “Clinton’s 2016 campaign has not accepted any direct contributions from any corporation, oil and gas companies included.”

Sanders: Now that’s not true. I’ve just read you is what is the fact. $4.5 million, including money from 50 lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry.

Rose: But there’s one source says she has taken those from corporations, and another source says she hasn’t.

Sanders: Well, all right, but there’s a difference. If you are a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry and there are 50 of you, and you make a contribution, that, to me, Charlie, is a contribution from the fossil fuel industry. That’s different than saying you get it from Exxon Mobil. But to deny that she has received substantial …

Rose: From individuals is what you’re saying.

Sanders: Lobbyists of the industry. If people receive money from lobbyists of the industry, I think you are receiving money from the industry. These are not just a little worker there. These are lobbyists who represent the oil and gas industry.

Since our work at FactCheck.org was cited by name, followed by Sanders’ immediate response, “Now that’s not true,” let’s dispense with that part first. Rose quoted a line from our Dec. 18 story: “Clinton’s 2016 campaign has not accepted any direct contributions from any corporation, oil and gas companies included.” In fact, that is true. Campaigns are barred from accepting contributions from corporations.

However, Sanders went on to explain that he wasn’t talking about just money from oil and gas company employees, nor money from the companies themselves, but rather all of the money donated and bundled by those who lobby on behalf of the oil and gas industry (an issue we also addressed in our December story).

By law, campaigns must disclose contributions “bundled” by lobbyists — essentially donations from the lobbyist’s friends, associates or clients that are collected by the lobbyist and then turned over to the campaign.

As we said earlier, Sanders is getting his numbers from a Greenpeace report that uses a very broad definition of “fossil fuel money” to come up with its total. We’ll break down the $4.5 million figure, because there’s less here than meets the eye.

Money from Lobbyists

The first bucket of money is from lobbyists, and Greenpeace breaks that out by in-house lobbyists, who work directly and solely for oil and gas companies or the industry, and outside lobbyists who have contracts with multiple clients, including oil and gas interests.

Greenpeace found nine in-house lobbyists for oil or gas companies who made personal contributions totaling $20,050 to the Clinton campaign (six of them gave the maximum $2,700). That amount is included in the $309,101 that Greenpeace says Clinton got from oil company employees. Two of those lobbyists also bundled a total of $161,600 for the campaign. That comes to $181,650 from, or bundled by, in-house lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry. Together, the money from oil and gas employees plus the money bundled by in-house lobbyists comes to about 0.3 percent of the money raised by the Clinton campaign.

Greenpeace also included $109,750 in contributions made by 45 outside lobbyists hired by the oil and gas industry in 2015, as well as the $1,186,810 bundled by those lobbyists.

And this is where things begin to get muddied. All of the lobbyists listed were registered to lobby on behalf of one or more oil or gas companies since January 2015. But most of them had multiple clients, and in some cases the money they received from oil and gas companies in 2015 was a fraction of their overall lobbying income.

For example, the report listed the $2,700 contribution from Brian Arthur Pomper of Akin Gump. Pomper is registered to lobby on behalf of Chevron. Pomper has bundled an additional $29,700 for the Clinton campaign. According to the lobbying disclosure database, Chevron was one of 13 companies for which Pomper lobbied in 2015, and none of the others was in the fossil fuel industry.

According to opensecrets.org, Chevron paid Akin Gump $360,000 for lobbying in 2015. That’s out of a total lobbying income for the firm of more than $39 million. So Chevron makes up a little less than 1 percent of the firm’s lobbying portfolio.

“I do register to lobby for Chevron,” Pomper told us via email. “I’m an international trade expert and spend most of my time advising a variety of clients on international trade policy, so my work for Chevron is actually a small fraction of my work overall. The contributions I helped raise as I recall were primarily from lawyers in a variety of fields, so I think it would be very inaccurate to call them ‘oil and gas money.'”

Here’s another example: The Greenpeace report includes a $2,700 personal contribution from David Leiter of ML Strategies, a registered lobbyist for Exxon Mobil. In addition to his personal contribution, Leiter has bundled $100,500 for the Clinton campaign.

But Exxon Mobil was just one of the nearly 30 companies Leiter represented in 2015. Leiter also lobbied on behalf of several renewable energy companies, including Deepwater Wind, the country’s leading offshore wind energy developer, and the Renewable Energy Markets Association. By Greenpeace’s logic, money bundled by Leiter could also be called “renewable energy money.”

Leiter served under President Bill Clinton as the principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the Department of Energy. His wife, Tamera Luzzatto, served as chief of staff for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton from 2001 to 2009.

To make the blanket claim that money bundled by Leiter for Clinton is “fossil fuel money” is a huge stretch. “No one affiliated with oil and gas has ever given me one cent,” Leiter told us.

And that’s the problem with the Greenpeace analysis. It lumps together as fossil fuel money every dollar donated or bundled by lobbyists, even if oil and gas lobbying constitutes just a fraction of their business and even if the bundled money comes from donors with no connection to the oil and gas industry.


Money to the Super PAC

The biggest piece of the $4.5 million cited by Sanders comes from donations made to Priorities USA, a super PAC that supports Clinton. These donations are even more tenuously tied to the oil and gas industry than some of the lobbyists described above.

First, we should note that these are not donations to the Clinton campaign, but rather they are to a super PAC that supports Clinton. So Sanders’ claim that “Hillary Clinton received $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry” is flat-out wrong. We won’t get into the political argument over the influence of donors to super PACs, but it is worth noting that, by law, Clinton’s campaign has no control over the super PAC. Sanders has publicly eschewed super PACs, though there is at least one that has been working on his behalf.

Greenpeace is counting contributions from two donors totaling $3.25 million to Priorities USA: $2.5 million from Donald Sussman, the founder and chairman of the hedge fund Paloma Partners, and $750,000 from David Shaw, chief scientist at D.E. Shaw Research.

How is that “fossil fuel money”?

Greenpeace notes that Sussman’s hedge fund Paloma Partners has investments in energy companies including Phillips 66, AGL Resources and Occidental Petroleum. But less than 4 percent of the hedge fund’s portfolio is invested in energy companies. Phillips 66 was the 31st largest stock in the portfolio as of Sept. 30, 2015, Greenpeace noted in an email to us.

As for Shaw, Greenpeace says his investment management firm holds a “significant stake in Marathon Petroleum Corporation, though he also backs solar and wind projects.” Backup material provided to us by Greenpeace also noted that Shaw’s firm has owned a significant stake in Alon USA Energy, Tesoro and Phillips 66. But even taken together, those firms represent just a fraction of D.E. Shaw’s $68 billion portfolio. As Greenpeace notes in its press release, the portfolio also includes investments in clean energy such as solar and wind projects.


Again, the entirety of the contributions from these two men is considered “fossil fuel money” for the purposes of the Greenpeace tally.

Will Tucker, the money-in-politics reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics, called it “disingenuous” to classify those contributions — as well as those from lobbyist bundlers who do only a fraction of their work for oil or gas companies — as “fossil fuel money” going to Clinton.

Jesse Coleman at Greenpeace said the group decided to classify such contributions as fossil fuel money to Clinton because even though oil and gas may account for a small percentage of the donors’ investments, those individuals have a vested interest in the success of the fossil fuel industry. Their investment funds are relying, in part, on the fossil fuel industry to meet their growth demands, he said.

“It’s definitely something we thought a lot about, what constitutes an oil and gas contribution,” Coleman said.

Coleman acknowledged that it’s impossible to tell how much influence a donation from a lobbyist with multiple clients from various industries has on any one of those industries. But he said it points to a larger problem with the outsized influence of corporate money in the political process. Coleman noted that in 2008, and again in 2012, the Obama campaign refused to accept money from registered federal lobbyists. (A Sunlight Foundation investigation found, however, that Obama accepted plenty of money from “unlobbyists,” people who “while not registered, walk and talk an awful lot like lobbyists, including advisors who manage lobbyists.”)

The role of lobbyists in political fundraising may be an issue worthy of debate, but the data don’t justify the conclusion that Clinton has received $4.5 million from the fossil fuel industry.

To be accurate, Sanders would need to say that the Clinton campaign has received $309,101  from oil company employees, including in-house lobbyists, as well as an additional $161,600 in bundled contributions from in-house lobbyists. As we said, that comes to about 0.3 percent of the money raised by the Clinton campaign.

Sanders could also say that another $1.3 million in personal and bundled contributions was donated to the Clinton campaign by outside lobbyists hired by oil and gas companies, though many of those lobbyists have multiple clients outside the fossil fuel industry. Even by that overly broad definition of fossil fuel money, we are still talking about a little over 1 percent of the contributions to the Clinton campaign to date.