By ERIKA LOVLEY
While the BP oil geyser pumps millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama and members of Congress may have to answer for the millions in campaign contributions they’ve taken from the oil and gas giant over the years.
BP and its employees have given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Donations come from a mix of employees and the company’s political action committees — $2.89 million flowed to campaigns from BP-related PACs and about $638,000 came from individuals.
On top of that, the oil giant has spent millions each year on lobbying — including $15.9 million last year alone — as it has tried to influence energy policy.
During his time in the Senate and while running for president, Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and is the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past 20 years, according to financial disclosure records.
An Obama spokesman rejected the notion that the president took big oil money.
“President Obama didn’t accept a dime from corporate PACs or federal lobbyists during his presidential campaign,” spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “He raised $750 million from nearly four million Americans. And since he became president, he rolled back tax breaks and giveaways for the oil and gas industry, spearheaded a G20 agreement to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and made the largest investment in American history in clean energy incentives.”
In Congress, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who last week cautioned that the incident should “not be used inappropriately” to halt Obama’s push for expansion of offshore drilling, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of BP’s largesse. Her comments created some blowback, with critics complaining that she is too blasé about the impact of the disaster, even though she was among the first lawmakers to call for a federal investigation into the spill.
As the top congressional recipient in the last cycle and one of the top BP cash recipients of the past two decades, Landrieu banked almost $17,000 from the oil giant in 2008 alone and has lined her war chest with more than $28,000 in BP cash overall.
“Campaign contributions, from energy companies or from environmental groups, have absolutely no impact on Sen. Landrieu’s policy agenda or her response to this unprecedented disaster in the Gulf,” said Landrieu spokesman Aaron Saunders. “The senator is proud of the broad coalition she’s built since her first day in the Senate to address the energy and environmental challenges in Louisiana and in the nation. This disaster only makes the effort to promote and save Louisiana’s coast all that more important.”
Several BP executives have given directly to Landrieu’s campaign, including current and previous U.S. operation Presidents Lamar McKay and Robert Malone. Other donors include Margaret Hudson, BP’s America vice president, and Benjamin Cannon, federal affairs director for the U.S. branch. Donations ranged from $1,000 to $2,300 during the past campaign cycle.
Environmentalists complain that Landrieu has played down the impact of oil spills.
“I mean, just the gallons are so minuscule compared to the benefits of U.S. strength and security, the benefits of job creation and energy security,” Landrieu said at a hearing last month on offshore drilling. “So while there are risks associated with everything, I think you understand that they are quite, quite minimal.”
“They own Mary Landrieu and the rest of the Louisiana delegation,” said Greenpeace Research Director Kert Davies. “They have more money, disposable income and a fleet of dispensable lobbyists to beat the band.”
Other politicians with ties to coastal states or states with BP refineries have also reaped benefits from the fourth largest company in the world.
The top congressional recipients of BP campaign cash include Republican Rep. Don Young of the oil-intensive Alaska delegation, who has received almost as much as Obama, raking in $73,300 during his congressional tenure. Also on the list is Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), whose state has a BP refinery in Toledo and who has raked in $41,400. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has received $44,899.
“Make no mistake: BP ranks among the most powerful corporate forces in U.S. politics,” said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “It donates hundreds of thousands of dollars every election cycle through its employees and political action committee and is routinely a seven- or eight-figure federal lobbying powerhouse each year.”
In 2008 alone, BP gave $37,000 to members of the House Energy Committee and $106,501 to members of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which deals with security issues facing the nation’s oil supply.
BP has also evolved in its corporate giving over the past decade, shifting more money to Democrats. In 2000, the company gave almost 39 percent more to Republicans than to Democrats. But by 2008, Democrats had nearly pulled even with Republicans on BP donations.
Moreover, the company has nearly tripled the amount of money it has spent on lobbying, from about $5.7 million in 1999 to $15.9 million last year, according to lobbying disclosures.
BP has bulked up its K Street team by signing some of the biggest firms in Washington, several of which employ former Hill staffers with deep-seated ties to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico coast.
BP representation within lobby shop Alpine Group alone includes lobbyist Bob Brooks, who served as chief of staff to former Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), and lobbyist Rebecca Hawes, a longtime counsel for former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). Jason Schendle worked for Landrieu for nine years, according to lobbying disclosures.
Former Rep. Jim Turner, now a lobbyist for BP with Arnold & Porter, formerly represented the 2nd District of Texas, which includes a large piece of Gulf shoreline. And at DC Legislative and Regulatory Services, BP lobbyist David Marin was formerly the lead Hill staffer for Congress’s Select Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina.
“First, they are exceedingly competent. Second, they are [Democratic-centric]. I know the first will help enormously in the next few weeks. I am not so sure about the second,” said Republican energy lobbyist Mike McKenna of MWR Strategies, who predicted that Landrieu would quite likely get “very wide latitude” on the oil issue. “That may not be the case with BP, whose record is a bit more spotty.”