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Fossil fuel money criticism by Sanders placed under fact-checking scrutiny

WASHINGTON – To hear Sen. Bernie Sanders tell it, Hillary Clinton’s financial ties to the oil and gas industry run deep.

“The fact of the matter is, Secretary Clinton has taken significant money from the fossil fuel industry,” Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” last week.

But a Buffalo News analysis of Clinton’s campaign finances shows that Sanders’ case on donations from the fossil fuel industry is a weak one.

The oil and gas industry doesn’t even appear on a list of top 20 industries donating to the Clinton campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Beyond that, Sanders makes much of Clinton’s contributions from fossil fuel industry lobbyists, even though many of those same lobbyists work for other industries, too.

True, a super PAC that supports the Clinton campaign raised $3.25 million from the fossil fuel industry, but that adds up to just a tiny fraction of the total raised by the Clinton campaign and its allied groups combined.

The upshot is that, yes, Clinton took some money from people with ties to the oil and gas industry – but, in context, not all that much.

Here’s a closer look at Sanders’ accusations, the facts in context and the bottom line of this spat between the Democratic presidential front-runner and her rival from Vermont:

Accusations – The dust-up over “fossil fuel money” in Clinton’s campaign started last Thursday, when a Greenpeace activist approached Clinton and asked her about it, prompting an angry response from the candidate.

“I am so sick – I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me. I am sick of it,” Clinton replied.

It seems as if she is sick of Sanders’ stump speech, in which he tends to bring up energy industry contributions when highlighting the differences between the two candidates on issues affecting climate change.

And there are modest differences. Sanders has been a loud and consistent opponent of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Clinton, in contrast, took longer to announce her opposition to Keystone and offshore drilling. In addition, she has a more nuanced view on fracking, saying that it should take place only in communities that support it, when it won’t result in water contamination and when drillers fully disclose the chemicals they use.

Then again, both Clinton and Sanders are strong proponents of clean energy and plan to pour big money into solar projects and other green power efforts.

Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign implies that there is a connection between Clinton’s more moderate stances on energy issues and her campaign contributions.

“Bernie believes it is critical that the next president acts to curb the worst effects of climate change by acting boldly to move our energy system away from fossil fuels,” Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, said in a statement. “He also believes you cannot take on an industry if you take their money.”

Weaver went on to cite a series of statistics from a Greenpeace report that aims to tie Clinton to the fossil fuel industry.

That report found that individuals who work for the oil and gas industries have given the Clinton campaign $307,561 as of March 21.

In comparison, Sanders got $53,760 from people who work in those industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Second, Greenpeace notes that lobbyists tied to those industries gave the Clinton campaign $1.47 million in direct or “bundled” contributions.

Finally, Priorities Action USA, a super PAC supporting Clinton, took $3.25 million from donors tied to the fossil fuel industry.

Context – The numbers the Sanders campaign cites paint an incomplete picture of how important – or rather, how unimportant – oil and gas money is to the Clinton campaign.

First, the amount of money Clinton has raised from individuals tied to the oil and gas industry is comparatively small, consisting of just 0.2 percent of the $145.4 million she has raised from individuals in total.

As for the money Clinton supposedly raised from lobbyists tied to the oil and gas industry, that’s only part of the story. Many of those lobbyists work for other industries, too. For example, the Washington Post noted that Ben Klein, one of the lobbyists named in the Greenpeace report, also works for American Airlines, Cigna and Hearst.

“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,” Viveca Novak, editorial and communications director at the Center for Responsive Politics, told the Post.

Then there’s the matter of that $3.25 million that has gone to Priorities Action USA, the Super PAC supporting Clinton.

“It’s a stretch to draw a direct line between those super PAC donations and Clinton’s campaign,” according to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking service.

A recent Federal Election Commission ruling allows candidates and campaign officials to meet with super PACs and discuss fundraising, so long as the candidate does not directly solicit large donations for that super PAC. But there is no evidence that anything of that sort happened with Clinton or her campaign, Priorities USA Action and the fossil fuel industry.

What’s more, in the overall universe of the Clinton campaign and its allied groups, that $3.25 million doesn’t seem all that significant. It adds up to just 1.25 percent of the $222.6 million that the Clinton campaign and its allies have raised so far.

Bottom line – The Sanders campaign is grossly exaggerating the Clinton campaign’s ties to the oil and gas industry.

That’s why the Washington Post Fact Checker gave Sanders’ accusations on the issue three out of a possible four “Pinocchios.”

“In the context of her overall campaign, the contributions are hardly significant,” the Post Fact Checker said.

True, by the Greenpeace calculation, Clinton and her allies have taken in more than $4.5 million from the oil and gas industry. But even if you take those numbers at face value – which shouldn’t be done, given the questionable methodology of counting that $1.47 million supposedly tied to fossil fuel lobbyists – the oil and gas industry doesn’t even come close to being one of Clinton’s top donors.

The securities and investment industry has given Clinton and her allies $21 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Retirees have given $16.9 million. Lawyers have pitched in $9.5 million, and the entertainment industry has given more than $9 million.

All of which raises a question:

When Sanders talks about Clinton’s “fossil fuel money,” is he wasting his energy?