Oil barons for Obama?

With the battle for Pennsylvania heating up, Barack Obama has brought out a new ad blasting Big Oil - and landed in the middle of a fresh controversy. The slot shows Obama standing in front of a gas station and proclaiming his own energy independence: “Since the gas lines of the ’70’s, 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,” he says. “I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won’t let them block change anymore.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign quickly blasted back, accusing Obama of “false advertising” and saying that in fact the Illinois senator had accepted more than $160,000 in oil-company contributions. “Senator Obama says he doesn’t take campaign contributions from oil companies, but the reality is that Exxon Mobil, Shell, and others are among his donors,” said senior Clinton spin doctor Phil Singer in a statement. “I wonder if they’ll fix the ad.”

In fact, the Clinton camp is talking baloney. Neither candidate has taken cash directly from oil companies, since it’s illegal for corporations to contribute to federal political campaigns; and unlike Clinton, Obama has made a point of refusing money from industry lobbyists and company-backed political committees. On the other hand, both candidates have taken cash from individuals employed by oil companies: Obama has netted about $160,000, while Clinton has raked in about $290,000. That’s an important distinction; with most of Obama’s donations weighing in at $250 or less, the money is as likely to have come from blue-collar workers as from oil executives hoping to buy influence.

But while the oil-ad controversy may be manufactured, it’s a reminder of an important point: Campaign financing is a filthy business, and neither candidate has kept their hands entirely clean. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination - and whoever ultimately wins the White House - will have done so by begging favors from a swathe of special interest groups, many of them directly opposed to the candidate’s positions on a wide range of hot-button environmental issues.

That’s got to be bad news for greens: Even with Al Gore chipping in his Nobel prize winnings, the environmental movement can’t hope to rival the financial clout of the oil, coal, and nuclear lobbies. Installing a new president is only the first step: To really level the playing field, greens need to band together and throw their weight behind the drive for comprehensive campaign-finance reform.