Oil's Washington juggernaut
Under fire for high gas prices, the industry is spending record amounts on influence in Washington. Plus: How it's playing in the presidential race.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As angry voters spark a barrage of energy bills in Congress, the oil industry is spending record amounts of money protecting its interests.
In what may be surprising to some, the most recent figures from the Center for Responsive Politics show that the oil industry gives a relatively small sum to individual political campaigns - it's 16th on a list of top 50 industries.
But when it comes to lobbying - and spending money that goes toward researching, writing and convincing lawmakers to vote its way - the industry ranks fifth. If the spending continues at the current pace, the industry is set to break last year's $83 million record.
The amount spent on lobbying by the industry, along with lobbying money in general, has been setting records since 2005.
With record gas prices, a contentious fight over energy legislation and a huge election on the horizon it's not surprising the industry spent so much on lobbying this year.
Dozens of bills have been introduced in Congress. Generally, Democrats and environmentalists have favored a strategy heavy on taxing oil companies and funding renewables, while Republicans and the oil industry have pushed for more drilling.
But so far, no major energy bills have been passed. Is it possible all this money has been spent to maintain the status quo?
"In the minds of most people, you rarely spend money to get nothing done," said Massie Ritsch, communications director for CRP. "But in government, people often spend vast sums of money to make sure nothing happens at all."
It's unlikely big money is the only reason Congress hasn't acted on energy legislation.
The two parties are deeply divided over how to best solve the nation's energy challenge. And they both want to use gas prices as an election issue. The Republicans are hoping voters will punish Democrats for opposing offshore drilling, while the Democrats hope to paint the Republicans as the party of Big Oil.
"You put the dysfunctionality and the sharp partisan issues together, and the failure to get a bill is easy to describe," said Norman Ornstein, a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "Still, you shouldn't ignore the money."
The oil industry says it has spent heavily on lobbying this year because it has been the target of so many bills.
"If the menu goes up, our activity goes up," said Judy Penniman, a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute. "But to say nothing's happened because of this money, I don't agree with that."
The oil industry may have not gotten its drilling wish list just yet, but so far they have been able to avoid higher taxes.
Meanwhile, the renewable energy folks haven't seen a big increase in funding.
Looking at the dollars spent lobbying Congress, that may not be surprising. The renewable industry and their allies in the environmental movement have spent a combined $19 million lobbying Congress this year - half what the oil industry has spent.
Direct contributions to a political campaign, as opposed to lobbying, cannot be made by corporations - they must come from individuals.
It's here where employees of the oil industry rank a mere 16th, giving $11 million in the 2007-2008 election cycle. That's well behind other industries like retirement and education - industries that might not first come to mind when one thinks big political money.
But that doesn't necessarily mean the oil industry doesn't exercise influence over politicians.
The sheer size of the industry - six of the 10 biggest companies in the world are oil firms - means a refinery or chemical plant sited in a politician's district can mean lots of jobs and lots of tax revenue, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"Maybe they know who their friends are, and they have other means of influencing them," said Sabato.
If cash equals friendship, then John McCain and the oil industry are best friends.
The Arizona Republican has taken $1.4 million from oil industry employees in the 2007-2008 election cycle, more than any other politician, according to CRP.
That's over three times as much as Barack Obama, who ranks just below Hillary Clinton as the highest Democrat recipient.
Those numbers are consistent with how employees in the oil sector give overall - nearly three quarters of their money usually goes to Republicans, although they have been leaning a bit more Democratic in the recent election, according to CRP.
With gas prices near record levels and the public clamoring for something to be done, now is a dangerous time for any politician to be taking money from the oil industry.
Politicians have already lost primaries after being labeled as in the pocket of Big Oil, according to Sabato.
But Sabato does think that as the debate over energy wears on, Big Oil is being seen less as the villain.
"Just blaming Big Oil doesn't work anymore," he said. "People have absorbed the fact that it's a real crisis, and it will take complicated solutions to solve."
Obama best hope that's the case. Although McCain is well ahead of him in total oil money raised, employees at some of the biggest firms seem to favor the junior senator from Illinois.
Employees of Exxon Mobil, Chevron and BP all gave more money to Obama than they did McCain.
Explaining why is somewhat of a mystery. Maybe these bigger firms have more middle-level managers who like Obama's plans on health care or the economy, said Sabato.
Or maybe they just like him because he's a young guy on the up and up.