Covered in Oil

In a statement issued July 3, 2008, the Sierra Club accused GOP presidential candidate John McCain of turning hefty Big Oil donations into an attack ad campaign. The campaign’s television spot criticizes Democrat Barack Obama’s positions on energy security. “Barack Obama…just says no to lower gas taxes, no to nuclear, no to more production,” says the narrator.

The ads, launched July 6, cost the Republican National Committee (RNC) $3 million. The ad campaign falls under the committees “independent expenditure,” and Brad Todd, the GOP media consultant from On Message, Inc., controls the content. The independent expenditure clause allows the GOP to exceed the RNC’s $19 million campaign spending cap—while legally prohibiting them from working with the McCain campaign or the RNC. Todd calls it a response to Obama’s refusal to accept public funding.

Sources argue that McCain is scrambling to make up the difference between Obama’s $347 million raised (as of press time) and his own $143.8 million. According to The Trail, the Washington Post‘s election blog, McCain has appeared at 90 fundraisers since March 5. In the month preceding the release of the attack ads, McCain’s schedule included events in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston, which brought in more than $4 million. According to, McCain’s campaign has received just over $1 million from the oil and gas industries, with the Republican Party getting an additional $4 million and the RNC more than $1.5 million.

Cathy Duvall, the Sierra Club’s political director, says this is no coincidence. “The very same special interests John McCain claims to dislike are now funding millions in attack ads on his behalf,” she says in the press release.

GOP media consultant On Message, Inc. parlayed oil money into an attack ad criticizing Barack Obama’s energy plan, the Sierra Club says. © On Message Inc.

The Sierra Club, the environmental group with over a million members, endorsed Obama on June 20 and immediately released their own attack ad, which aired on Ohio radio stations: “John McCain is running ads that feature windmills. And truth is, windmills, and the clean energy and jobs they generate, have a large role to play in Ohio’s future,” says the narrator. “But not because of anything John McCain has done.” Though their 2008 election endorsements included only five Republican candidates (along with 151 Democrats) at press time, the Sierra Club considers itself a non-partisan association.

Josh Dorner, a spokesperson for the organization, says, “John McCain is not the change we need. His environmental voting record is mediocre, verging on poor. He’s flip-flopped on offshore drilling and his climate bill is stuck in the past.”

But Steve Hansen, spokesperson for the Committee on Natural Resources, counters that Obama’s energy plan fails to deal realistically with the American energy crisis. “Every form of transport today relies on oil, so oil has to be a primary component [of an energy plan],” Hansen says. “Obama’s plan to seek cleaner alternatives to oil cannot be the whole solution.”

Don Young, the Republican Congressman from Alaska, is the ranking member of the Committee. He introduced the American Energy Independence and Price Reduction Act into the House in May 2008, saying, “(With) foreign oil costing more than $125 a barrel, we can’t afford to keep importing energy….We have to increase our domestic energy production to help American consumers and bolster our economic and national security.”

This bill proposes drilling in a 2,000-acre zone of the Coastal Plain, a 1.2-million-acre segment of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). “When Jimmy Carter formed the ANWR, he was aware of the presence of oil in this zone and designated it as a study area, not a wilderness area,” says Hansen. “He anticipated the need to access the oil in the future.”

The bill also includes over $1 billion toward research in alternate, cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar power.