By Oliver Milman
More than 1,500 lobbyists in the U.S are working on behalf of fossil-fuel companies while at the same time representing hundreds of liberal-run cities, universities, technology companies and environmental groups that say they are tackling the climate crisis, the Guardian can reveal.
Lobbyists for oil, gas and coal interests are also employed by a vast sweep of institutions, ranging from the city governments of Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia; tech giants such as Apple and Google; more than 150 universities; some of the country’s leading environmental groups – and even ski resorts seeing their snow melted by global heating.
The breadth of fossil-fuel lobbyists’ work for other clients is captured in a new database of their lobbying interests which was published online on Wednesday.
It shows the reach of state-level fossil-fuel lobbyists into almost every aspect of American life, spanning local governments, large corporations, cultural institutions such as museums and film festivals, and advocacy groups, grouping together clients with starkly contradictory aims.
For instance, State Farm, the insurance company that announced in May it would halt new homeowner policies in California due to the “catastrophic” risk of wildfires worsened by the climate crisis, employs lobbyists that also advocate for fossil fuel interests to lawmakers in 18 states.
Meanwhile, Baltimore, which is suing big oil firms for their role in causing climate-related damages, has shared a lobbyist with ExxonMobil, one of the named defendants in the case. Syracuse University, a pioneer in the fossil fuel divestment movement, has a lobbyist with 14 separate oil and gas clients.
“It’s incredible that this has gone under the radar for so long, as these lobbyists help the fossil fuel industry wield extraordinary power,” said James Browning, a former Common Cause lobbyist who put together the database for a new venture called F Minus. “Many of these cities and counties face severe costs from climate change and yet elected officials are selling their residents out. It’s extraordinary.
“The worst thing about hiring these lobbyists is that it legitimises the fossil fuel industry,” Browning added. “They can cloak their radical agenda in respectability when their lobbyists also have clients in the arts, or city government, or with conservation groups. It normalizes something that is very dangerous.”
The searchable database, created by compiling the public disclosure records of lobbyists up to 2022 reveals:
*Some of the most progressive-minded cities in the U.S employ fossil-fuel lobbyists. Chicago shares a lobbyist with BP. Philadelphia’s lobbyist also works for the Koch Industries network. Los Angeles has a lobbyist contracted to the gas plant firm Tenaska. Even cities that are suing fossil fuel companies for climate damages, such as Baltimore, have fossil fuel-aligned lobbyists.
*Environmental groups that push for action on climate change also, incongruously, use lobbyists employed by the fossil-fuel industry. The Environmental Defense Fund shares lobbyists with ExxonMobil, Calpine and Duke Energy, all major gas producers. A lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defence Council Action Fund also works on behalf of the mining company BHP.
*Large tech companies have repeatedly touted their climate credentials but many also use fossil fuel-aligned lobbyists. Amazon employs fossil-fuel lobbyists in 27 states. Apple shares a lobbyist with the Koch network. Microsoft’s lobbyist also lobbies on behalf of Exxon. Google has a lobbyist who has seven different fossil fuel companies as clients.
*More than 150 universities have ties to lobbyists who also push the interests of fossil-fuel companies. These include colleges that have vowed to divest from fossil fuels under pressure from students concerned about the climate crisis, such as California State University, the University of Washington, Johns Hopkins University and Syracuse University. Scores of school districts, from Washington state to Florida, have lobbyists who also work for fossil-fuel interests.
*A constellation of cultural and recreational bodies also use fossil-fuel lobbyists, despite in many cases calling for action on the climate crisis. The New Museum in New York City, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Sundance Film Institute in Utah all share lobbyists with fossil-fuel interests, as does the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Florida Aquarium. Even top ski resorts such as Jackson Hole and Vail, which face the prospect of dwindling snow on slopes due to rising temperatures, use fossil-fuel lobbyists.
Cities, companies, universities and green groups that use fossil fuel-linked lobbyists said this work did not conflict with their own climate goals and in some cases was even beneficial. “It is common for lobbyists to work for a variety of clients,” said a spokesperson for the University of Washington.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art said it had retained a lobbyist on the F Minus database “for a period during the pandemic … We are not currently working with the company.”
A spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund said that working for big oil is “not, in itself, an automatic disqualification. In some cases, it can actually help us find productive alignment in unexpected places.” Microsoft said despite its lobbying arrangements there is “no ambiguity or doubt about Microsoft’s commitment to the aggressive steps needed to address the world’s carbon crisis”.
But the vast scale of the use of fossil-fuel lobbyists by organisations that advocate for climate action underlines the deeply embedded influence of oil, gas and coal interests, according to Timmons Roberts, an environmental sociologist at Brown University.
“The fossil-fuel industry is very good at getting what it wants because they get the lobbyists best at playing the game,” Roberts said. “They have the best staff, huge legal departments, and the ability to funnel dark money to lobbying and influence channels.
“This database really makes it apparent that when you hire these insider lobbyists, you are basically working with double agents. They are guns for hire. The information you share with them is probably going to the opposition.”
Roberts said that climate-concerned organisations may get a “short-term” benefit by gaining access to politicians close to the fossil fuel lobbyists they use but that the enduring impact is to simply reinforce the status of polluting industries. “It would make a big difference if all of these institutions cut all ties with fossil fuel lobbyists, even if they lose some access to insider decisions,” he said. “It would be taking one more step to removing the social license from an industry that’s making the planet uninhabitable.”
Nearly all states require lobbyists to register and submit periodic disclosure reports, and lobbyists tend not to advocate for both sides of the same piece of legislation. Beyond that, the laws around lobbying are scant. There is no bar to lobbyists working for clients with seemingly diametrically opposing aims, and there are few guardrails to ensure sensitive information is not shared with the other side.
This has led to lobbyists with client lists that are jarring in their juxtapositions. Hinman Straub, a New York-based advisory firm, lobbies on behalf of Koch Industries, known for its history of climate denial and muscular efforts to block action to cut emissions, as well as Bard College, one of the most liberal institutions in the U.S.
Seth McKeel, a former Republican state legislator in Florida, is lobbyist to both Apple, which has vowed to completely decarbonise its supply chain by 2030, and Kinder Morgan, which has more than 140 oil and gas terminals.
Syracuse University’s lobbyist, the Brown & Weinraub outfit, also has 14 fossil-fuel clients, including Koch Industries companies, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute, a situation that Alex Scrivner, a Syracuse PhD student and campus climate advocate, described as “disheartening”. The Koch Industries network itself shares lobbyists with a broad range of institutions, from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to Google.
The practice of political lobbying has grown significantly since the 1970s, with the fossil-fuel industry among the most prolific users of paid operatives to help shape favourable government policies. A study released in May found that not only is the industry more likely to lobby than others, its lobbying expenditures have jumped when faced with potential climate-linked threats to its business model.
This morass of fossil-fuel lobbying now touches all flavours of political persuasion. Lobbying contracts can involve a range of different tasks that do not necessarily directly clash with the stated aims of another client, and some environmental groups feel that having fossil fuel-aligned lobbyists can open up pathways to Republican lawmakers who might otherwise not be amenable to them.
Denis Dison, director of communications for the National Resources Defense Council Action Fund, said the environmental group “as a rule” doesn’t use people who also work with the fossil-fuel industry. But he added that “at times we retain vendors that specialize in engagement that can help build support for climate and equity progress across both sides of the aisle”.
Browning said his advice would be to avoid “cynical calculations”. He said: “We got into this mess on climate by groups seeking short-term wins but empowering the fossil fuel industry and giving them credibility.” State capitols can act as a sort of “alternate reality” where existential issues like the climate crisis are overshadowed by the desire to cultivate alliances and bolster influence, he added.
“People just assume there is no alternative to the status quo, but it’s time to take a side. It’s all about who is in the room when decisions are made, and the only way to force change is to get these fossil-fuel companies and their lobbyists out of the room.”
Lobbyists, like lawyers, are not required to hold the same worldview as their clients, according to Sarah Bryner, director of research at OpenSecrets, a non-profit that tracks lobbying. “But you could see it would be problematic to represent clients with radically opposed views to other clients,” she said.
“The money thing matters, too. These environmental groups, and even cities, can’t pay lobbyists as much as huge multinational fossil fuel companies can, so there is an imbalance there. Loyalties would be split.”
Meghan Sahli-Wells saw the pressure exerted by fossil-fuel lobbying first-hand while she was mayor of Culver City, California, where she spearheaded a move to ban oil drilling near homes and schools. Culver City, part of Los Angeles county, overlaps with the Inglewood oilfield, and the close proximity of oilwells to residences has been blamed for worsening health problems, such as asthma, as well as fueling the climate crisis.
“It takes so much community effort and political lift to pass policies and then these lobbying firms come in and try to undo them overnight,” said Sahli-Wells, who ended her second mayoral term in 2020. Oil and gas interests, which spent US$34m across California lobbying lawmakers and state agencies last year, mobilised against the ban, arguing it would be economically harmful and cause gasoline prices to spike.
“There was just a huge push from the fossil fuel industry,” Sahli-Wells said. “It’s not a good look to be funding lobbyists for fossil fuels, especially with public money.
“I hope that many people just don’t know they share lobbyists with fossil-fuel companies and that this database will bring transparency and allow leaders to better vet these companies,” she added. “You shouldn’t be funding the person who is poisoning you.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN/PACNEWS