Climate Arson: The strategies and impact of ExxonMobil’s dangerous EU lobbying

For more than half a century, ExxonMobil has denied and downplayed climate change, has refused any responsibility for global warming and continues to fund groups spreading misinformation. Now, the company is facing the first public hearing on climate change denialism. But while global scrutiny of Exxon is growing, the oil and gas giant remains one of Brussels’ biggest lobby actors. Since 2010, the corporation has invested over €35 million to delay and weaken essential EU climate action. With a climate catastrophe looming, is it time EU decision-makers closed the door on ExxonMobil’s dirty lobbying?

Let's Kick Out Exxon

 While students across the world are getting ready to once more take to the streets to demand climate action, ExxonMobil is supposed to be in the European Parliament on Thursday, 21 March. The petrochemical giant, which made $20.8 billion in profits in 2018, faces its first hearing on climate change denialism. Except that the company won’t be there – Exxon is refusing to attend. Regardless of its absence, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will scrutinise ExxonMobil’s role as a major contributor to climate change and as a long-standing funder of climate denialism, which knew about the link between fossil fuels and global warming since the 1960s

Holding ExxonMobil to account also means examining its damaging lobbying activities and their impact on real-world climate policies. These days, the company’s lobbying efforts no longer focus on denialism but instead on delayism, aiming to fight real solutions like higher renewable energy targets while promoting false ‘solutions’ to ensure oil and gas drilling can continue. (See “Deny, delay, distract” below).

In this this article Corporate Europe Observatory reveals the many channels of influence ExxonMobil uses to shape EU policies. Closing these lobby gateways into EU decision-making would go a long way towards freeing EU climate policy from the dangerous denial, delay, and distraction of false solutions peddled by big polluters. MEPs already have the chance to take immediate action and send a strong signal to the whole industry: as was done with Monsanto, parliamentarians could revoke the European Parliament access badges of ExxonMobil’s lobbyists for the corporation’s disregard of the summons to attend a public hearing.

 

Deny, delay, distract: What ExxonMobil is lobbying for in the EU

ExxonMobil, responsible for two per cent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions (cumulatively 1988-2015), knew that burning fossil fuels was creating climate change as early as the 1960s. Seeing a threat to its bottom line, it mimicked tobacco companies' strategy to deny the science underpinning the relevant studies.

But following public outrage and legal challenges in the US, ExxonMobil has changed its communications strategy, now acknowledging the reality of global warming, while still funding organisations that deny climate change. The company has moved from denial to delay, promoting false ‘solutions’ that distract from measures that would keep fossil fuels in the ground:

  • Carbon markets: let the market i.e. ExxonMobil and other big polluters, decide how to cut CO2, not regulators (so far, this has been a complete failure in the EU, partly because ExxonMobil has successfully lobbied to keep the EU Emissions Trading Scheme as toothless as possible);

  • Technology neutrality: don’t give extra support to renewable energy, don’t pick ‘winners’ (even though renewable energy has proven to cut emissions far more effectively than and keep fossil fuels in the ground);

  • Gas as a transition/destination fuel: move from coal to gas, including controversial fracked gas, before a partial move to renewables (despite the fossil fuel industry’s claim of gas being a ‘clean’ fossil fuel, due to methane leaks during drilling and transportation it is as bad as, if not worse, than coal);

  • Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS): don’t move away from fossil fuels, just capture the CO2 and bury it underground (ignore the fact this costly and experimental technology has still not materialised despite decades of enormous subsidies);

  • Gas in transport: don’t electrify transport, move to gas, including to so-called ‘renewable gas’ (despite studies showing gas it would have minimal climate and clean air benefits compared to petrol or diesel);

  • Biofuels: replace petrol with fuels from algae, crops or other biomass (even though it has previously led to land grabbing and food shortages, as well as stopping us moving away from petrol)

An illuminating example of the denial-to-delay switch is ExxonMobil’s attitude towards the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), a voluntary initiative launched by Big Oil and Gas before the 2015 Paris climate summit. It was created “to provide practical solutions” to climate change from an industry perspective, meaning carbon pricing, fossil gas and CCS, the very measures that would keep them in business. ExxonMobil initially refused to join, with its CEO claiming they didn’t want to “fake it” on climate change. Fast forward to late 2018 and they are fully-signed up members, more than happy to fake it.

 

An oily web: ExxonMobil’s lobby partners

Behind ExxonMobil’s climate caring advertising and PR lurks an elaborate web of lobby groups trying to ensure EU decision makers do not threaten the company’s core business of extracting and burning fossil fuels. Along with its allies, ExxonMobil has helped ascertain that EU climate targets remain painfully inadequate.

ExxonMobil’s lobbying firepower

According to the EU Transparency Register, ExxonMobil spent up to 3.5 million on lobbying in 2018. This is its lowest annual lobbying expenditure since its first registration in 2010, having consistently declared between €4-5 million between 2010-2017 (see box 1). ExxonMobil has racked up a bill of more than €35 million since 2010 on lobbying Brussels. In terms of personnel, ExxonMobil declares 12 lobbyists, six of whom have badges giving them direct access to the European Parliament.

ExxonMobil's historical lobby spending; source: lobbyfacts.eu

source: lobbyfacts.eu

Extra firepower: Trade Associations

But luckily for ExxonMobil, it does not lobby alone. It is also a paying member of numerous trade associations, which also lobby on its behalf:

The total lobby spending declared by these groups amounts to over €22 million a year, with a total of 170 lobbyists working for them. In addition, ExxonMobil is also a member of other national-level groups that are not in the EU register.

These trade associations help to amplify ExxonMobil’s message by creating a concerted chorus of voices in favour of the oil company’s interests and viewpoints. The company also pays €5,000 a year to be part of BusinessEurope’s Corporate Advisory and Support Group, alongside other influential oil and gas companies like Shell, BP and Repsol. This gives it access to all of the employer federation’s working groups, “which determine BusinessEurope positions” and provide ExxonMobil with “influence on the European decision-making process” as well as with “high-level contacts with the EU institutions”. This helps explain BusinessEurope’s push for gas, particularly fracked gas (which ExxonMobil produces in the US), as well as the federation's ongoing lobbying efforts to weaken the EU's renewable energy and energy efficiency targets which threatened to transition Europe away from fossil fuels.

On top of that, ExxonMobil is also a member of the Executive Committee of CEFIC, the European chemicals industry lobby. This Brussels big hitter has been lobbying to import US fracked gas and to introduce the controversial practice in the EU. CEFIC’s army of lobbyists (76) and huge spending power (€12.3m) are a key element in ExxonMobil’s influencing strategy.

A cloak of respectability: Think tanks

ExxonMobil is a fee-paying member of numerous think tanks in Brussels, relying on them to organise events and present studies on its behalf with an added veneer of credibility and neutrality it wouldn’t achieve alone. It lists three think tanks in its official lobby register entry, although omits its 15,000 corporate membership of the Centre for European Policy Studies, CEPS. The Brussels-based think tank organises regular events on topics aligned with ExxonMobil’s lobbying interests, inviting the dirty energy behemoth to speak on the panel.

In 2014, 2015 and 2016, CEPS organised events to showcase the findings of the ExxonMobil long-range forecast reports, 'Outlook for Energy: A view to 2040'. Unsurprisingly, the reports consistently predicted our future as relying on gas, with a very small share of the total energy marked earmarked as coming from renewables. Each year, the European Commission as well as CEPS’ ‘Energy Climate House’ Director Christian Egenhofer joined ExxonMobil on the panel. Ironically, Egenhofer was also invited to speak at the upcoming ExxonMobil climate change denial hearing in the Parliament, but eventually excused himself due to a conflict of interest.

Hired guns: lobby consultancies

ExxonMobil employs three lobby consultancies in Brussels to further amplify its messages and secure access to EU decision-makers. In 2017, oil and gas lobby specialist FTI Consulting organised an after-work drinks at a wine bar near the European Parliament for ExxonMobil to present its latest Outlook for Energy. The event was targeted specifically at invited MEP assistants from across the political spectrum,i an important lobbying tactic as they are often responsible for writing speeches, parliamentary questions, and providing background briefings for their MEPs.

In addition, ExxonMobil counts on the help of Burson Cohn & Wolfe (formerly Burson Marsteller) and long-time partner-in-crime Fleishman-Hillard. According to the EU Transparency Register, ExxonMobil spends a total of up to €1 million across the three lobby firms. In previous years, the company also had help from other consultancies, including Edelman, GPlus and Landmarks.

 

Walking the halls of power: Doors into the European Commission

Big Oil & Gas gets big access: meetings

ExxonMobil itself had 27 direct meetings with the European Commission’s top officials since November 2014. Director General of DG Energy, Dominic Ristori, is the Commission representative most frequently visited by ExxonMobil, having met four times with the company. But ExxonMobil in no way limits itself to the department for energy, having visited numerous others. The company’s trade associations collectively list 457 meetings with top Commission officials (see table). Combined with ExxonMobil, this makes 484.

Lobby Group

Meetings

ExxonMobil

27

The International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP)

18

European Chemicals Industry Council (CEFIC)

80

FuelsEurope

26

Concawe

2

AmCham EU

119

BusinessEurope

212

Total

484

Source: lobbyfacts.eu

However, this number only comprises formal meetings with EU commissioners, their cabinet members, or directors-general at the European Commission. Not included are informal get-togethers such as drinks receptions, birthday bashes, or meetings with lower-level officials. While such meetings with desk officers and civil servants almost certainly take place and may have significant impact on policy-making, the European Commission does not publish information about these meetings.

Pressure from within: Revolving doors

ExxonMobil can also influence decision-making via former employees that go through the revolving door, leaving the private sector for jobs in the EU institutions and national governments (and vice versa). Marcus Lippold, for instance, an official at the Commission’s DG Energy, has gone through the revolving door many times. In 2008 he went from ExxonMobil to the Commission, but three years later took an authorised sabbatical to work at MOL Group, a Hungarian oil and gas multinational. He then went on to join Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil and gas company of Saudi Arabia and one of the world’s biggest polluters. Ignoring previous complaints, and turning a blind eye to the potential conflicts of interest, the Commission has extended its authorisation for Lippold’s post.

Involved from the beginning: advisory groups

According to ExxonMobil’s entry in the EU Transparency Register, it does not partake in any of the European Commission expert groups. These influential advisory bodies have been known to draft legislation and are a key entry point for all lobbyists, so ExxonMobil’s absence would be a blow to its ambitions. Luckily, its membership in trade associations means it still enjoys a seat at the table: ExxonMobil’s Kees Bowens attends the Gas Coordination Group on behalf of IOGP. The influential group is made up of representatives from industry and EU member states, and looks at gas security and supply issues in the EU. The advisory group provides its members with privileged access to upcoming plans for new infrastructure, strategies on Liquified Natural Gas use and storage, and other Commission proposals, often allowing members first input into regulations others haven’t seen. Similarly, ExxonMobil’s Eddy Van Bouwel sits in the European Sustainable Shipping Forum on behalf of CONCAWE.

Until 2016, ExxonMobil was also a member of the now-closed 'European Science and Technology Network on Unconventional Hydrocarbon Extraction', which was created by the European Commission and dominated by the oil and gas industry to push for fracking in the EU, despite massive public opposition.ii

 

Mingling with Members: Doors into the European Parliament

Through the front door: lobby badges

Six of ExxonMobil’s own lobbyists have badges to access the European Parliament, while its trade associations have 72. Add the 142 from ExxonMobil’s three lobby consultancies and you get 220 lobbyists linked to ExxonMobil with direct access to the Parliament (see box). This lets them enter the building, attend events, pop into MEP offices to talk to assistants, enjoy a meal or a drink with elected representatives or just informally cross their paths. But badges are not the only way in which ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies exert influence on MEPs.

Back door for dirty energy: the European Energy Forum

Although ExxonMobil declares it does not belong to any European Parliament intergroup or industry forum, it is in fact a member of the European Energy Forum (EEF), which brings MEPs from different political groups together with industry representatives, and opens up 'under the radar' lobbying opportunities as it is unregulated by the European Parliament. The EEF organises bi-monthly dinner debates on the European Parliament premises in Brussels or Strasbourg, as well as briefing sessions for MEP assistants on energy-related topics, and visits to energy production facilities in various EU member states. Corporate Europe Observatory has previously reported on the way the EEF group lobbies in the business interest of its corporate members.iii ExxonMobil makes full use of its membership, and in September 2018 was on a panel alongside the cabinet member of European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič lobbying to slow down the electrification of transport in favour of ‘liquid fuels’ (i.e. biofuels), while other EEF members on the panel lobbied in favour of gas in transport.

Lobby Group

Lobby badges

Exxon Mobil

6

        Trade Associations

 

IOGP

7

FuelsEurope

6

Concawe

/

CEFIC

25

AmCham EU

9

BusinessEurope

25

        Lobby Consultancies

 

FTI Consulting

35

Burson Cohn & Wolfe

46

Fleishman Hillard

61

Total

220

 

Lobbying MEPs on their home turf: Events on EU Parliament premises

ExxonMobil also relies on its trade associations to lobby the European Parliament. ExxonMobil’s Johan Scharpé is Vice-Chair of AmChamEU’s Transport, Energy and Climate Committee, which in 2016 and 2017 took its members on a lobbying mission to Strasbourg to meet with MEPs on EU transport and energy policy, counting 25 and 19 meetings, respectively.

As Vice-Chair of IOGP’s EU committee, ExxonMobil has an important role in defining the trade association’s lobbying activities in Brussels. Much of the MEP-focused lobbying is implemented by the umbrella ‘trade association of trade associations’ GasNaturally, which IOGP is a core member of. GasNaturally organises numerous events with MEPs on both the Brussels and Strasbourg premises of the European Parliament, including its marquee ‘GasWeek’, which lobby consultancy Fleishman Hillard helps to organise. The week-long programme of public debates is aimed at increasing support for fossil gas among European policy-makers.

 

Conclusion

ExxonMobil’s web of lobby groups provides the oil and gas giant a very high degree of access to European policy makers at the top of the European Commission and the EU Parliament. The company’s lobbying – be it direct, in association with other dirty energy companies, or with the help of think tanks and lobby consultancies has helped to lock the EU into fossil-fuel dependency for another 30 years.

ExxonMobil’s lobbying is holding back the fight against climate change and is in no way compatible with the EU’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. With a climate catastrophe looming, EU decision-makers should close the door on ExxonMobil and keep them as far away as possible from policy-makers, both in Brussels and national capitals.

Against the backdrop of their lobbying for climate denial, delay and distraction, as well as their prioritisation of corporate profits at all cost, ExxonMobil’s refusal to show up at the European Parliament hearing is particularly cynical. But their rejection of the Parliament’s summons also provides an almost immediate opportunity for MEPs to reprimand the company: a set of new rules established in 2017 allows parliamentarians to revoke the parliament access badges of any company ignoring a summons.

Starting with removing their lobby badge, the European Parliament, in partnership with the European Commission, should systematically reduce ExxonMobil’s influence on EU climate and energy policy-making by:

  • Revoking the six Parliament access badges currently held by ExxonMobil lobbyists;

  • Preventing the company from participating in events held on Parliament or Commission premises;

  • Demanding the Commission exclude all ExxonMobil lobbyists from its expert groups;

  • Placing a moratorium on Commission officials and MEPs appearing alongside ExxonMobil at events;

  • Closing the revolving door between ExxonMobil and the EU institutions;

  • Restricting any interaction between ExxonMobil and MEPs, their staff and Commission officials involved in climate and energy policy-making to an absolute minimum.

Such determined action would also serve to send a strong signal to other fossil fuel companies, and would represent a significant first step to free EU climate policy from the decades-long stranglehold of the fossil fuels industry.

 

Footnotes
i An email, seen by CEO, was sent on 27 March 2017 to MEP assistants by FTI Consulting inviting them to attend the ExxonMobil ‘Have your say!’.
ii Following complains by Corporate Europe Observatory and Friends of the Earth Europe, the Commission decided in 2016 to scrap the expert group shortly before the European Ombudsman ruled on claims for malpractice. “Commission backtracks on fracking advisory group following complaint”, press release Corporate Europe Observatory and Friends of the Earth Europe, February 2016, https://corporateeurope.org/pressreleases/2016/02/commission-backtracks-fracking-advisory-group-following-complaint
iii ExxonMobil is one of the 81 corporate members, which include others such as BP, Repsol, Shell and groups such as CEFIC, GIE or Eurogas. EEF has 36 MEP members including its Chair, former European Parliament President and very influential (but no friend of the climate) Polish MEP Jerzy Buzek - who is now the Chair of the Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE).