Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Trying to Put a Price on Big Oil's 'Climate Obstruction' Efforts

Oil giants and trade groups spend an estimated $115 million per year blocking climate policies.

ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch/Shell, and three oil-industry groups together spend $115 million a year on advocacy designed to “obstruct” climate change policy, according to new estimates released by Influence Map, a British nonprofit research organization.

The sheer fuzziness of corporate influence prompted the project. Nations hold companies to different standards—or none at all—for disclosures of how they are trying to influence public policy and what it costs.  

To come up with its numbers, Influence Map first had to define what "influence" actually means. The researchers adopted a framework spelled out in a  2013 UN report written to help companies align their climate change policies with their lobbying and communications strategies. It's a broad approach to understanding influence that includes not only direct lobbying, but also advertising, marketing, public relations, political contributions, regulatory contacts, and trade associations.

The five subjects of Influence Map’s research use those organs to the opposite ends. ExxonMobil’s “direct spending on climate obstruction,” according to the report, may be $27 million a year. Shell’s estimated spending is $22 million. The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s U.S. trade group, may spend up to $65 million a year, and two smaller groups—the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) and the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association—are estimated to spend about $9 million together. 

SOURCE: InfluenceMap

Investor groups that push for strong climate policies spend less than $5 million a year on advocacy, according to the researchers.

The report, "How Much Big Oil Spends on Obstructive Climate Lobbying," is directed at investors who are starting to make more noise about the topic. Nineteen climate-minded investment groups have filed 45 resolutions with oil-and-gas companies related to climate change and greenhouse gases in 2016 alone, although nine of these resolutions were withdrawn after companies promised action or further discussion. The investors include the New York State Comptroller, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S., and sustainability pioneer Trillium Asset Management.

Influence Map published alongside the report a three-stage methodology it used to calculate its estimates. First, the researchers isolated the specific outreach activities that can influence policymakers, using lobbying registers, Internal Revenue Service documents, and annual reports to estimate total spending. The next step was to estimate how much of that total is directed to climate issues. Finally, they analyzed the climate-related activity, scored it as either “supportive or obstructive” to climate policy, and to what degree.

Each organization received a letter grade, from A to F, rating how obstructive they are. ExxonMobil pulled an “E-minus,” Shell a D-minus, and each of the three trade groups got an F.

The new report excludes so-called dark money, or money spent on think tanks and institutes, as identified by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle in 2013. Given current disclosure standards, the researchers were unable to determine how these groups are funded.

The conclusions come amid heightened scrutiny of oil companies’ public positions on climate issues. Bill McKibben, the writer and climate activist who founded 350.org, has endorsed the report, as have Governor Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Sonia Kowal, president of  Zevin Asset Management. 

Influence Map is funded by the Tellus Mater Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. 

The five organizations scrutinized in the report had not seen it, but two responded to questions before deadline. ExxonMobil's climate policy can be read here. A spokesman for the company said it has spent almost $9 billion on research that may boost energy supply, cut emissions, and improve efficiency.

A WSPA spokesman said the group educates the public "on the facts and science often left out of today's climate storyline" and that its lobbying is in compliance with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.

The report was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. "But on first glance, it looks rigorous and well documented," said Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist who has conducted extensive research on conservative climate influence networks. "Given we know much less than we ought to about corporate influence on climate change misinformation," he said, "any sort of honest effort by NGOs, academic research, or legal officials is a step in the right direction."

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