In March 2019, the ENVI (Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety) and PETI (Petitions) committees of the European Parliament (EP) held a joint public hearing on climate change denial(1). Mr Darren Woods, the CEO of oil and gas multinational corporation ExxonMobil, was invited to participate, having denied not only to appear himself but also anyone else from the company. Following this absence, the Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament, in particular Title IV, rule 123(2), dictate that: “the Secretary-General shall, with the authorisation of the Quaestors, withdraw or de-activate a long-term access badge where its holder (…) has refused, without offering a sufficient justification, to comply with a formal summons to attend a hearing or committee meeting or to cooperate with a committee of inquiry”.
Consequently, a ban request was pushing for applying these rules and following a similar situation that happened in 2017 with Monsanto(3). With Exxon, however, the story was different, as the Conference of Presidents of the EP did not accept the request. Therefore their lobbyists are still allowed to enter the European Parliament.
The fossil-fuel industry (FFI) influence in lobbying our Union is a threat we cannot underestimate. The five major oil and gas corporations (Exxon, BP, Chevron, Total, and Shell, hereafter called “Top5”) spent €251.3 million in total from 2010 to 2018. While twenty FFI companies emit 35% of all CO2 and methane emissions since 1965, 10% are the responsibility of the Top5(4). Nevertheless, despite these statistics being of general knowledge, the Juncker Commission met 327 times with their lobbyists.
Meeting an average of more than once per week lobbying EU officials delivered visible results. During the past years, both the money spent by Top5 in lobbying and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been increasing. This practice is closely related to the impact the FFI has in influencing decisions taken in Brussels and at national and international levels. Declarations from former French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, who announced a bill to ban the renewal of permits for the exploitation of oil and gas during his time in the government, illustrate Big Oil’s influence in crucially affecting his ambitions(5). Moreover, the constant sponsoring of UN climate talks/COPs by the FFI has inevitably led to weaker and sabotaged action by decision-makers in this global context (6).
Focusing only on the EU level, we have evidence of not only “revolving doors” episodes(7), but also groups such as BusinessEurope, while not being an official FFI lobby, offering “particular services” to four companies (8) of the Top5 – and, on a leaked memo from 2018, it is possible to read its plans for “opposing the new increase of ambition” concerning the climate 2030 targets(9).
Furthermore, in 2020 the London-based think tank InfluenceMap published a briefing illustrating the influence FFI lobbyists are having on climate policy-making since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (at the time, until July 1st)(10). There are several things to take away from the document: oil and gas had been the most booming sector in lobbying (and over two times more fruitful than pro-climate interests) worldwide. In the particular case of the EU, InfluenceMap explains how the natural gas lobby has successfully greenwashed its role of “bridging” the current FFI status quo and a zero-carbon future. This influence of the natural gas lobby, in particular via consultancies/PR companies and associations such as GasNaturally, have, among other ways, successfully influenced the high level and advisory groups and pushed for new gas infrastructure that perpetuates the dependency of our Union on the FFI for potentially another half-a-century(11).
To understand the severity of this situation, one should further analyse the power of the FFI, mainly what followed the failure of the request to ban Exxon lobbyists. Exxon’s website features a section called “Understanding the #ExxonKnew controversy” since February 2021. Its purpose is to discredit those who accuse them of being aware of the negative impacts of their business activities on the environment for decades(12). While the multinational was absent from the EP hearing in which it was supposed to be present, it still wrote a letter(13) trying to disrepute research done on this matter(14)– at the same time, evidence shows the relation between the FFI and the increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is known since, at least, 1957(15).
Another evidence that the industry remains determined to keep its lobbying tactics and avoid being held accountable by its practices16 is the attempts made before the launch of the European Green Deal, announced in December 2019 as the path to making the EU carbon neutral by 2050. when three Exxon officials met with a member of the cabinet of Vice President Frans Timmermans. Following InfluenceMap, Exxon in particular and the FFI, in general, have constantly been pushing for delaying and/or avoiding meaningful action in our response to the climate crisis(17).
Finally, and besides economic power – the Top5 profited €75.6 billion in 2018 –, other factors that justify the influence of the FFI in (supposedly) greening Europe are their employment numbers and the weight in (some) national GDPs, as well as the overall lack of transparency around corporate lobbying. Nevertheless, a 2020 EU report(18) refers that while the FFI was responsible for more than four hundred thousand EU-28 jobs in 2016, only around 250 000 were related to the oil and gas industry. The trend is for these to continue being replaced by the sector of renewable energy sources (RES) (pages 22 and 23). On the other hand, RES directly employed nearly 660 000 people in the same year – more than 50% compared to FFI (page 20).
The question is no longer whether the green transition is inevitable, as it is already happening one way or another. But it is, now more than ever, essential to reflect on the responsibilities of those who got us to this situation and the role (or the absence of it) they should have in the upcoming decades.
1 European Parliament, “Joint PETI and ENVI Public Hearing on Climate Change Denial,” 2019, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/product/product-details/20190313CHE06141.
2 European Parliament, “Rules of Procedure of the European Parliament” (2019), https://www.europarl.europa.eu/sipade/rules20190702/Rules20190702_EN.pdf.
3 Arthur Nelsen, “Monsanto Banned from European Parliament,” The Guardian, September 28, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/28/monsanto-banned-from-european-parliament.
4 “Revealed: The 20 Firms behind a Third of All Carbon Emissions,” The Guardian, October 9, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions.
5 Lucie Alexandre and Laurent de Boissieu, “Démission de Nicolas Hulot, Les Lobbys En Accusation,” La Croix, August 29, 2018, https://www.la-croix.com/France/Politique/Demission-Nicolas-Hulot-lobbys-accusation 2018-08-29-1200964804.
6 Corporate Europe Observatory, “Polluting Paris: How Big Polluters Are Undermining Global Climate Policy” (Brussels, 2017), https://corporateeurope.org/en/climate-and-energy/2017/11/polluting-paris.
7 Corporate Europe Observatory, “Revolving Door Watch: Chris Davies,” https://corporateeurope.org/en/revolvingdoorwatch/cases/chris-davies.
8 “AS Group,” Business Europe, https://www.businesseurope.eu/about-us/asgroup-our-partner-companies. 9Frédéric Simon, “Leaked Memo Exposes Business Rift on Climate Change,” Euractiv.com, September 27, 2018, https://www.euractiv.com/section/climate-environment/news/leaked-memo-exposes-business-rift-on climate-change/.
10 InfluenceMap, “Fossil Fuel Lobbyists Are Dominating Climate Policy Battles During COVID-19” (London, 2020), https://influencemap.org/report/Fossil-Fuel-Lobbyists-Are-Dominating-Climate-Policy-Battles-During-COVID 19-a78b11aa1be42aef5d7078d09457603b.
11 Corporate Europe Observatory, “The Great Gas Lock-in: Industry Lobbying behind the EU Push for New Gas Infrastructure” (Brussels, 2017), https://corporateeurope.org/en/climate-and-energy/2017/10/great-gas-lock. 12 ExxonMobil, “Understanding the #ExxonKnew Controversy,” 2021, https://corporate.exxonmobil.com/Sustainability/Environmental-protection/Climate-change/Understanding the-ExxonKnew-controversy.
13 Available at the Greens/EFA website, “Letter from ExxonMobil to the European Parliament,” 2019, https://www.greens-efa.eu/files/doc/docs/45c16543db07f64eb368c4aa152b48a4.pdf. 14 Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, “Assessing ExxonMobil’s Climate Change Communications,” Environmental Research Letters 12, no. 084019 (2017).
15 Roger Revelle and Hans E. Suess, “Carbon Dioxide Exchange Between Atmosphere and Ocean and the Question of an Increase of Atmospheric CO2 during the Past Decades,” Tellus 9, no. 1 (1957): 18–27, https://doi.org/10.3402/tellusa.v9i1.9075.
16 The Center for International Environmental Law, “Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis,” 2017, https://www.ciel.org/wp content/uploads/2019/01/Smoke-Fumes.pdf.
17 InfluenceMap, “ExxonMobil Attempts to Influence the European Green Deal” (London, 2020), https://influencemap.org/report/An-InfluenceMap-Note-ExxonMobil-Lobbies-the-EU-Commission add01200dc694b00e9ac4bebf660227b.
18 Veronika Czako, “Employment in the Energy Sector Status Report 2020,” EUR 30186 EN (Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2020), https://doi.org/10.2760/95180.