More than 1,500 lobbyists in the US 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 legitimizes 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 US 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 Defense 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 didn’t 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 organizations 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 organizations 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 isn’t 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 US.
Seth McKeel, a former Republican state legislator in Florida, is lobbyist to both Apple, which has vowed to completely decarbonize 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.