The People Who are Killing the Earth Have Names And Addresses — Let’s Stop Them
Wildfires are burning out of control on the west coast and communities across the United States are parched by historic droughts. This past winter, an extreme winter storm froze the power grid in Texas killing more than 100 people, and the NOAA is predicting yet another brutal Atlantic hurricane season this summer and fall.
The IPCC — the definitive United Nations science body that reviewed more than 14,000 scientific reports last year — has declared unequivocally in its 6th assessment that the climate is changing, and we are running out of time to take the bold action that we need to blunt the worst effects of this crisis.
The UN Secretary General calls this moment “Code Red for Humanity” and a “death knell” for fossil fuels. Military officials call climate change an existential threat to the United States and the vast majority of the population agrees. In a recent survey conducted by Gallup, more than 80% of Americans said that climate change is a critical (58%) or important (23%) threat to the interest of the United States.
But Congress has failed to pass any sort of meaningful climate legislation and Republicans and Democrats stripped some of the important investments in addressing climate change out of the latest infrastructure bill. At the same time, the Biden administration is continuing to greenlight more fossil fuel extraction than Trump, and refusing to shut down projects his administration directly oversees like the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and the Line 3 and Line 5 pipelines.
If we all agree that climate change is an existential threat, why aren’t policy makers taking the types of bold steps that we need to rise to this challenge?
One big reason for this failure to act is the fossil fuel industry’s aggressive campaigning in Washington, DC. A recent sting operation by Greenpeace documented how ExxonMobil used aggressive lobbying techniques, front groups, strategically placed op-eds, advertisements, political briefings, and bad faith arguments to derail action to address climate change.
ExxonMobil’s dirty tricks were exposed, but they are not the only ones standing in the way of meaningful action on climate. OpenSecrets reports that in 2020, oil and gas companies spent $112 million on federal lobbying, employing an army of 686 lobbyists — two-thirds of whom are former government officials cashing in on their political influence.
And that’s just the lobbying activity. There is no public accounting of the ‘grassroots’ lobbying efforts — strategically placed op-eds, advertisements, and funding junk science — that make up the bulk of spending to influence public policy. For instance in 2018 (the most recent year on record) the American Petroleum Institute — whose non-profit status requires public spending disclosures, spent just $6.9 million on lobbying but paid $35.2 million to two communications firms that are not registered lobbyists: GSD&M and Pool House.
It’s time to Start Taking Names
The fossil fuel industry has too much influence within our government. If we are going to win meaningful action on climate change, we need to clear the air. That means naming names, holding the people and institutions that are blocking action on climate change accountable, and kicking these people out of the rooms where decisions are happening.
“The Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed. And the folks doing the killing have names and addresses.” — Utah Phillips
To start to peel back the layers of dirty money that are driving climate policy in Washington, DC, we dug deep into House and Senate lobbying reports, tax filings of the front groups, and the personal LinkedIn profiles of some lobbyists and front-group staffers. We built a database of 3,291 unique entities and 9,586 connections between them. That includes searchable lists of lobbyists, lobby firms, trade associations, and energy companies that we’re making available to the movement. We’ve also mapped the data on an interactive powermap with Kumu (this site is password protected. Email us at info @ mvmtcatalyst.org if you’d like to collaborate), and a geographic map of their offices in Washington, DC.
This research is still very much a work in progress and we’ll continue to update, correct, and expand these data tools in the coming weeks and months. If you want to plug into this work or have information to share, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’d love to work with you.
While we’re still researching and analyzing the data, we have learned a lot about the landscape of these shadowy influence organizations and we’re seeing some real trends in how these institutions interact with each other.
The players in the fossil fuel industry’s army of lobbyists in Washington, DC fit into four major categories: The Corporate Hacks (Inside Lobbyists), Front Groups (Trade Associations), Advocates for the Devil (Right Wing Lobby Shops) and Guns for Hire (Bipartisan Lobby Shops). They each operate a little differently and neutralizing each of their influences can look different each time.
The Corporate Hacks
While most actual lobbying dollars are spent on well-connected outside lobby firms, many of the larger oil and gas companies have registered lobbyists on their direct payrolls. For instance, in 2020 and 2021, Chevon had 10 lobbyists on their staff, Shell had 6 internal lobbyists, ConocoPhillips had 4 internal lobbyists and Occidental Petroleum had 2. The two ExxonMobil lobbyists who were caught up in Greenpeace’s sting operation were among the 5 registered lobbyists on the company’s payroll.
In many ways these lobbyists are the least interesting. Everybody knows who they are and that they’re speaking for their company’s bottom line and nothing else. They’re often the ones that are crafting the overall strategy for their companies and dispatching front groups and their lobby firms to go do their dirty work to keep their companies at an arm’s length from the most indefensible positions.
The oil and gas companies that are blocking action to address climate change are doing serious damage to our planet and they should be held accountable. Many elected officials have pledged to not take money from the fossil fuel industry. That’s an important step but elected officials should also keep these companies out of the conversation by refusing to meet with their lobbyists.
Much of the dirty work is left up to the front groups. These are trade associations and organizations that are set up and run by oil and gas companies. Many have registered lobbyists on staff — the American Petroleum Institute, for instance, has a team of more than a dozen registered lobbyists. But they also contract outside lobby firms to represent them on Capitol Hill and with administration agencies.
In addition to doing the heavy lifting for the industry, these front groups also allow companies to insulate their brands from publicly supporting unpopular positions. Instead of publicly opposing investment in clean energy as part of the infrastructure bill, energy companies sent the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers Association out to do that.
In an interview with Slate, investigative journalist Lawrence Carter, who captured ExxonMobil lobbyists explaining their strategy on tape, described the way that the company uses front groups:
“What Exxon does now is work through groups like the American Petroleum Institute or American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers or the American Chemistry Council. It does that for a few reasons. The first, as Mr. McCoy says, is to send in the whipping boy. So if a progressive Congress member wants to pull the CEO, Darron Woods, in front of a congressional inquiry, what Exxon tries to do instead is send in the whipping boy to take the beating. That is someone from the American Petroleum Institute.”
While the API is probably the most well-known industry front group, they are by no means alone in the lobbying landscape. In 2019, InfluenceMap named the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers Association (AFPM) along with the API as trade groups exerting the most influence over energy policy in the United States.
Fossil fuel companies rely on these front groups to keep themselves and their brands at an arm’s length from some of most indefensible positions they support. The best way to undermine this behavior is to hold the member companies and donors accountable for their work.
Check out our interactive powermap to explore relationships between trade associations, lobbying firms, and government officials.
Advocates for the Devil
While many lobbying firms boast about their bipartisan staff and ability to work on both sides of the aisle, there are a number of firms representing oil and gas companies that don’t even pretend to be bipartisan. Principles at these firms tend to have backgrounds as staffers with some of the most radically conservative members of Congress.
These firms tend to be some of the most aggressive attack dogs for the oil and gas industry, and many also have other unsavory clients. For instance, Miller Strategies, which represents companies like Energy Transfer Partners, Occidental, and Valero, also represents PhARMA (pharmaceutical trade organization) and CoreCivic (private prison operator). Other firms like Owen, Evans, Ingols are specially focused on the oil and gas industry, and energy companies make up the lion’s share of their portfolios.
These firms should be seen as an extension of the fossil fuel industry and should be identified as such. It’s unlikely that any of these firms would be willing to (or could afford to) sever their relationships with the oil and gas industry, so the best approach to engaging with these firms is to disrupt their work and work to isolate and minimize their influence in policy discussions.
Click here to see our database of top right-wing lobby firms representing fossil fuel companies on Capitol Hill.
Guns for Hire
The majority of firms representing oil and gas companies in Washington at least claim to be bipartisan. This allows them to maintain relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and exert influence on Administration agencies regardless of who is in the White House. Many of the lobbyists for these firms spent time working in government and they’re now cashing in on their experience and relationships.
Subject Matter, for instance, is run by Steve Elmendorf, a major donation bundler for the democrats who was Chief of Staff for Dick Gephardt and senior advisor to the Kerry and Clinton presidential campaigns. On the left, Subject Matter’s clients include Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the Tides Foundation, and the Brennan Center for Justice. But Subject Matter also represents BP, Southern Company, and Goldman Sachs.
Another firm, the S3 Group, boasts that its staff includes Michaeleen Earle Crowell, a former Chief of Staff to Bernie Sanders and Michael Long, former senior staffer for Nancy Pelosi. On Capitol Hill, however, S3 represents the API, Duke Energy, Koch Industries, and the American Chemistry Council, as well as the National Rifle Association.
And some progressive organizations are making very strange decisions to be represented by lobbying firms with very troubling clients. The Environmental Defense Action Fund has been paying Monument Advocacy about $30,000 each quarter to represent its interests. At the same time, Monument Advocacy is representing Shell Oil, the Chamber of Commerce, and JP Morgan Chase on Capitol Hill.
The EDF isn’t alone in being represented by lobbying firms that work against their interests. The Nature Conservancy, the Trevor Project, Trout Unlimited, and the Earth Day Network are all represented by lobbying firms that also represent major oil and gas companies.
These guns for hire are getting rich by playing both sides of the aisle and that is giving credibility to the fossil fuel industry’s destructive agenda. They need to be forced to pick a side: They can either work with the oil and gas industry to block action on climate change, or they can be responsible advocates on Capitol Hill.
Let’s Take Action
We are running out of time to confront the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry is very effectively blocking the bold and transformative change that we need. They’ve built an incredibly powerful network of front groups and lobby shops that are doing a great job of spreading misinformation, obscuring issues, and quietly sneaking important changes into and out of legislation.
If we are going to have a chance of moving forward bold and transformative climate action, we need to clear the air to end big oil’s political influence. WE need to isolate and marginalize the industry by repeatedly disrupting their business as usual and dramatizing the damage that they are doing. We need to go after the firms and front groups that are the foundation of the oil industry’s political influence, taking away their social license to operate and making their lives miserable. We should force institutions that are playing both sides of the aisle to make hard choices by asking “which side are you on?” and making the costs of being on the wrong side of history clear.
Together we can and we must take bold direct action to disrupt big oil’s political influence and open the door for transformative climate action.