As some US cities confront the climate crisis, their lobbyists work for big oil
Municipalities that are suffering from the climate crisis employ lobbyists already in the pay of fossil fuel companies Liberal cities and counties across the US including ones suing oil and gas companies are employing lobbyists who also represent the fossil fuel industry, new research shows. The city of Baltimore, which in 2018 sued fossil fuel companies for damages related to the climate crisis, shared a lobbyist with one of the defendants in the case: ExxonMobil. Californias San Mateo county in 2017 teamed up with the counties of Santa Cruz and Marin, as well as the cities of Richmond, Imperial Beach and Santa Cruz, to sue BP and other oil companies. However, in 2021 and 2022, San Mateo county shared a lobbyist with BP. That lobbyist also represented the oil company Edison. Marin county, meanwhile, was in 2021 represented by a lobbyist who also works for NRG Energy, which operates coal and gas power plants. Meanwhile, Charleston, South Carolina, which sued big oil in 2020, shares a lobbyist with the US arm of Holcim, a building materials producer that is also involved in oil and gas well drilling as well as coal mining abroad, a filing retrieved in 2022 shows. The revelations come from a new database which tracks the clients of more than 1,500 state-level lobbyists who represent the fossil fuel industry while also working for governments, environmental nonprofits and other entities which say they are fighting the climate crisis. Until now, no one was really complaining about this, so there was no political price to pay, said James Browning, a former Common Cause lobbyist who compiled the data for a new venture called F Minus. Dozens of municipalities have sued big oil over the climate crisis in recent years, citing environmental harms that fossil fuel companies allegedly helped create. The seaside city of Baltimore in its lawsuit demands oil companies help pay the costs of protecting the city from rising sea levels; the California municipalities and Charleston cases cite damages from increasingly severe flooding and beach erosion. For these governments to employ fossil fuel-aligned lobbyists is tragic, said Browning. The stakes for people living in these cities could not be higher, he said. Robert Brulle, a visiting professor of environmental sociology at Brown University who has studied fossil fuel lobbying , said the new findings should raise concerns among the municipalities officials. Lobbyists will take money from anybody, he said. The question is: are they really working in your best interest ... if theyre also representing an opponent? Thats especially true, he said, because the oil industry has such deep pockets to ensure its lobbyists staunchly represent its interests. While almost all US states require lobbyists to register and submit regular disclosure reports, the sector is otherwise largely unregulated , experts say. Lobbyists tend to not represent opponents on both sides of a single piece of legislation, but they are permitted to work for clients with opposing aims. And though it is considered unethical to share clients sensitive information with opponents, there are few legal guardrails to prohibit the practice. Michelle Durand, chief communications officer for San Mateo county, said Political Solutions the lobbying firm that also represents BP is one of the countys two representatives. Asked if it creates a conflict of interest for the firm to work for two opposing interests on a lawsuit, Durand said: The firm works on health and human service issues for the county and not environmental issues. Sign up to Down to Earth The planet's most important stories. Get all the week's environment news - the good, the bad and the essential after newsletter promotion Jack OToole, director of communications for the city of Charleston in South Carolina, said his citys lobbying contract with Shannon Bruning, who also represented building materials producer Holcim, was won in a competitive bidding process. The firm works to advance city priorities in the state capital on issues such as affordable housing, departmental grants and budget appropriations, he said. But Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law, said its concerning for counties and cities that are legally challenging big oil to work with fossil fuel-aligned lobbyists on any issues, because the climate crisis, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, affects so many facets of life. Climate change impacts human health, impacts health costs, it impacts mortality rates and morbidity rates, it impacts water and impacts access to housing, he said. If a city or county is sharing information with regard to those precise issues with a lobbying firm that is committed to representing that industry zealously, they are taking a huge leap of faith. Thats especially true, he said, for municipalities that are suing polluting companies. The only way you can really take that leap of faith is by somehow assuming that that climate policy, that energy policy, that fossil fuels are completely compartmentalized from all the other core governmental functions that you might seek lobbying for, like health and social services, he said. Information sharing, he said, could help fossil fuel interests avert responsibility for their harsh effects on residents. Lobbying firms are sometimes thought of as hired guns who will work for anyone, but theres a problem with that approach, said Muffett. Theres a question of who theyre hired for and what theyre pointing at in any given moment, he said. Other liberal municipalities that tout their climate action plans are also employing lobbyists who work for the oil and gas industry. Los Angeles, which in recent years has announced plans to ban new urban oilwells and create a zero-carbon grid by 2050, shares a lobbyist with the gas firm Tenaska, as of 2021. Philadelphia, which plans to neutralize its carbon emissions by 2050, in 2021 shared a lobbyist with an arm of the Koch Industries network. And Chicago, which aims to cut its emissions by 62% by 2040 and power all buildings with renewables by 2035, shared a lobbyist in 2021 with BP. Many cities that employ fossil fuel lobbyists are also among the worst affected by the climate crisis. The city of New Orleans, where rising seas are an existential threat, shared a lobbyist with oilfield services company Baker Hughes and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil & Gas Association fossil fuel trade group. Juneau, Alaska, where precipitation and temperatures have dramatically increased amid climate breakdown, shared a lobbyist with ExxonMobil. Mitch Jones, the Baltimore-based director for policy and litigation at Food & Water Watch, said he understands that municipalities may simply be looking for well-connected, successful representation. Sure, you want the best lobbyists you can get, and sometimes those people are going to be people who are perhaps compromised, he said. But ultimately, he said, governments should avoid such relationships if they truly aim to take on the climate crisis, which top scientists say will require halting fossil fuel production. If the goal is to shut down the fossil fuel industry, then obviously having somebody whose income is dependent upon the continued existence of the fossil fuel industry on contract is a problem, he said.