Three ways the fossil fuel industry influences the UK political system – and three things you can do

Climate change is one terrifying symptom of a broken economic system which needs a drastic redistribution of power. You can help.

Amy Hall
19 April 2017

Oil rigs moored in Cromarty Firth, Invergordon, Scotland. Berardo62/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Climate change is bad news. According to the Government's own Climate Change Risk Assessment, we are already facing high risks to health, well-being and productivity from climate change, as well as from flooding and coastal changes. The assessment also predicts that problems with water shortages, food production, and with new pests and diseases will be high risks in the future.

Since 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is caused by humans, shouldn't our government be taking immediate and radical action? They are even facing potential legal action if they don’t produce a detailed plan for fighting climate change soon. With the Brexit Inc. series we are exploring some of the reasons why they're not. One answer could lie in fossil fuel industry lobbying.

Politics is a game of power. It's wise for any major industry – or interest group – to embed itself within Westminster and exploit this power game however it can to influence political action (or a lack of political action) for its own benefit.

"Is it time to kick fossil fuels out of politics?" asked an All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG) at the House of Commons last month. The discussion focused on how the fossil fuel industry is intertwined with UK politics. "Sometimes its interests are seen as synonymous with the British state," said Spinwatch director Tamasin Cave.

Politics is a game of power. It's wise for any major industry – or interest group – to exploit this power game for its own benefit.

Tax breaks or subsidies?

According to DeSmog UK, the Treasury has given the oil industry tax breaks worth £2.3 billion, despite companies like BP, Shell and Total making millions of billions of pounds' worth of profits in 2016 alone.

Even then, the industry is “consistently communicating what it views as the plight of the sector... whilst explicitly threatening that without immediate tax cuts, thousands of jobs would be lost,” explains InfluenceMap.

The variation in how subsidies are defined "allows the government to resist acknowledging subsidy in many areas," according to a report from the UK parliament's Environmental Audit Committee in 2013. The committee put "the reality" of energy subsidies at £12 billion a year – much of which, it stated, was directed at fossil fuels.

The government responsed: "it does not believe that it has any harmful energy policies" and said that "the UK government does not provide fossil fuel subsidies."

All in the message

To gain favourable conditions from politicians, and an easier ride from the media, the industry has to try to convince the public of its benefits.

One way it can do this is through third parties: groups like Lancashire For Shale, which promotes the extraction of shale gas in Lancashire. Its financial backers include fracking company Cuadrilla, energy company Centrica, and other players from the oil and gas supply chain. Think tanks are another vehicle through which to get the message across.

The APPG on Unconventional Oil and Gas brings the industry even closer to political power. Its income includes money from Shell International and Centrica.

The 'Big Four' accounting firms (Deloitte, EY, KPMG, PwC) also have a part to play. They are often seen as 'independent' experts on tax and have a great deal of influence. However, as highlighted by InfluenceMap, it's within these firms' interests to facilitate oil and gas lobbying as they are providing auditing services to oil and gas companies.

The revolving door

Analysis by Greenpeace last year found ten employees working in government relations for oil and gas companies who used to work in politics.

The oil and gas industry has spent millions of pounds lobbying key decision makers ahead of global climate talks, and in an effor to make big changes to UK energy policy. It held 110 meetings with senior treasury officials between January 2013 and September 2016.

Global Justice Now have produced an interactive infographic showing the 'Fossil fuel web of power' and links between UK government ministers and companies fueling climate change.

So what can be done?

1. Demand transparency

In their book A Quiet Word, Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell quote an unnamed lobbyist, saying: "the influence of lobbyists increases when... it goes largely unnoticed by the public".

Organisations like InfluenceMap and Spinwatch have exposed many of these links. Yet this was one area where the APPCCG panel thought the UK could learn from the US, as they felt the corporate capture of politics is more visible there, with stronger regulation around conflicts of interest.

As Cave pointed out at the APPCCG event, there is a lot of data out there – it's just a question of people being able to piece it together, including hospitality logs and publicly available data from ministries such as the former Department of Energy and Climate Change.

2. Divestment

The success of the fossil fuel divestment movement means it is well placed to take on fossil fuel lobbying. Already over 700 institutions have divested from fossil fuels, with a value of over $5 trillion.

There is a growing ‘Divest Parliament’ campaign centred on the £612 million parliamentary pension fund. Work to expose how much of the fund is invested in risky fossil fuels – which has been more difficult than it should be. There is also a growing movement to divest the £14 billion invested in fossil fuels through local authority pension funds.

Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas's ‘kick fossil fuels out of politics’ campaign includes a call for politicians and political parties to stop taking fossil fuel money and for the establishment of a “rigorous and detailed register of lobbyists.”

Not only does divestment have an economic impact for the industry, but the campaign has also helped deligitimise and weaken its power and highlighted the financial risks of keeping money in the industry.

3. Challenge the narrative

Things are changing and the fossil fuel industry's social license is getting weaker.

Things are changing and the fossil fuel industry's social license is getting weaker. Shell CEO Ben van Beurden is worried: "I do think trust has been eroded to the point that it is becoming a serious issue for our long term future... societal acceptance of the energy system as we have it is just disappearing."

As was highlighted by Daniel Vockins of the New Economics Foundation at the APPCCG event, climate change is one terrifying symptom of a broken economic system which needs a drastic redistribution of power.

Over the last few weeks, a series of direct actions across the UK has contributed to the gradually changing narrative around fossil fuels and the supply chain. The actions have aimed to break the chain in the fracking supply chain and expose its influence. It's this kind of action – building momentum and exposure, as well as communities across the country uniting to say 'no' to fossil fuels, and 'yes' to clean and just energy – that companies are scared of.

"The thing that you hear time and time again from corporate lobbyists is the threat of grassroots action," said Cave. "It's people organising and realising their collective strength... you hear them say 'we cannot contain this'."

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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