7 Jul 2021

Revealed: Fossil fuel companies lobby UK government for gas ‘compromise’ ahead of COP26  

Washington Correspondent

Some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have lobbied the UK government to support a gas “compromise” ahead of the COP26 UN conference, Channel 4 News can reveal.

Last year, representatives from ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Equinor and BP met with the then UK trade minister for a private dinner in Texas where natural gas was championed as a “vital part of the solution” to tackling climate change, according to a freedom of information request obtained by Greenpeace UK’s investigations unit Unearthed and shared exclusively with this programme.

Climate scientists have warned that the rising production of natural gas is becoming one of the biggest drivers of climate change, instead of being a solution.

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson told Channel 4 News the meeting was a “routine engagement with the energy industry” focussed on transitioning to cleaner energy, adding that they were “not lobbied”.

BP, Shell, Equinor and Chevron all defended their actions and said they’re committed to a cleaner energy future and reducing carbon emissions.

ExxonMobil added that oil and gas will “continue to play a critical role in meeting the world’s demand for energy”.

Last week, Channel 4 News broadcast undercover footage, also obtained by Unearthed, in which an ExxonMobil senior lobbyist claimed the company believes natural gas is “not just a bridge fuel” and it can play a “key role” in the drive for a “clean electricity standard”.

ExxonMobil’s chief executive apologised for the lobbyist’s statements, but added that he was not involved in developing the company’s policy positions on the issues.

Private dinner

A majority of the world’s governments have signed up to the Paris climate accord where they committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

A report by the International Energy Agency, which works with countries to shape energy policies, states that to reach that target no new oil and gas fields should be approved for development beyond those already committed to as of 2021.

Climate scientists say the rising production of natural gas is emerging as one of the biggest drivers of climate change, and that plans for industry expansion could hobble efforts to stabilize the Earth’s climate.

In February 2020, representatives from energy giants ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron and Equinor met with the UK’s then trade minister, Conor Burns, to discuss the UK hosting the COP26 UN climate conference later this year in Glasgow.

Britain’s Consul General in Houston, Richard Hyde, also attended and he wrote a memo for the British government.

In the summary, Mr Hyde wrote that the oil companies “want to work with the UK, including during our leadership of COP26”.

But the companies “need support from governments like ours so they can be seen as a vital part of the solution to future energy provision”, the notes say.

He added: “There needs to be a greater recognition of the role of gas in transition.

”It is cleaner than coal and is fundamental to the Texas economy.”

Moving the US and the developing world from coal to gas was a “necessary compromise”, he also noted.

‘Tidal wave’

Several cities in America have tried to scale back their use of gas, leading to a backlash from energy companies.

The Californian city of Santa Barbara is attempting to transition to renewables and is voting on a gas ban on new build properties.

Residents have since been bombarded with unsolicited emails and texts from a group linked to Southern California Gas (SolCal), it has been claimed.

Dr Leah Stokes, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, investigated the lobbying tactics used by SolCal.

She said: “The first text message said, the city of CA of Santa Barbara is trying to take gas out of your homes and it’s going to destabilize the grid and write to them right now to stop them. And I thought that’s very strange.

“The second text was signed Californian Balanced Energy Solutions and I knew exactly who that was. That’s the front group for SolCal gas.”

Asked if this equates to masquerading as a pro-consumer pressure group, she said: “Yeah, like they are representing our interests, while they spread lies.”

Meagan Harmon, who is a member of the Santa Barbara City Council, said that after the texts were sent out, the council was inundated with complaints and objections.

She said: “It was as if a tidal wave had hit us here. Just overnight, we got a huge number, maybe in the thousands of emails.

“It was really about how expensive this was going to be for every resident and how their bills were going to go through the roof and that we wouldn’t have power.”

A SolCal spokesperson said: “The most affordable, resilient and technologically proven deep decarbonization pathways require clean fuels and a supporting gas grid to transport them.”

‘Banning the ban’

In Texas, the city of Austin tried to phase out the use of natural gas on new builds as well, but the representatives from the energy industry have since made a bid to water down the proposals.

Shane Johnson, a clean energy distributed organiser at Sierra Club in Austin, said the representatives “went to the state government level” and they asked them to “ban cities from banning natural gas hook ups”.

Asked how this was possible, Mr Johnson said: “They own most state politicians… they get massive donations from the gas industry in their campaign contributions

“We’re the capital of the oil and gas industry for the US and they have so much money and power that it’s going to be a long fight.”

In a statement, a City of Austin spokesperson said the city’s climate equity plan was still in draft form.

“Texas Gas Services participated in the plan process as a stakeholder and was one of several groups to provide feedback,” the spokesperson said.

“City staff are still revising the plan and aim to release a final version next month before presenting it to Austin City Council for consideration in September.”

‘Cleaner energy future’

We contacted the firms that attended the dinner.

Shell, BP, Equinor and Chevron all defended their lobbying – and said they’re committed to a cleaner energy future and reducing carbon emissions.

Shell said: “We make no apology for talking to policy makers and regulators around the world about climate change and how to tackle it – business must be part of the solution.”

Shell, Chevron, Equinor and ExxonMobil all said they “support the Paris Agreement”.

BP said gas was “an important part of our business and has a critical role to play in the transition to net zero” – but that its strategy includes a fall in global oil and gas production and a tenfold rise in renewables by 2030.

Equinor too said it was “accelerating our own transition away from fossil energy sources to renewable ones”.

ExxonMobil added that oil and gas will “continue to play a critical role in meeting the world’s demand for energy”, noting that “many national and state governments have included a shift to natural gas in their carbon-reduction programs, recognizing the contribution that natural gas can make.”

A Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spokesperson said: “To achieve net zero we need to speak to a variety of partners across different sectors, including those in the energy industry.

“This was a routine engagement with the energy industry focussed on the importance of the transition to a clean energy future.  We discussed their investments in renewable energies and their decarbonisation plans, and we were not lobbied.”