Oil firms under fire for lobbying on COP26 climate summit

The oil industry has lobbied the Scottish Government on “the importance of balanced messaging” in the run-up to the global climate summit which is due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021.

Shell and Oil & Gas UK (OGUK), which represents offshore fossil fuel companies, both lobbied Scottish energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse, about the summit in 2020. They stressed how the industry could help the transition to a low-carbon future.

But the companies have been accused of “greenwashing” by environmentalists, who have demanded the fossil fuel industry be kept away from the summit. Companies will try to block action needed to combat the climate emergency and to “capture” the agenda, campaigners warned.

The oil companies defended their role, insisting that they were committed to cutting climate pollution. The summit was “the ideal arena for highlighting global climate change leadership”, said OGUK.

The summit is known as COP26 because it is the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It was originally due to take place in November 2020, but was postponed to November 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Though it is still scheduled to proceed, there are fears it could be slimmed down, go online or even be postponed again if lockdown travel restrictions persist. The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she hoped COP26 could go ahead “but clearly we will all need to consider the position.”

COP26 could be the largest international summit ever held in the UK. It is seen by many as the most important since the historic agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions agreed by 196 countries in Paris in 2015. The new US President, Jo Biden, is expected to attend.

Face-to-face meetings to lobby Holyrood ministers and MSPs must be recorded in the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register. Lobbyists only have to register meetings every six months, so they sometimes don’t become public for months.

The register reveals that Shell UK director, John Gallagher, lobbied Wheelhouse at a conference in Florence, Italy, on 3 February 2020. “The meeting covered a number of topics, primarily climate change and the current Scottish forecasts, and the important role of gas in the energy transition,” said the company’s entry.

“Also discussed was COP26 in Glasgow, and the importance of balanced messaging in the lead up to the event and the need to highlight the role of the oil and gas industry as a key player in making the energy transition work, in part due to the world-class skills base that resides in the sector.”

Three Shell officials also lobbied the then Scottish Conservative leader, Jackson Carlaw MSP, at Holyrood in February 2020 about “preparations for COP26”.

Gareth Wynn and Matthew Abraham from OGUK lobbied Wheelhouse at a video conference on 17 June 2020. One of their purposes was “to ask the minister if OGUK could contact the government ahead of plans for COP26, given the industry’s recently published emissions targets.”

The fossil fuel industry will be doing everything it can to use this prestigious summit for greenwashing.

Mary Church, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Friends of the Earth Scotland accused “big polluters” of becoming “more overt” in their efforts to influence UN climate talks. “The fossil fuel industry will be doing everything it can to use this prestigious summit for greenwashing and to hinder a transformative response to the climate emergency,” said the environmental group’s head of campaigns, Mary Church.

“OGUK’s net-zero plans are utterly disingenuous, and fall firmly into the greenwash category, focusing as they do on the small fraction of emissions relating to production, ignoring the impact of actually using the oil and gas extracted.”

She argued that there needed to be a “rapid” conversion of offshore oil and gas towards renewables. Until OGUK was willing to talk about a “just transition” to limit the average global temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees centigrade “they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near COP26”.

Church also cautioned that the Scottish and UK governments’ “incoherence” and “fossil fuel cheerleading” was becoming “increasingly strained” under the spotlight of COP26. Pressure was mounting, she said, “to align their fossil fuel policy with their legally binding obligations under the Paris agreement.”

Dr Will Dinan, an expert on lobbying and climate communications from the University of Stirling, pointed out that corporate interests were “well embedded” in COP26 sponsorship. “Shell pushing for balanced messaging is really code for ensuring that business friendly policies are reflected in COP outcomes,” he said.

“There are widespread concerns among environmental organisations that policy conferences like COP26 are effectively captured by corporate interests and the businesses doing most harm to the climate.”

Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, warned that the world was running out of time to cut climate pollution. “The last people we want in the room at the COP26 climate summit is the oil industry,” he said.

“Allowing powerful vested interests from the most damaging industries to lobby such a critical international summit would be dangerous when we only have nine years left before the Paris agreement’s deadline.”

Shell pointed out it also discussed offshore wind and carbon capture and storage with Wheelhouse. Its business was changing to help achieve a “net-zero world” in which society ceased putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the company said.

“We are crystal clear about our support for the Paris agreement, the European Commission’s vision to achieve EU climate neutrality by 2050 and the steps we are taking to help meet society’s need for more and cleaner energy,” a Shell spokesperson told The Ferret.

“We regularly meet with policymakers and regulators, in accordance with the rules of the European transparency register, to share our knowledge and views on crucial topics including the energy system, which we all agree needs to change. Everything we do is to advocate for good policy outcomes to that end.”

On 4 February 2021 Shell announced a global net loss of £16 billion in 2020 after a slump in demand due to Covid-19. Other oil companies also suffered big losses.

Oil & Gas UK pointed to its “ambitious” targets to halve production emissions in the next decade. “COP26 is the ideal arena for highlighting global climate change leadership and our industry is already in action demonstrating to both the UK and Scottish governments how we can support the transition to a low carbon future,” said OGUK’s sustainability director, Mike Tholen.

“As well as improving the sustainability of industry operations, Roadmap 2035, our blueprint for delivering a net zero basin, also sets out how our changing industry can continue to support jobs and energy communities both now and in future,” he added.

“Our world class supply chain is helping drive this change and we continue to champion its essential expertise both at home and on the global stage in our ongoing engagement with both governments ahead of this significant and timely conference.”

The Scottish Government described its legal framework for cutting emissions as the “most ambitious in the world”. This included a commitment to a “just transition where no one is left behind”.

Ensuring a sustainable future for all those who work in the oil and gas sector was a “key aspect” of an energy transition group chaired by Wheelhouse, the government said. The group had “led discussion on how to help the industry embrace the energy transition and green recovery and accelerate investment in renewable energy to decarbonise production.”

The government argued that its £62 million energy transition fund helped to protect and create new jobs by opening up opportunities in renewables. “The skills, expertise and infrastructure of the oil and gas sector and its supply chain will be vital in unlocking these opportunities,” said a government spokesperson.

“Such is the scale of the challenge and Scotland’s ambition, every aspect our society and economy will need to decarbonise. Everyone will have a role to play and Scottish ministers, right across government, are discussing this task with their stakeholders.

“While relevant tax powers are reserved to UK ministers, the Scottish Government’s continued support for oil and gas sector businesses operating in the North Sea is now conditional upon their move to net zero.”

This story was updated at 12.05 on 10 February 2021 to add comments from the Scottish Government. Photo thanks to iStock/avstraliavasin.

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