Revealed: The revolving door between fossil fuel industry and the UK Government 5

Revealed: The revolving door between fossil fuel industry and the UK Government

Over 100 people from the oil and gas sector have taken up senior government roles under the Conservatives, and two dozen have left such positions to work for major oil companies. 

An investigation by The Ferret has found that since 2011, 127 former oil and gas employees in total – including 49 industry bosses or senior executives – have been recruited into top government roles and ministerial advisory boards. 

Almost three quarters – 92 – have worked for at least one of three major energy giants: BP, Shell or Centrica. More than half were appointed to public posts in foreign policy, defence and nuclear decommissioning. 

A dozen held positions with either the oil and gas watchdog, North Sea Transition Authority  or departments responsible for energy policy and delivering net zero. 

Scotland's seas in danger

Carbon emissions from burning oil, gas and coal are widely acknowledged as the primary cause of climate change, and the revolving door between the government and fossil fuel sector has been condemned by campaigners and opposition politicians.

They expressed concern that the scale of recruitment from the oil and gas industry risks skewing decision-making away from the public interest. 

One critic argued that it is “not conducive to strong climate action or transition from fossil fuels”, while a backbench Labour MP called for fossil fuel industry staff to be “made pariahs, not policymakers in the highest levels of government.” 

The Cabinet Office said in reply that the government “rightly draws on experience from a range of industries to ensure the best possible people are appointed to public sector roles.”

The Ferret analysed the biographies of over 5,000 current and former government ministers and senior officials as well as 1,800 recommendation letters from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), to identify those mentioning a former or parallel role in the oil and gas industry. 

At least two dozen former government staff went on to work for an oil and gas company since 2011, according to ACOBA. Fourteen officials came from diplomatic, defence or energy ranks. 

The investigation is part of The Ferret’s Scotland’s Seas in Danger series and comes after the government granted new permissions for drilling in the North Sea in January 2023.

Climate action group Uplift said the government has been prioritising new oil and gas licensing when it should have been reducing fuel poverty via alternative solutions. 

“But when you see how fast the revolving door between the government and the oil and gas industry has been spinning, it all starts to make sense,” it claimed.

sepa pensions shell
Almost three quarters of the people who have taken up senior government roles have worked for at least one of three major energy giants: BP, Shell or Centrica

Oil diplomacy

Since 2011, at least 15 former oil industry employees have found jobs at the foreign, commonwealth and development office (FCDO, known as the foreign and commonwealth office, FCO, before 2020) . The list includes one minister and three ambassadors, while seven foreign office ministers and high commissioners found jobs in the industry after stepping down from their public post. 

Shell, BP and other major oil and mining companies have their own government relations departments and civil servants are sometimes seconded to them. Kate Smith, former ambassador to Greece, was seconded to Shell from the FCO to advise on international government relations before joining the oil giant as head of UK government relations. She later rejoined the foreign office. 

Thomas Reilly, a former ambassador to Morocco and Mauritania, advised Shell on international government relations in his previous role. While ambassador to Mauritania, he “lobbied at the highest level for BP’s market entry and for Shell’s successful acreage bid”, according to his LinkedIn profile (the wording has been amended after The Ferret contacted him for comment). Prior to his Shell post, Reilly was a diplomat at the FCO for 14 years. 

A former ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, worked for the FCO for 21 years before joining the oil and gas company BG Group as head of government affairs and political risk. He was appointed ambassador after stepping down from BG Group, now part of Shell. Macaire is currently chief adviser at Rio Tinto, a multinational mining company. 

BP organised dinners for senior FCO staff between 2013 and 2015. One of the foreign office’s objectives at the time was to help UK energy companies win “major new contracts”. 

The topics discussed over dinner included the relationship between BP and the FCO as well as political developments in the countries where BP was operating, including Russia, the Middle East and China. 

BP previously admitted to lobbying the UK Government for the prisoner transfer of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, to Libya in 2007, so that the “negative consequences” of UK commercial interests would have been avoided.

Polluter NEDs

Since 2011, 31 former oil and gas staff have served as non-executive directors (NEDs) on government departmental boards, the principal governance bodies of ministerial departments. 

Eight of them had a parallel job on the board of an oil company, including four at BP. 

Government NEDs are little-known positions, introduced in 2010, to advise and challenge ministers on strategy, performance and policies. Positions are part-time, remunerated and can pay as much as £1,000 per day. 

NED activities include overseeing major projects, appraising senior civil servants, and providing “input and knowledge” on issues such as climate change and levelling up. 

A parliamentary inquiry found in 2023 that “little is known about their roles and impact on government business” as NEDs often do more than what is made public. The inquiry was concerned over the lack of transparency and accountability in recruiting NEDs. 

A former BP’s chief financial officer (CFO), Brian Gilvary, is a member of the defence board at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and chairs its audit and risk assurance committee. 

The board advises the defence secretary and is responsible for “top level” management. Its main focus is on the “strategy and plans for generating military forces”. The audit and risk committee reviews the “comprehensiveness, reliability and integrity of the MoD’s risk and assurance framework”. 

Gilvary chairs a subsidiary of the British petrochemical conglomerate Ineos, Ineos Energy, which produces and trades oil, gas and carbon credits. 

A former CFO of Shell, Simon Henry, began serving on the defence board after he stepped down from Shell and remained an NED until 2022. While in his public post, Henry also sat on the board of directors of Rio Tinto and Harbour Energy, a British oil and gas company operating in the UK North Sea, Indonesia and Mexico.

Henry said: “Successful private sector executives likely have expertise in areas such as finance, technology, procurement and above all in leadership of large complex organisations. All of this is potentially valuable to both ministers and senior civil servants, if properly utilised.

“In over 20 years of engaging with governments around the world, I have never encountered anyone lobbying to increase demand for fossil fuels.  Rather the emphasis has been on finding and developing enough secure, economic and sustainable energy of all kinds to meet existing and future customer demand, which in turn is not driven by supply.”

Fifteen other current and former officials at the MoD previously worked for the oil and gas industry. 

The first ever government lead NED, a position that oversees the work of all other NEDs, was a former oil executive. Lord John Browne, the chief executive of BP until 2007 and later chairman of the fracking company Cuadrilla, was appointed by the 2010 coalition government and stayed in post until 2015. 

One of his main tasks was to help secretaries of state appoint NEDs to all ministerial departments.

After public service, Browne stayed in the oil industry as executive chairman of L1 Energy, an oil and gas investment firm backed by Russian billionaire, Mikhail Fridman. He currently co-chairs the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and sits on the board of directors of Babco Energies, the Bahraini public oil and gas company.

Two BP bosses had served on the board of the now-dissolved Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), a ministry responsible for net zero strategy. Thirty-five people took jobs at departments overseeing energy policy or their agencies.

The majority have worked for agencies related to nuclear energy, including the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and Atomic Weapons Establishment, a public company that produces nuclear weapons for the UK nuclear programme Trident.  

Five former oil and gas executives held positions at North Sea Transition Authority, called the Oil and Gas Authority until 2022. It is an arm’s length body of the department for energy security and net zero that awards drilling licences to the oil industry. 

Policy capture incompatible with climate action

Labour MP Clive Lewis – a member of Westminster’s environment audit committee – said the findings were “hardly a surprise” but he found it “particularly concerning that fossil fuel employees are being allowed anywhere near the watchdog that is meant to regulate their former industry” or to hold positions in the department responsible for energy transition.

“We know that carbon emissions are the root cause of environmental destabilisation. They are a key driver of increasingly extreme weather patterns, food price inflation, and water shortages. So fossil fuel enablers should be made pariahs, not policymakers in the highest levels of government,” Lewis added.

The Scottish Greens’ environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, claimed a fair and just transition toward renewable energy is at risk as long as there is a “cosy relationship” between decision makers and the fossil fuels lobby.

“Our world has just had its hottest year on record yet climate-wrecking governments like the Westminster one are planning to give even more of our waters to drilling.”

Tessa Khan, executive director of Uplift, said: “We desperately need to fix our energy system and that requires getting off expensive, volatile oil and gas, but obviously the government won’t let that happen for as long as the likes of BP and Shell have such a hold on our politics.”

Khan claimed government support for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea was the effect of the revolving door of the same people. “Why else would this government keep prioritising new licensing, which won’t bring down energy bills, over the solutions that will actually help the millions of people in fuel poverty across the UK?,” she added.

George Havenhand, a senior legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption, said: “These findings have extremely serious implications. When vested interests capture decision-making, they can increase their power and skew policies away from the public interest and towards their own ends.”

He urged ministers and officials to get training on identifying and preventing such “policy capture” and ensure the rules for public appointments are enforced. 

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that public appointments were subject to a clear governance code and are regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

“Civil servants are subject to business appointment rules, which are legally binding. We maintain close contact with all departments to provide guidance where needed and publish all advice given to senior civil servants who take up appointments outside of government.”

Shell declined to comment. BP, Centrica and all individuals mentioned in the story were approached for comment.

Main image: Hadyn Cutler

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet? Join our co-operative now to get unlimited access.
You can join using Direct Debit, payment card or Paypal. Cancel at any time. If you are on a low-income you may be eligible for a free sponsored membership. Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Hi! To read more you need to login.
Not a member yet?
Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.
Back our next investigation
Can you help us find out who really runs Scotland?