Oil majors tried to convince the UK government to present natural gas as a “necessary compromise” to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement at crucial international climate talks later this year, new documents show.
The documents were first reported by Unearthed, Greenpeace UK’s investigative arm. Last week, Channel 4 released bombshell footage obtained by the group during an undercover investigation of a lobbyist for Exxon making all sorts of wild claims about how the company cozies up to politicians in Washington, DC. Here, Unearthed is following up those tapes with a preview of how the industry is trying to sway folks abroad ahead of the COP26 climate talks, which are being held in Glasgow and hosted by the UK in November.
Conor Burns, then a trade minister for the UK, travelled to Texas in February 2020, where he met with representatives of BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon, and Equinor for dinner to talk about the country’s leadership role in the upcoming COP26 meetings. According to notes from that dinner obtained by Unearthed via the UK’s freedom of information laws, the oil representatives pressured Burns to position natural gas as a “compromise” at the Glasgow talks.
“There needs to be greater recognition of the role of gas in transition, it is cleaner than coal and fundamental to the Texas economy,” the notes read. “Moving the US and the developing world from coal to gas is a necessary compromise, while they make inroads in affordability of genuinely clean energy.”
Calling gas “cleaner than coal” is not exactly a high compliment given that coal is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of energy on Earth. Positioning gas as a “necessary compromise” conveniently doesn’t take into account how constructing new gas infrastructure will lock the U.S. and other countries into fossil fuel use for decades, well past the date when we will need to be not using that stuff anymore. Nor does it account for the fact that the costs of renewables are rapidly falling, and are now cheaper than building new gas facilities in average. Oh, and gas is also a major source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that’s 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s hardly the stuff of compromise when there are cheaper, carbon-free forms of energy generation out there. (Maybe the fact that all these companies have enormous investments in natural gas fields in Texas that dwarf many of their current investments in solar and wind could have something to do with this line of thought. Just a guess.)
The notes from the dinner were drafted into an official memo for the UK government by Richard Hyde, who is based in Houston and represents the UK as Consul General for Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Hyde’s notes read like a page torn out of Big Oil’s playbook increasingly used to convince the world that they’re all aboard fighting climate change — if they can only just keep producing fossil fuels for us to use, that is.
“These companies told you they want to work with the UK, including during our leadership of COP26,” Hyde wrote. “They need support from governments like ours so they can be seen as a vital part of the solution to future energy provision. They want transition without decimating our economies or stunting the growth of emerging economies. The public need to be given realistic expectations on the transition process; energy projects have long lead in times. … It is too easy to demonise the industry, but this will not help resolve the problem; though all [the oil companies present at the dinner] admitted they had to be better at telling their story.”
In statements made to Channel 4, which reported on the Unearthed investigation, representatives from all the oil majors at the dinner affirmed that they supported the Paris Agreement’s targets (even though meeting those targets means stopping all oil and gas exploration by next year, something that none of those companies have indicated they will do). A spokesperson for the UK government told Channel 4, meanwhile, that the dinner was a “routine engagement with the energy industry” that also discussed the oil majors’ transition to renewable energy, “not lobbied.”
Given how hard the oil and gas industry has worked to make itself visible in the UK in advance of the COP, it’s questionable whether the strict definition of “lobbying” is really applicable here. From a tar sands executive being named as a “climate champion” by the UK government to documents revealing that oil and gas companies lobbied to sponsor portions of the upcoming talks to Shell sponsoring a big science exhibit in the UK at one of its public museums this spring, it’s clear that the industry is trying many different tactics to push its agenda forward. It remains to be seen if all that influence will have any sway at the actual meetings in a couple of months.