Corporate giants promote climate action, but work with oil lobbyists in state capitols

The overlap raises questions about the sincerity of corporate climate commitments.

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Many of the largest U.S. companies, including Walmart, Amazon, and Microsoft, employ lobbyists that also do work for the oil and gas industry, according to new research into state lobbying data. The connections with oil and gas lobbyists, the researchers say, undercut the highly public positions the companies have taken on addressing climate change.

The research, conducted by the non-profit Global Energy Monitor and shared with DeSmog, found thousands of cases in which high-profile corporations engage in lobbying in state capitols, hiring the same lobbyists that do work for powerful fossil fuel companies.

“Tech companies are especially vocal about achieving net zero emissions in their operations. Yet many of these tech companies employ lobbyists who are promoting further dependence on fossil fuels” by simultaneously lobbying on behalf of oil and gas companies, James Browning, communications director for Global Energy Monitor, told DeSmog.

The database compiled by Global Energy Monitor documents thousands of cases from a long line of prominent American businesses working with the same lobbyists – often the same firms, and in many cases, the same individuals – as the oil and gas industry. The behavior is rampant across the insurance, health care, retail, and tech industries.

Even if the lobbyists are working on separate issues for each company that they work with, employing oil and gas lobbyists is “radically at odds” with fighting climate change, Browning said.

“It doesn’t matter if that lobbyist’s oil and gas agenda is separate from your company’s agenda. There is no ‘separate’ when the climate crisis will affect almost every issue before a state legislature — health care, infrastructure, taxes, and the whole economy,” he said.

While the lobbying goes beneath the radar, many companies position themselves as leaders on climate change. For example, top executives from Amazon, Microsoft, and Walmart appeared at a virtual summit with U.S. international climate envoy John Kerry on October 15, where they took turns championing their companies’ efforts fighting climate change. Kerry also lavished praise on them for their climate leadership.

“Why are we all working on climate action through business? This is the decisive decade. The actions we need to take to avoid the most extreme impacts of climate change need to happen now,” Kathleen McLaughlin, Walmart executive vice president and chief sustainability officer said at the summit. “I think for business, there’s an opportunity that we can help rewire the systems that people rely on for a much more regenerative future. A future that does have humanity living in harmony with nature.”

She promoted Walmart’s goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy for its operations by 2030, and zero emissions by 2040.

But at the same time, Walmart engages in lobbying in various state capitols using the same lobbyists as the oil and gas industry. For instance, Walmart employs lobbyists to work on legislative issues in the Pennsylvania legislature who also do work for Anadarko Petroleum. In Oklahoma, Walmart shares the same lobbyists with Koch Companies, and the retail giant works with the same lobbyists in Washington State as Shell Oil.

Walmart store front. Credit: Mike Mozart. (CC BY 2.0)

Microsoft also positions itself as a climate champion, publicly vowing to reach 100 percent renewable energy for its operations by 2025 and to become a “carbon negative” company by 2030.

But the tech company also works with the same lobbyists that push a fossil fuel agenda. In New York, Microsoft works with Park Strategies, a lobbying and PR firm that also counts ExxonMobil as one of its clients. Several of the Park Strategies’ individual lobbyists specifically worked on behalf of both clients, according to state ethics data.

Amazon is another corporate behemoth that talks quite a bit about its climate action. In 2019, Amazon announced a “Climate Pledge,” stating that it will reach net-zero emissions by 2040, and 100 percent renewable energy for its operations by 2025. It has also sought to enlist other companies to take on the pledge.

But Amazon shares more than two dozen individual lobbyists with ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Chesapeake Energy, and Chief Oil & Gas LLC across several states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.

In Alabama, both Amazon and Microsoft have hired lobbying firm Fine Geddie & Associates, which also works on behalf of the powerful industry trade group the American Petroleum Institute in the state capitol.

Neither Park Strategies nor Fine Geddie responded to a request for comment.

Of course, powerful companies of all stripes seek out influential lobbyists in state capitols, so it may come as no surprise that a tech giant and an oil company are hiring the same people. But those lobbyists are promoting fossil fuel policies that undercut the climate commitments of many of its other clients. 

“The priority of fossil fuel companies in their lobbying and public relations efforts is to obstruct climate action,” Duncan Meisel, director of Clean Creatives, told DeSmog in an email. Clean Creatives is an initiative to pressure PR firms to stop taking on oil and gas clients.

“Amazon has made bringing other companies into the Climate Pledge a core part of their brand, and these [separate fossil fuel] lobbying efforts are designed to undermine the effectiveness, and profitability, of the policies in that pledge. It’s a clear conflict of interest that brands can address with policies about what kind of agencies they will and won’t work with,” he added.

Browning noted that a “turning point” in the fight against Big Tobacco came when tobacco lobbyists were ostracized in state capitols. “Legislators refused to work with these lobbyists because their product was perceived to be harmful,” Browning said. “They were working for ‘blood money’.”

But oil and gas lobbyists have thus far escaped such scrutiny, he added. “Compared to tobacco companies — whose product doesn’t contribute to natural disasters — fossil fuel lobbyists continue to enjoy a ‘mainstream’ image in many states, in part because they have big mainstream clients like Amazon and Microsoft.”

He added that for retail and tech companies, “the possibility of a consumer boycott is real, and whatever benefits these companies get from working with these lobbyists may not be worth the negative publicity.”

Blocking Climate Action

Meanwhile, companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Walmart are also prominent members in the most powerful national business lobby groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. Both of those lobbying outfits are spending millions of dollars on lobbying and advertising to sink the Build Back Better infrastructure and social safety net agenda currently under negotiation in Congress, which may potentially include the most sweeping climate change policies ever passed into law, including hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy funding and a national program to clean up the electricity sector.

Over the years, there has been pressure for corporations to leave these sorts of trade groups due to their controversial lobbying efforts. In 2009, for example, Apple and Nike and a handful of utilities quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over the lobbying group’s opposition to climate action. The Chamber has long obstructed climate change efforts, and continues to promote a fossil fuel agenda. 

While Amazon, Microsoft, and Walmart talk up their climate leadership, they are dues-paying members of national lobby groups that are trying to kill climate action.

And when it comes to the Build Back Better agenda, the Business Roundtable disputed this characterization in a statement to DeSmog, stating that while its members support climate action, they oppose paying higher taxes, and thus, want to block the entire bill.

“All of our members support action on climate change, but Business Roundtable’s position on a reconciliation package will be based on the totality of what’s in the bill. Congress has unnecessarily tied climate action with $1 trillion in tax increases on job creators, which we strongly oppose, and trillions in non-climate related spending,” Business Roundtable President & CEO Joshua Bolten, said in a statement. “There is no policy reason to link strong action to address climate change with unrelated, harmful tax policy. The proposed tax increases, which would be one of the largest corporate tax increases in history, would make it harder for companies to invest, including in technologies needed to address climate change.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a request for comment. Amazon and Walmart also did not respond.

Microsoft did not answer specific questions related to its state-level lobbying, but cited a blog post the company published in support of the legislation currently under consideration in Congress. “Microsoft has been working with other stakeholders and conveying to members of Congress our support for strong climate and clean energy-related investments in both the infrastructure and reconciliation packages,” Lucas Joppa, Microsoft’s chief environmental officer wrote in early October.

But company-level support is arguably negated by the trade groups actively lobbying against the climate policy on offer.

“The takeaway is that most corporations are still not walking their talk,” Christine Arena, a former VP at Edelman, who has sought to expose the greenwashing done by the PR industry on behalf of its fossil fuel clients, said in a statement to DeSmog.

She noted the contradiction of making lofty climate pledges while remaining within powerful business lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable. “In light of this, what do corporate climate pledges mean? Possibly zero,” Arena said. “Decarbonizing the supply chain is a worthy goal, but related efforts can be quickly canceled out without a comprehensive approach that aligns lobbying, advocacy, and sustainability.”

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