ThinkProgress

Fossil fuel industry spent nearly $2 billion to kill U.S. climate action, new study finds

Activists rally in New York City to support the state's investigation into whether oil giant Exxon covered up its knowledge about climate change, February 22, 2017. CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Legislation to address climate change has repeatedly died in Congress. But a major new study says the policy deaths were not from natural causes — they were caused by humans, just like climate change itself is.

Climate action has been repeatedly drowned by a devastating surge and flood of money from the fossil fuel industry — nearly $2 billion in lobbying since 2000 alone.

This is according to stunning new analysis in the journal Climatic Change on “The climate lobby” by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert J. Brulle.

The most important conclusion of Brulle’s is that spending by those in favor of climate action was dramatically overwhelmed by the big fossil fuel suppliers and users: Environmental organizations and the renewable energy sector lobbying expenditures were dwarfed by a ratio of 10:1 by the spending of the sectors engaged in the supply and use of fossil fuels.” 

The study serves to help put to rest notion that the effort to pass climate legislation has ever been a fair fight. But then, the big corporate producers and consumers of fossil fuels have hundreds of billions of dollars in annual revenue — thus dwarfing the funds available to major environmental groups and the emerging clean energy sector.

Brulle analyzed the “countervailing power ratio,” which is the total lobbying expenditures by the big fossil fuel trade associations along with the transportation, electric utility, and fossil fuel sectors divided by the total lobbying expenditures of the renewable energy sector along with environmental organizations (see the chart below).

The ratio of lobbying expenditures by opponents of climate action compared to proponents. CREDIT:Climatic Change

“Special interests dominate the conversation, all working for a particular advantage for their industry,” as Dr. Brulle told ThinkProgress in an email. “The common good is not represented.”

Indeed, the other key point of the study is that a truly staggering amount of money has been spent lobbying Congress on climate change this century, more than $2 billion.

The biggest surge came, unsurprisingly, during the 2009-2010 period — when Congress came the closest it ever did to passing serious climate legislation

US national climate change lobbying expenditures total by year 2000–2016 (green) and as a percent of total lobbying (blue). CREDIT: Climatic Change.

During 2009 and 2010, total lobbying expenditures on climate change accounted for a whopping nine percent of all lobbying expenditures.

The House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act, often called the Waxman-Markey bill, by a slim margin in June 2009. At that point, the fossil fuel industry launched an all-out — and ultimately successful — lobbying push to undermine any effort by the Senate to  pass their own version of the climate bill over the next 12 months. 

Indeed, of the top nine energy companies with the biggest lobbying expenditures between January 2009 and June 2010, six were Big Oil companies (led by ExxonMobil), and the other three were a coal producer and two coal-intensive utilities.

“It’s clear that when the greatest threat presents itself — like when Congress and the Executive branch are aligned and favorable to and recognize climate change as a major issue,” explained Brulle, “these corporations that engage in the supply and use of fossil fuels work the hardest to upend legislative efforts by increasing their lobby spending ten-fold.”

Finally, it’s worth noting, as Brulle does, that electric utilities, which collectively have spent vast sums lobbying on climate change, were not all lobbying uniformly against the climate bill in 2009 and 2010.

But the biggest carbon polluters at the time, such as Southern Company and American Electric Power (AEP), were among the very biggest spenders.

Also, as the study notes, “several corporations’ apparent support for climate policy is a sophisticated strategy to simultaneously attempt to appear to support such legislation, while actually supporting efforts to undermine it.”

To do this, some companies had memberships in coalitions that both supported climate legislation (U.S. Climate Action Partnership) and that opposed it (American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity).

And it appears to be the case that the opponents of the climate bill were very actively trying to kill the bill, while many of the so-called proponents were mainly lobbying to shape the bill “as a hedge against unacceptable climate legislation in case their first preference (no action) is defeated,” as the study notes.

Post 2010,  the fossil fuel industry has maintained its consistent large edge in  lobbying over environmentalists and clean energy companies.

Sadly, brand new IRS rules from the Trump administration “will no longer force Kochs and other groups to disclose donors,” as the New York Times reported Tuesday. That means major anti-climate groups, like Americans for Prosperity, will  not have to report that it is heavily backed by the Koch brothers, who are billionaire fossil fuel barons.

In short, tracking the role of dirty money in politics just got a lot harder.

The bottom line is that one major reason for the lack of action on climate change is that, for nearly two decades, the opponents of serious action have been vastly outspending the proponents.