16th Mar 2018


ExxonMobil funds global warming sceptics – will Brussels clear the air?

  • The European Commission - a target for corporate lobbyists (Photo:

ExxonMobil has for years donated tens of thousands of dollars to Europe-based think-tanks that are all ardent opponents of the EU's efforts to combat climate change.

In December, ExxonMobil was the clear winner of online voting to determine the "Worst EU Lobby Award" for the company's record of "paying climate sceptics to manipulate the climate debate in Brussels, while keeping much of this funding away from public scrutiny."

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Many newspaper readers might have gotten the impression that ExxonMobil under the leadership of its new CEO Rex Tillerson has stopped fuelling the work of think-tanks and lobby groups that fight legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

To improve its tarnished image, ExxonMobil has embarked on a multi-million dollar public relations blitz, including newspaper advertisements and interviews with influential media.

A central message in the charm offensive is the claim that the company has been "misunderstood" by those criticizing its stance on global warming. In a poll among readers of the UK newspaper The Guardian earlier this year, no less than 85 percent found Exxon's bid to change its public image unconvincing. And indeed there is strong reason for scepticism.

In an interview with Wall Street Journal in January, ExxonMobil's vice president for public affairs announced that the company had decided to no longer fund the Competitive Enterprise Institute and "five or six" other groups active in the global-warming debate.

The Washington DC-based CEI, which received over $2 million from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2005, has consistently worked to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on global warming. In a 2006 television advertisement, the think-tank told the US public "Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life."

Ending financial support for such irresponsible propaganda is obviously good news, but unfortunately it is too early to rejoice. ExxonMobil continues to fund think-tanks that raise doubts about the need to combat climate change, in the US and in Europe, including EU capital Brussels.

According to the Royal Society, Britain's leading scientific academy, the oil giant in 2005 distributed more than $2.9 million to at least 39 groups that have "misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence".

Most of these have received ExxonMobil funding for many years in a row. Ending the funding of five or six of these groups hardly signals a u-turn.

To get a clearer picture, I contacted ExxonMobil's media relations office, asking for a list of the groups whose funding was not renewed. The response did not provide any clarification of whether the company has changed its funding approach, but listed four examples of think-tanks that do get funding, including the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). This is the powerful neoconservative think-tank which according to The Guardian newspaper last month has offered scientists and economists in the US and Europe $10,000 each, for articles that could help undermine the new report published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Corporate funding secrecy

The ExxonMobil media spokesperson ended his response by stating that "we are completely transparent: we publish the funding of these groups on our web site." Every year in May ExxonMobil publishes a Worldwide Givings Reports on its website. But don't rush congratulating the oil giant for its leadership in transparency: the reports are seriously incomplete. They only list the US-based organizations which the oil giant has funded in the previous year.

The reports therefore only include the handful of European think-tanks that have an institutional presence in the US. Everything else around the oil giants funding for European think-tanks and lobby groups is kept strictly confidential.

Research undertaken by Corporate Europe Observatory reveals that numerous EU-focused think-tanks have received ExxonMobil funding, while never being mentioned in Worldwide Giving Reports.

Generally the recipient think-tanks in Brussels are entirely unwilling to disclose their funding sources. This, in combination with ExxonMobil's secrecy, leaves us with educated guesses.

ExxonMobil's disclosure of US-based funding beneficiaries is a reaction to pressure from critical shareholders in the US. It is genuinely bizarre that the company refuses to provide similar transparency about the European think-tanks and lobby groups it funds.

The oil giant's secrecy about its funding of EU think-tanks is unfortunately far from exceptional. A survey published by Corporate Europe Observatory in December revealed a wall of silence among the possible think-tank donors, including BP, Shell, RWE and numerous other large corporations.

This secrecy makes critical scrutiny impossible, for instance assessing whether the political funding by corporations is in line with their stated commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

Clearing the air

A unique opportunity to end this secretive funding of climate sceptics is just around the corner. Later this month the European Commission will present its final plans for EU lobbying transparency rules as part of the European Transparency Initiative (ETI), first launched by administration commissioner Siim Kallas two years ago.

The long-awaited communication on the ETI is set to include a proposal for a new online register of all EU lobbyists and lobby groups, including think tanks. In its earlier Green Paper on the ETI (May 2006), the commission stated that "it must be clear to the general public which input they [the lobbyists] provide to the European institutions. It must also be clear who they represent, what their mission is and how they are funded."

Commissioner Kallas has repeatedly emphasized that he wants EU lobbyists to provide financial transparency. But that would require disclosure obligations with either strong incentives for compliance or sanctions for non-compliance.

Corporate Europe Observatory's survey has shown that the climate-sceptic think-tanks active in Brussels are unwilling to voluntarily disclose their funding sources. To clear the air and prevent secretive funding of climate sceptics, the European Commission must show courage and make transparency obligatory for all those seeking to influence EU decision-making.

The author, Olivier Hoedeman, is an analyst at the Amsterdam-based NGO Corporate Europe Observatory.

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