Big oil: in or out?

The issue of including private oil and gas companies to the climate discussion table.

At the Bonn UN climate negotiations held from the 16th to the 18th of May, a heated discussion took place to determine whether private companies should be allowed to be present as observers in the Conference of Parties (COP) 22, to be held at the end of the year in Marrakech. As of yet, the issue has not been resolved, and discussions about it have been postponed to a later stage of the negotiations.

Criticism of the access such companies enjoy is not new, and the debate took new proportions at COP21 last year, where companies, especially fossil fuel companies attending were accused of greenwashing.

From alleged links to the Columbian paramilitary to the Deepwater Horizon spill, the negative track record of fossil fuel companies is clearly established when it comes to environmental impact and harming of vulnerable populations. What remains blurry is how Big Oil, or the giants of the oil industry, directly affects policy making and international negotiations. Every time suspicions of foul play arise, a convenient explanation brushes them aside, or is at least enough to take any responsibility off the company’s shoulders. As Jesse Bragg, Media director at Corporate Accountability International noted, “the tricky thing is that the industry is a little bit too smart to be that blatant about what they are doing”. This lack of solid evidence may explain why action against such companies has been stalling.

What we do know – that millions are still being spent by fossil fuel companies to lobby against climate policies, and that one of the world’s best paid lobbyist, American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard, dismissed the Paris process as a “narrow political ideology”- should be enough to alert us, and explains why at the Bonn conference, a group of developing countries including Ecuador, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Nicaragua called for rules on the participation of observers in COP22, especially for private companies who have conflicts of interest with the negotiations. Uganda, speaking for the group, supported these demands by stating that “we must keep the integrity of these negotiations.”

There is, however, an important gap between voicing concerns and taking action. This gap will be all the more difficult to bridge as other countries have already declared that they are opposed to any restriction on companies accessing the climate talks as observers. Australia, whose climate policies are not among the world’s most exemplary, accused the convention of “playing a dangerous game” by excluding actors from the process. “We support engagement with all private sectors,” they added. Such a position is coherent with COP21, which was praised for furthering inclusion of actors from the private sector.

While including the private sector in climate action can undoubtedly be beneficial, this must be accompanied by policies and rules that prevent greenwashing.

The fight against the influence of Big Oil could take a few lessons from how the world dealt with tobacco. In 2003, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was adopted by the World Health Organisation, and one of its key measures was to protect public health policy from interference by tobacco corporations. In the same way, Big Oil could be prevented from directly interfering with climate policy, and one way to do this would be to stop granting them access to those making climate policy at UN negotiations.

Excluding fossil fuel industry lobbyists from the negotiations may sound drastic, but if we are serious about breaking free from fossil fuels, “how can we let them exist in a space which is supposed to find a solution?”, as Jesse Bragg asks.

The UK based non-profit Influence Map found that in 2015, over 81 million pounds were spent lobbying against climate policy. “Despite the recent Paris agreement on global warming, the fossil fuel industry is still systematically trying to stall progress, and using shareholder funds to do so”, they said.

At a time when the world is struggling to meet its climate targets, this is a critical issue to address. Extreme weather events linked to climate change from fires in Canada to heat waves in India are already causing great damage, and should shake the world into action. Doing away with Big Oil would take us a step closer to resolution. We must stop allowing companies which Influence Map described as being “board member of several obstructionist trade associations, some of which give a very dubious account of climate science” to the negotiating table.

Giselle Bernard

Giselle is a Franco-British student of European Social and Political Sciences at Sciences Po and University College London. In Paris, she organised Model United Nations conferences, which developed her passion for international politics. She is now based in London, and her studies focus on the social and political aspects of sustainable development. She also recently became a volunteer in an association to support immigrant detainees in the UK.
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