Energy giants spent $1bn on climate lobbying, PR since Paris: watchdog

BP and other oil and gas giants are being challenged over their spending on lobbying and climate branding. (File photo/AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019

Energy giants spent $1bn on climate lobbying, PR since Paris: watchdog

  • Firms under pressure to explain how greener laws will hit business models

PARIS: The five largest publicly listed oil and gas majors have spent $1 billion since the 2015 Paris climate deal on public relations or lobbying that is “overwhelmingly in conflict” with the landmark accord’s goals, a watchdog said Friday.
Despite outwardly committing to support the Paris agreement and its aim to limit global temperature rises, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total spend a total of $200 million a year on efforts “to operate and expand fossil fuel operations,” according to InfluenceMap, a pro-transparency monitor.
Two of the companies — Shell and Chevron — said they rejected the watchdog’s findings.
“The fossil fuel sector has ramped up a quite strategic program of influencing the climate agenda,” InfluenceMap Executive Director Dylan Tanner told AFP.
“It’s a continuum of activity from their lobby trade groups attacking the details of regulations, controlling them all the way up, to controlling the way the media thinks about the oil majors and climate.”
The report comes as oil and gas giants are under increasing pressure from shareholders to come clean over how greener lawmaking will impact their business models.
As planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions hit their highest levels in human history in 2018, the five companies wracked up total profits of $55 billion.
At the same time, the International Panel on Climate Change — composed of the world’s leading climate scientists — issued a call for a radical drawdown in fossil fuel use in order to hit the 1.5C (2.7 Fahrenheit) cap laid out in the Paris accord.
InfluenceMap looked at accounts, lobbying registers and communications releases since 2015, and alleged a large gap between the climate commitments companies make and the action they take.

 

It said all five engaged in lobbying and “narrative capture” through direct contact with lawmakers and officials, spending millions on climate branding, and by employing trade associations to represent the sector’s interests in policy discussions.
“The research reveals a trend of carefully devised campaigns of positive messaging combined with negative policy lobbying on climate change,” it said.
It added that of the more than $110 billion the five had earmarked for capital investment in 2019, just $3.6bn was given over to low-carbon schemes.
The report came one day after the European Parliament was urged to strip ExxonMobil lobbyists of their access, after the US giant failed to attend a hearing where expert witnesses said the oil giant has knowingly misled the public over climate change.
“How can we accept that companies spending hundreds of millions on lobbying against the EU’s goal of reaching the Paris agreement are still granted privileged access to decision makers?” said Pascoe Sabido, Corporate Europe Observatory’s climate policy researcher, who was not involved in the InfluenceMap report.
The report said Exxon alone spent $56 million a year on “climate branding” and $41 million annually on lobbying efforts.
In 2017 the company’s shareholders voted to push it to disclose what tougher emissions policies in the wake of Paris would mean for its portfolio.
With the exception of France’s Total, each oil major had largely focused climate lobbying expenditure in the US, the report said.
Chevron alone has spent more than $28 million in US political donations since 1990, according to the report.
AFP contacted all five oil and gas companies mentioned in the report for comment.
“We disagree with the assertion that Chevron has engaged in ‘climate-related branding and lobbying’ that is ‘overwhelmingly in conflict’ with the Paris Agreement,” said a Chevron spokesman.
“We are taking action to address potential climate change risks to our business and investing in technology and low carbon business opportunities that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
A spokeswoman for Shell — which the report said spends $49 million annually on climate lobbying — said it “firmly rejected” the findings.
“We are very clear about our support for the Paris Agreement, and the steps that we are taking to help meet society’s needs for more and cleaner energy,” they told AFP.
BP, ExxonMobil and Total did not provide comment to AFP.

FASTFACTS

$ 28m

Chevron alone has spent more than $28 million in US political donations since 1990, according to the report.


INTERVIEW: ‘A rule for life — don’t lose money’

Updated 36 min 46 sec ago

INTERVIEW: ‘A rule for life — don’t lose money’

  • The Blackstone co-founder talks about his career at the top of the financial tree — and Saudi Arabia’s ambitious transformation plans

DUBAI: I must confess I was a little nervous about telling Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and CEO of the gigantic financial group Blackstone, that I had not read every single word of his recently published book “What is Takes — Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.”

Ahead of our intercontinental conference-call interview, his aides had told me that he could work out pretty quickly if an interviewer had read it or not, and a recent interview in the Financial Times had made the point that he is not the type of man to indulge perceived lapses equably.

There was a long silence when I told him that, although I had read large chunks of it, I had not quite finished it, but I needn’t have worried. I have seen Schwarzman speak on many occasions, most recently at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, and he was as pleasant and softly spoken on the phone with me as he had invariably been on those occasions. No expletives or combativeness during our phone call.

Schwarzman is pretty high up the list of the most powerful people in the world. Worth some $18 billion, he is one of the financial “masters of the universe” who count presidents, kings and princes among his circle of friends, and who has the fate of hundreds of thousands of employees in Blackstone’s portfolio companies in his hands.

Why did he write the book, which is a mixture of autobiographical memoire and self-help advice?

“I was mostly trying to give people advice and used myself as a literary device. My life’s been pretty interesting, and I’m writing about the types of things that happen to almost everyone — how through dejection and disappointment you scramble to reinvent yourself and learn from your mistakes to establish a new paradigm,” he explained.

The message from the book seems to be encapsulated in the first of his “25 rules for work and life”: “It’s as easy to do something big as to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate with your effort.”

The response to publication has been “marvellous,” he said, including a story about a woman who had passed it on to her children as a primer for life.

Schwarzman’s own life is one that, arguably, could only have been possible in the post-war US. From small-town beginnings in suburban Philadelphia, the son of second generation immigrants who ran a linen store, he worked hard at school, got into Yale, was a track-star who signed up for the Vietnam-era army reserve and ended on Wall Street, after Harvard Business School.

A decade of fast-learning at Lehman Brothers in the 1970s — where he rose to be head of global mergers and acquisitions — gave way to disillusionment when the venerable firm was sold, and gave him the spark for what was to become Blackstone, one of the world’s foremost private equity investors.

I suggested that he had “invented” the private equity business, but he was not having that. “Inventing may be a bit too grand. What we did do was invent in effect the full-line alternative assets firm, you could call it the full-line private equity firm, which doesn’t just buy companies, which a normal private equate firm does. We also buy real estate, we also lend money, we buy credit products, we also have a big hedge fund operation.


BIO

Born: Philadelphia, US, 1947

Education

  • Abingdon Senior High School, Philadelphia
  • Yale University, bachelor of arts
  • Harvard Business School, master’s in business administration.

Career

  • Analyst, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
  • Managing director and head of global M&A, Lehman Brothers.
  • Co-founder and CEO, Blackstone.
  • Numerous political advisory and philanthropic positions.

 

“We started out with one private equity fund, but we now have over 50 different business lines. We were pioneers in looking at new things that could be done within a private framework. Our high performance products typically earn double the stock market and almost never lose money,” he said.

He and his co-founder, Peter Peterson, put $400,000 into Blackstone in 1985. The firm now has $554 billion in assets and $62 billion in market value. Innovation has been the key to that success, identifying new sectors, new geographies and new financial products.

But old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar has also played a big role. Schwarzman saw a buying opportunity in the US real estate market when property prices fell, and Blackstone is now the “largest owner of real estate in the world,” he said.

I asked whether the current trend for valuation was up or down — for instance in New York.

His response echoed the recent comments from his friend President Donald Trump who moved his permanent residence from his home town to Florida. “New York has some special circumstances and doesn’t have as good prospects as some other places. We have extremely high taxes in New York which discourages people,” he said.

I think the Kingdom has got very ambitious plans for both growth and reform, individual rights especially for women.

 

Other parts of the US real estate market are more appealing. “You do the best typically when you buy near water, so the east and west coasts tend to be the best places to buy.” But the best property asset classes are warehouses, he said, which are benefiting from the logistics boom brought about by the likes of Amazon’s home delivery services. He has around $1 billion in warehouse assets.

Blackstone went public in 2007, just ahead of the global financial which it navigated much more successfully than many on Wall Street, including his old employer Lehman Brothers which became the largest bankruptcy in American history.

Schwarzman was able to use to broad spread of Blacktone’s global business to “see what was going on, this massive housing bubble,” before the crisis hit. He stopped investment in some real estate projects, sold down property related loans and shorted sub-prime mortgages, even making some money out of the meltdown, though he admits to some “very minimal damage.”

“We had exited, while many of the others were like the people sitting on a beach in Thailand watching the tsunami coming in. We were already a few miles inland by the time it hit,” he said. Blackstone has grown sixfold since the crisis.

Another reason for my initial trepidation on talking to Schwarzman was a warning from his advisers not to ask him too early in the conversation about the Middle East. For the past few years, he has been a confidant and business partner of Saudi Arabia, appearing on panels and forums in the Kingdom and speaking supportively of the Vision 2030 strategy, but the region does not figure too prominently in the book.

Founded in 1985 with with just a $400,000 capital, Blackstone now has $554 billion in assets and $62 billion in market value. (AP file photo)

 

There are only a couple of references to the Gulf — a capital-raising trip in the early 1990s that “bombed,” and a Kuwait-Dubai visit that nearly turned into disaster when a colleague had to be evacuated after a medical emergency by a private plane that developed engine trouble over Iran. (All ended well.)

The book ends before his most recent involvement with Saudi Arabia, the $40 billion infrastructure fund jointly invested with the Public Investment Fund, but he is happy to update his relationship with the Middle East.

“We have extensive relationships with the region. Let me give you some perspective: Since my first trip to Riyadh, it has grown seven times in population; many of the roads were dirt roads back then, but now the city is a huge, super-modern city. It’s changing so fast.

“I was in Kuwait six weeks after the Iraqi invasion was thrown back, and you could still smell cordite and see bullet holes all over. That’s where we got our first money in the region, the Kuwaitis were so grateful and we were the first Americans many of them had seen,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has been a Blackstone focus for the past couple of years. “I think the Kingdom has got very ambitious plans for both growth and reform, individual rights especially for women. Those are all good things.

“There’s a huge emphasis on the digital economy there, which is quite unusual by the historic background, and 70 percent of the population is under 30. There has been a positive response from them for what is going on there,” he added.

The $40 billion fund with PIF was “going quite well,” he said, especially against the background of low interest rates. He and PIF have bought one of the biggest ports businesses in north America and a big US pipeline business.

Like many wealthy self-made men, philanthropy is an increasing element of his personal philosophy. Schwarzman estimated he has given away something over $1 billion to a variety of philanthropic ventures, ranging from a cultural center at Yale University to the biggest ever donation to a British educational institute, a £150 million ($193 million) gift to Oxford University.

He seems most proud of the Schwarzman Scholars, a program at Tsinghua University in China which he hopes will help defuse the tensions between the US and China that have resulted in trade wars that have damaged the global economy.

That fits in perfectly with the Schwarzman philosophy. Rule number 19 in his 25-item list is: “Don’t lose money,” but he noted: “You might say that’s the No.1 rule.”