Ex-COP26 President’s Role at Fossil Fuel ‘Astroturfing’ Firm Approved

Claire O’Neill will be free to advise energy companies and lobby government departments when the conditions on her appointment expire in two days.
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Claire O'Neill at COP25 as President Designate of COP26. Credit: UN Climate Change (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Former UK Energy Minister and original COP26 President Claire O’Neill has been cleared to take up a role at a business consultancy known for running “astroturf” campaigns for fossil fuel companies, despite warnings from the body that approves such appointments. 

FTI Consulting, which announced that O’Neill would be joining the company last month, has previously been revealed to monitor environmental activists in the US on behalf of a Texan oil company and has recently helped generate media interest around hydrogen as a potential climate solution. 

Its public relations clients include Drax, which runs the world’s largest biomass power station in North Yorkshire.

In its assessment of O’Neill’s application, the watchdog on external appointments of former officials and ministers warned that her knowledge of energy policy from time in government “could be perceived to offer an unfair advantage to FTI and its clients operating in this area”.

However, the Office of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) regarded the risks as “broad” and said O’Neill’s insider knowledge would likely be “seen to be advantageous to any business operating in that area”.

It also said the “unknown nature” of FTI’s clients posed a risk but concluded that the time elapsed since O’Neill left government would “significantly reduce the advantage of any information” she might have had access to.

ACOBA has recommended a series of conditions be imposed on O’Neill’s FTI work, similar to existing ones that apply to her consultancy, ClaireON Ltd, through which her FTI role, as Senior Advisor for Europe, Middle East and Africa, will be conducted.

The conditions are set to expire at the end of this week, two years after O’Neill, formerly Perry, left ministerial office.

They include not advising FTI or its clients on any policy she had “specific involvement or responsibility for” as minister, or where she had a relationship with the client at the time; not personally lobbying the government on behalf of clients; and not using government contacts to influence policy.

Oil and Gas Industry Groups

FTI has worked extensively with fossil fuel industry clients in its consulting work, having set up the “Energy In Depth” information campaign to argue for the expansion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the US. 

The campaign was launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, with funding from oil and gas giants including BP, Halliburton, Chevron, Shell, and XTO Energy.

According to a New York Times investigation published last year, the company “helped design, staff and run organisations and websites funded by energy companies that can appear to represent grass-roots support for fossil-fuel initiatives.”

They include groups such as “Texans for Natural Gas”, which presents itself as a grassroots, non-corporate organisation while being designed and staffed by FTI employees, in a practice known as “astroturfing”.

The article also reported how a division within FTI had tracked the activities of environmental protesters on behalf of Apache Energy, which had plans to drill near Balmorhea State Park in Texas and was concerned about opposition from activists. An FTI employee created a fake Facebook profile in order to do so, something the company told the New York Times was against its policy.

FTI has also been involved in a recent push to promote hydrogen as a clean energy solution in the media and secure government funding. A recent report by environmental groups including Corporate Europe Observatory detailed FTI’s role in setting up the influential Hydrogen Council, whose members include over 120 players in the energy, transport and chemicals sectors. FTI’s Brussels headquarters is the same as that of the Hydrogen Council.

‘Revolving Door’

The movement of individuals between government and industry is not uncommon, with numerous cases of ex-ministers taking lucrative private sector jobs in recent years, including many with energy companies.

Former Energy and Climate Secretary Amber Rudd took a role as chair of Norwegian oil giant Equinor’s international advisory group last year, and former Energy Minister Charles Hendry has taken numerous energy sector jobs, including in North Sea oil and gas. 

Former CEO of BP Lord Browne was appointed lead non-executive director of the Cabinet Office by then Prime Minister David Cameron, at the same time as chairing fracking company Cuadrilla. 

The so-called “revolving door” between industry and government has led to concerns that the government watchdog designed to monitor external appointments, ACOBA, is unfit for purpose. 

Between 2008 and 2017, it checked 371 applications for clearance, of which 247 led to a job in the same sector, and turned down none.

In 2016, its chair Baroness Browning told MPs the body had “neither the resources nor the remit” to make the significant changes required to ensure former government figures were not abusing their past experience for personal gain.

O’Neill served as Climate Change and Industry Minister between 2017 and 2018, and Energy and Clean Growth Minister until July 2019. She went on to be appointed President of the upcoming COP26 UN climate summit but was sacked in January 2020, with the position given to then Business Secretary Alok Sharma.

Following her sacking, she claimed Prime Minister Boris Johnson had told her he “doesn’t really understand” climate change, and said the government was “miles off track” on delivering a successful summit.

While energy minister, she was accused of bullying civil servants by three unions representing Whitehall officials, allegations she denied.

O’Neill launched the Power Past Coal Alliance with the Canadian government in a bid to end coal-fired power generation globally, but was also revealed to have encouraged further oil and gas exploration by companies involved in the North Sea, in line with government policy. Briefing notes encouraged her to “welcome” the continued investment of fossil fuel companies such as Shell “in a range of North Sea oil fields and its interest in further oil exploration”.

O’Neill is currently also Managing Director for Climate and Energy, and Natural Climate Solutions, at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a sustainable business organisation.

In a statement, FTI said: “The Rt Hon Claire O’Neill was appointed as a Senior Advisor by FTI Consulting in June 2021. Ms O’Neill had a distinguished career in the UK Government as Rail Minister and Energy and Clean Growth Minister. As is required of all former ministers, she applied to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments for approval to take up the role, and this was granted. 

“There is a two-year restriction on direct lobbying of government, which in Ms O’Neill’s case, expires on 24th July 2021. The focus of Ms O’Neill’s work will be advising clients, particularly in the financial services sector, on sustainability issues.”

It would not disclose its clients or clarify whether O’Neill would be advising any energy companies.

O’Neill did not respond to a request for comment.

Ex-COP26 President’s Role at Fossil Fuel ‘Astroturfing’ Firm Approved
Rich Collett-White is Deputy Editor of DeSmog. He joined the organisation in December 2018 as a UK researcher and reporter, having previously worked in communications for the climate charity Operation Noah. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists.

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