This Database Exposes the Client Conflicts of More Than 1,500 Big Oil Lobbyists

New group reveals that hundreds of schools, municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and more are paying lobbyists who also represent the fossil fuel industry.
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Syracuse University employs a lobbying firm that works for multiple fossil fuel companies. Credit: John Marino (CC BY 2.0)

As lawsuits mount against the fossil fuel sector for decades of sowing climate disinformation, the  PR and ad agencies, banks, institutional investors, and law firms that work with the industry are also facing increased scrutiny.

F Minus, a new group focused on the industry’s army of lobbyists, has released a searchable database revealing that many also work with clients who support – or say they support – strong action to slow climate change.

There is a “crazy disconnect between how people see the fossil fuel industry, which is with increasing alarm, and how people see their lobbyists,” says James Browning. A former lobbyist for Common Cause, Browning now runs F Minus, the research and advocacy group behind the database connecting over 1,500 state-level fossil fuel lobbyists in the United States with their more than 14,000 non-fossil fuel clients.

The database exposes the extent to which lobbyists in the pockets of oil, gas, and coal interests are also representing clients that have taken public stances supporting strong climate action, from schools and hospitals to businesses, non-profits, and municipal governments. 

The city of Denver, which has committed to fossil fuel divestment, works with lobbyists who also serve a Colorado-based oil and gas producer called Civitas Resources (formerly Crestone Peak Resources). Marin County and San Mateo County in California are both suing fossil fuel companies over climate damages, but employ lobbyists who work for NRG Energy and BP America, respectively.

Ski resorts such as Park City in Utah and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, which power their operations using renewable solar and wind energy, have lobbyists working with companies in the oil and gas industries. 

Even some nonprofit environmental and conservation organizations, like the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy, employ lobbyists also in the pay of fossil fuel firms.

This overlap raises conflict of interest concerns, experts say. Although it may not be unusual for lobbyists and their firms to work across various sectors, it can be problematic when the interests of these clients diverge so sharply. 

“The fact that lobbyist firms take on clients from fossil fuel and clean industry sectors may not be a huge surprise to those familiar with the sector,” says Ed Collins, director of LobbyMap, a research platform operated by the climate think tank InfluenceMap that tracks corporate engagement on climate policy. 

“What is important for non-fossil companies to recognize, however, is that the contracts lobbyists are fulfilling for fossil fuel companies likely involve activities that are at odds with their own long-term interests,” Collins says, “not to mention any climate commitments they have made.”

Fossil fuel lobbyists, says Browning, use “clients like schools and hospitals, nonprofit organizations, ballets and zoos, “to generate positive PR and goodwill with legislators.”

Presenting themselves as aligned with the public interest, Browning said, masks the work they do for polluters, while raising concerns about whose interests are being prioritized: “Are you really going to trust these fossil fuel lobbyists not to share intelligence with their oil and gas clients?”  

Transparency and Accountability

Browning began tracking lobbyists two years ago. Working as a communications director for the nonprofit Global Energy Monitor, Browning produced the Fossil Fuel Lobbyist List. The list highlighted fossil fuel lobbyists’ overlapping work for major corporations, such as Amazon and Walmart, as well as leading companies in the banking, tech, and insurance sectors. 

The F Minus database is a substantial expansion of that research.  

“F Minus is taking it into the next phase of connecting the dots between the different clients of these lobbyists,” he says. 

Timmons Roberts, an environmental sociologist at Brown University, told DeSmog that the F Minus database “provides a very useful service for organizations to know who they are in bed with, or getting into bed with.”

Collins agrees that a database that reveals these conflicts is valuable.

“Efforts to raise transparency and bring accountability to the way fossil fuel companies are shaping climate policy have intrinsic value,” he says.

F Minus intends to build coalitions that will pressure organizations to sever ties with lobbyists who also work for fossil fuel interests, says Browning, initially focusing on California, Oregon, Washington, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. 

Browning hopes that this “lobbyist divestment” movement will contribute to eroding the fossil fuel industry’s powerful influence and social license.  

“There are just so many ways in which the fossil fuel industry has embedded itself across our society, says Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch My Campus and an F Minus board member. From funding university research partnerships to sponsoring museum exhibits, music festivals, and sporting events, the industry has a pervasive presence in communities across the country.  

“We need all people, whether they’re communicators, whether they’re lobbyists, whether they’re politicians, whether they’re educators, to break ties with the fossil fuel industry,” says Banks.

‘We Want Universities to Break Ties’

The F Minus database has revealed that more than 150 universities across the U.S. employ fossil fuel lobbyists.

Dartmouth College shares lobbyists with Enbridge, while multiple lobbyists working for the University of Pennsylvania also work with ExxonMobil. 

Syracuse University employs a lobby firm – Brown & Weinraub, PLLC – which also works for a slew of fossil fuel entities such as the American Petroleum Institute, Kinder Morgan, Koch Companies Public Sector, and Shell America

Bard College, Hofstra University, and University of Rochester work with the lobby firm Hinman Straub Advisors, LLC, which counts Koch Companies Public Sector as a client.

 F Minus and UnKoch My Campus plan to provide support for students who are pressuring their schools to stop working with lobbyists and firms that also profit from relationships with fossil fuel sector clients.  

“We’ll be sending out emails, petitions, and galvanizing our student activists on all of our campuses to start the investigation process” Banks says, “and build power around calling for a break in these relationships”

The new campaign will be “doubling down pressure on Koch lobbyists,” she says, because they have been behind what she called “some of the most egregious offenses of undue influence” in academia for decades. 

The campaign’s larger demand will be that universities quit working with any lobbyist or lobbying firm that also works with the industry responsible for the climate crisis. 

“We want universities to break ties and make sure that they are not utilizing these special interest actors while promising students, faculty and alumni that they are committed to the climate,” Banks told DeSmog.

Student organizers say cutting ties with fossil fuel lobbyists is another strand of the work of dismantling the fossil fuel industry’s presence in academia, such as divesting fossil fuel investments from their endowments, and ending industry funding for research.

“There is no place for the fossil fuel industry at the University of Illinois or any institution of higher education, whether through their endowment, research partnerships, or engagement with lobbyists,” says Trey McCallister, Fossil Free Research activist and Action Coordinator of Students for Environmental Concerns at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We will not rest until all ties to the fossil fuel industry are cut on our campus — and at universities around the world.”

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Dana is an environmental journalist focusing on climate change and climate accountability reporting. She writes regularly for DeSmog covering topics such as fossil fuel industry opposition to climate action, climate change lawsuits, greenwashing and false climate solutions, and clean transportation.

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