DeSmog

Week of Protests Over Equinor’s Media Sponsorship Greenwashing

Campaigners likened the fossil fuel company’s patronage of climate events to letting an “arsonist sponsor a fire safety conference”.
Eldar Saetre, former CEO of Equinor. Credit: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy

Major media companies have sparked a wave of criticism after allowing a Norwegian oil and gas company behind the UK’s largest new North Sea project to sponsor events on climate change.

Equinor was an official sponsor of two conferences on climate and energy this week, one run by the New Statesman magazine, and one run by Politico. Both saw MPs pull out over the sponsorship, while the first was interrupted by a climate activist. 

The Norwegian state-owned company has a majority stake in the Rosebank North Sea oil field, which has been dubbed a “carbon bomb” by environmental law charity ClientEarth. 

Equinor claims it supplies 27 percent of the UK’s energy from oil and gas, and is currently investing $6 billion (£4.8 billion) a year in fossil fuel exploration and drilling.

“Allowing fossil fuel companies like Equinor to sponsor and speak at climate conferences is as absurd as allowing an arsonist to sponsor and participate in fire safety conferences,” said Carys Boughton of the Fossil Free Parliament campaign. “At this critical time for climate and energy policy-making, we can’t afford this absurdity.”

Equinor’s sponsorship of these events is the latest example of fossil fuel companies using media partnerships to greenwash their polluting activities. 

An investigation by DeSmog and Drilled in December detailed how oil and gas companies are using media deals – including partnerships with Politico, the Economist, the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post – to present a climate-friendly image. 

DeSmog also revealed this week, based on documents released by a powerful U.S. congressional committee, that fossil fuel companies believe these media partnerships help to protect their “social licence to operate”.

Michelle Amazeen, a mass communications researcher at Boston University, said that oil and gas sponsorship is “a strategic move by fossil fuel companies to compromise the integrity of events intended to foster dialogue and action around climate issues”. 

She added that, “While the sponsorship gives the impression of caring about the environment, it’s a veneer that’s like an oil slick obscuring the actual conduct of the fossil fuel industry.”

This week, a cross-party group of 50 MPs, including three Conservatives, wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him to end the licensing of new oil and gas fields, appoint a climate envoy, and back the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, an international coalition working to facilitate a global phase-out of oil and gas production.

Alice Baxter, Equinor’s UK spokesperson, said: “At Equinor we believe in openness and the importance of engaging in the complex conversations around the energy transition. We respect everyone’s right to protest and encourage robust debate.”

New Statesman Event 

Equinor was one of the sponsors of the New Statesman’s Energy and Climate Change Conference on 14 May at the Leonardo Royal Hotel in south London.

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas pulled out of the event last week due to Equinor’s sponsorship. 

At the event, attended by DeSmog, the second panel discussion featured Equinor’s UK country manager Alex Grant. The session was entitled “How can the UK lead the world in the green transition?”

When it was Grant’s turn to speak, a Fossil Free London activist in the audience stood up and gave a speech criticising Equinor and its sponsorship of the event.

The activist said climate scientists “are warning us that we are headed towards a catastrophic 2.5C of global warming. Yet staggeringly, Equinor, that’s sponsoring this event, is opening the largest undeveloped oil field in the North Sea.” 

Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee and was on the panel, interjected: “Why don’t you let us talk about it, because I’m actually here to be pretty critical of the government, I’d quite like to get my points across.” 

The protester continued her speech, and was removed by security. Her comments received a round of applause from the audience. 

Grant replied by saying that Equinor takes a “pragmatic approach” to the energy transition, as opposed to one that “costs more than it needs to”. He also defended the Rosebank project, saying it would reduce carbon emissions over the long term.

Rosebank could produce around 300 million barrels of oil over its lifetime, emitting 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

Questions at the New Statesman event were submitted online, rather than asked in person by the audience. 

During the event’s final session with Chris Stark, the former chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government on its climate policies, DeSmog submitted a question about Equinor and Rosebank’s impact on the climate. The question was not posed to the panel. 

The latest issue of the New Statesman magazine, which features an interview with climate scientist and author Michael Mann, includes advertorials from biomass company Drax, which is the UK’s largest single source of CO2 emissions, and Calor Gas, one of the UK’s largest suppliers of liquefied petroleum gas.

The New Statesman hosted a number of events at the 2023 Labour Party conference sponsored by fossil fuel companies and lobbying groups, including Cadent, National Gas, and Offshore Energies UK

The New Statesman did not respond to DeSmog’s request for comment. 

Politico Event

On 16 May, Politico held its own Energy and Climate Summit, also sponsored by Equinor. 

Labour MP Alex Sobel, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Net Zero, last week pulled out of the event due to Equinor’s sponsorship. 

At the event, attended by DeSmog, a panel on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) featured David Cairns, a former British ambassador to Sweden and now Equinor’s vice president of political and public affairs. 

When questioned by the Politico chair, Cairns confirmed that the company had no plans to set targets for phasing out oil and gas.

He also said it was “debatable” whether the oil and gas industry was making large profits. Equinor reported £28 billion in profits in 2023. Cairns added that it was “really misplaced” to think that the oil and gas industry is an “easy business in which it’s easy to make money”.

A Politico spokesperson said: “This multi-sponsored Energy and Climate UK Summit is an extension of Politico’s ongoing and robust coverage of climate policy in the United Kingdom. 

“There is a clear division between Politico’s newsroom and our commercial operations. With critical milestones and a general election on the horizon, we continue to cover climate each day through our dedicated reporting.”

Politico’s influential London Playbook newsletter has this week been sponsored by the oil and gas giant BP. 

Michelle Amazeen said that fossil fuel sponsorship of media companies “has delegitimised their journalistic content, opened their journalists up for attack, and has even led to the resignation of journalists who are trying to write about climate issues”.

Equinor’s AGM 

Equinor also faced further public criticism this week, when on Tuesday the company was confronted by a climate activist at its annual general meeting (AGM).

Lauren MacDonald of the environmental group Uplift delivered a four minute speech about the company’s impact on the planet, and promised that campaigners would not stop opposing Rosebank or the company’s other fossil fuel projects.

At the meeting, shareholders rejected a resolution calling on the company to align its strategy and spending with climate goals.

“We invest in the energy the world needs now. That is oil and gas,” Equinor’s chief executive Anders Opedal said.

Tessa Khan, executive director at Uplift, told DeSmog: “Try as it might, Equinor can no longer ignore the scale of opposition to its climate-wrecking business model – it’s not just campaigners who are calling out its harmful mission, it’s also politicians pulling out of Equinor-sponsored events and shareholders demanding it ditch its plans of endless oil and gas expansion.

“Even if Equinor wants to stay silent, these demands for accountability will only get louder. Governments in the UK and Norway – who can’t afford to ignore this chorus of voices – must reject Equinor’s delay tactics and insist that their activities don’t further endanger our climate. As a first step, this means rejecting new oil and gas fields, and pulling the plug on disastrous projects like Rosebank.”

All-Energy and Dcarbonise

Equinor was not the only fossil fuel company to sponsor climate events this week. 

On Wednesday, climate protesters disrupted the All-Energy and Dcarbonise event in Glasgow, which describes itself as “The meeting place for the renewable and low carbon energy community”, yet featured paid exhibitions from oil and gas majors BP and Shell. 

Protesters from Stop Polluting Politics, and Fuel Poverty Action interrupted a speech by Scotland’s Net Zero and Energy Secretary Màiri McAllan, and a pre-recorded video of UK Energy and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho. Both appeared alongside Louise Kingham, a senior vice president at BP. 

“As the lethal reality of climate breakdown becomes unmissable, the PR strategies of big fossil fuel companies like Equinor and Shell reveal their growing isolation, and an increasingly desperate attempt to buy friends,” said Andrew Simms, a director of the New Weather Institute and a co-founder of the Badvertising campaign.  

“They are the unwelcome guests at the party with everyone waiting for them to leave, but who keep buying rounds for anyone willing to drink with them in order to stay.”

Adam Barnett - new white crop
Adam Barnett is DeSmog's UK News Reporter. He is a former Staff Writer at Left Foot Forward and BBC Local Democracy Reporter.
Phoebe Cooke headshot - credit Laura King Photography
Phoebe joined DeSmog in 2020. She is currently co-deputy editor and was previously the organisation's Senior Reporter.
Ellen Ormesher
Ellen is a reporter with interests across climate, culture, and industry. She was previously a senior reporter covering sustainability at The Drum. Her work has also been featured in The Guardian.

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