British politics is awash with oil money – only when we flush it out can we save the planet

Oil executives gave £390,000 directly to the Tories after Theresa May became prime minister. Surprise, surprise, their 2017 manifesto included a commitment to build upon support for the industry

James Moore
Monday 23 September 2019 15:40
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Two headlines have caught my attention over the past week. The first concerned a frankly frightening report published ahead of this week’s UN climate action summit.

Backed by the world’s major climate science bodies, it found that commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions will need to be at least tripled if the world is to have any hope of meeting the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

The consequences of not doing so are dire. We need to get carbon out of the air if we want to avoid having to deal with living in an oven.

For that to happen, we need to get money, and especially fossil fuel money, out of politics.

The problem it causes can be most obviously seen in the US, the world’s biggest CO2 emitter, where the ruling Republican Party sometimes seems to function not so much as a political movement as it does a joint venture owned by the Trump Organisation, the religious right and the fossil fuel industry.

According to the impartial Centre for Responsive Politics, 87 per cent of the fossil fuel industry's donations go to Republican candidates, whose campaigns benefit from millions of dollars as a result.

This has an impact when they get into office. Advocacy group Oil Change International noted that President Obama "proposed cutting [oil] subsidies every year he's been in office". None of the cuts, which it estimated would have saved $4bn annually from the $20.5bn spent annually on subsidising fossil fuel exploration and production, made it through Congress.

In the UK it isn’t fashionable for publicly held companies to donate to politicians. Nor do we have murkily funded super PACs (political action committees) which spend hundreds of millions of dollars to influence elections.

But that doesn’t stop the industry from getting cash into Tory coffers.

In 2017 the Guardian reported that oil executives gave £390,000 directly to the party after Theresa May became prime minister. That could prove to be a mere fraction of the money spent on lobbying and other activities designed to influence political debate.

Surprise, surprise, the Tories’ 2017 manifesto included a commitment to build upon support for the industry.

May turned heads, and took some credit, with her pledge to make Britain carbon neutral by 2050. But that was made shortly prior to her departure from Number 10 and it remains to be seen whether her successors will live up to that with a hotly contested, and expensive, election looming.

He who pays the piper calls the tune and the oil and gas industry’s favourite ditties are those that wax lyrical about the benefits of subsidies and favourable tax regimes.

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Its lobbyists and the executives have everything they need to get those songs onto the political playlist. Small wonder that a European Commission report into energy prices and costs at the beginning of the year found the UK offered support worth nearly €12bn out of a total of more than €55bn, more than any other EU nation.

Now imagine a world with stricter rules designed to limit the ability of fossil fuel companies to influence political debate. Would those subsidies, which in the UK’s case fell by only a relatively small amount between 2008 and 2016, still be so generous?

Which brings us to the other headline that caught my eye last week. It concerned offshore wind energy, the price of which has plunged by 30 per cent in two years. A new wave of offshore farms around the UK will generate power more cheaply than burning coal and will not require any subsidy at all from the taxpayer.

How does that tie in with all this?

Greenpeace argues that the more environmentally friendly an industry is, the fewer lobbyists it needs, and the less likely it is to offer politicians, who have the best knowledge of how the system works and how to influence it, lucrative jobs when they leave office.

“The net result of this is that industries which pose a major threat to our health, or to the environment, have far more influence over our government than cleaner, less harmful industries,” is the conclusion of Rosie Rogers, the organisation's head of Climate.

Indeed so. Money pollutes the political climate as much as carbon dioxide and other emissions pollute the atmosphere and heat the climate.

To clean the planet, we need to clean up our politics by chasing it out.

And we need to do it quickly.

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