By SETH BORENSTEIN and MARY KATHERINE WILDEMAN
The badges said they were there to participate in negotiations to curb climate change. They stated affiliations like the government of Brazil, Indigenous organizations of the Amazon, the Climate Registry. But in reality, the livelihoods of these participants were more aligned with what’s keeping the problem going: fossil fuels.
Close to 400 people connected in some way or another to fossil fuel industries attended last year’s United Nations climate talks in Egypt, a grouping that was larger than all but two of the national delegations sent by countries, according to a data analysis of the more than 24,000 participants by The Associated Press.
As United Nations leaders, scientists and others called for an eventual elimination of coal, oil and natural gas, various delegations included attendees who in some way owed part or all of their paychecks to fossil fuel burning. Many of these same people, and possibly even more connected to fossil fuels, will likely be at this year’s official climate talks, known as Conference of Parties or COP, being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producing country.
“There’s outsized influence,” said Center for Biological Diversity’s Jean Su, who sits on the board that represents civil society and environmental groups at these meetings. “These COPs are often wining-and-dining fests for fossil fuel corporations that want to profit off of climate.”
While the presence is palpable—such as oil countries and companies with huge, flashy stands in the trades pavilions—the influence is hard to quantify because much of the negotiating is done behind closed doors.
These annual meetings, which have occurred since 1995, convene in different cities each year. The host city runs the event and sets the agenda. Because the upcoming summit, COP28, is in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates got to choose the president, picking the CEO of its national oil company, Sultan al-Jaber.
As to be expected at a summit focused on the environment, there are many environmental activists, more than 750 last year, by AP’s count. But they say their voices are not being heard, and instead the lobbying of fossil fuel interests are why climate talks have yet to produce an agreement to phase out coal, oil and natural gas, as scientists have repeatedly said must happen to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, like extreme weather events.
“People all over the world are suffering and dying from the consequences of the climate crisis caused by these industries who we allow to meet with our politicians and have privileged access to,” climate activist Greta Thunberg said in an October protest in London. “We cannot trust these politicians and we cannot trust the processes of the COPs because the fossil fuel industries are tightening their grip around their processes and dictating their outcomes.”
WIDE RANGE OF AFFILIATIONS
The AP analyzed the affiliations of attendees of COP27, reviewing details they offered on their badges. Those details were checked against lists of operators and owners of coal mines, oil fields and natural gas plants, as well as manufacturers of carbon-intensive materials like steel and cement.
Attendees in 2022 included top executives of BP, Shell, Equinor and TotalEnergies. The head of the world’s largest oil and gas firm, Saudi Aramco, was at the site on a “sideline” event. And al-Jaber, chief of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, was also there and will be in charge of this year’s climate negotiations. The operations and products of those companies and others are huge contributors to climate change: global oil and gas use alone was responsible for more than half of the world’s 40.5 billion tons (36.8 billion metric tons) of greenhouse gas emissions in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency.
It wasn’t just fossil fuel giants that showed up.
Take Mercuria Energy. The Switzerland-based firm calls itself “one of the world’s largest energy traders,” with 69% of their 2022 traded volumes in oil and natural gas. The firm is also a part-owner in Vesta Terminals, which operates storage terminals that hold crude oil, petroleum products and other liquids, as well as a marine fuels company called Minerva Bunkering.
Mercuria sent six people to the COP in Egypt. Its chief trader, Magid Shenouda, went as part of the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin. Others from Mercuria went as members of delegations for the Brazilian government, the International Chamber of Commerce, the International Emissions Trading Association and Winrock International, a nonprofit that works to help poorer countries with social, environmental and agricultural issues.
“We attend these events because we believe the world needs to change to a global energy system that is reliable, affordable, and sustainable,” firm spokesman Matthew Lauer said in an email.
COMPANIES ATTEND VIA COUNTRY DELEGATIONS
Mercuria was not the only company that sent people with a national delegation. Two employees with the China National Petroleum Company, which is state-owned and one of the largest energy companies in the world, attended as part of the delegation of Niger, the African nation where the company is constructing a pipeline. Thyssenkrupp, a German steelmaker with emissions in 2022 that rivaled those of some oil and gas majors, according to data they reported to non-profit CDP, sent four people with three different delegations.
Nearly a quarter of people with connections to fossil fuels in AP’s analysis attended with an electric utility. For many of those companies, fossil fuels remain the primary energy source. Take AES Corporation, which sent two people to the conference: More than half of the global company’s generation capacity is natural gas or coal, although AES aims to phase out coal by 2025, according to its most recent annual report to investors.
Houston-based Apache Corporation drills for oil and gas in Texas, Britain’s North Sea and Egypt, with more than 850 million barrels of oil equivalent in proven but yet-to-be-pumped oil reserves. Apache Executive Vice President David Pursell was at the climate talks, part of the six fossil fuel connected members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegation the AP identified.
“By inviting the oil and gas industry to participate in the conversation, we can create pragmatic solutions to addressing global energy poverty while minimizing our environmental impact,” Pursell said in a statement.
Alden Meyer, who has been to all but one COP and is an analyst for the European think-tank E3G, says the big numbers of attendees connected to fossil fuels show these industries see the summits as “either a threat or maybe an opportunity or both for their business,” but the system isn’t set up to tell motives and lobbying efforts.
Meyer and climate negotiations historian Joanna Depledge of the University of Cambridge in England say the fossil fuel interests have huge influence over the event, but the influence begins ahead of the talks.
“National positions are forged way before governments fly to the COPs,” said Depledge.
However, much of the advocating for fossil fuels doesn’t come directly from countries or companies. Last year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute sent four employees to the summit. Marty Durbin, the institute’s president and former executive of the American Petroleum Institute, says the institute is a “huge” supporter of natural gas, noting that in developing countries natural gas is an alternative to far-dirtier coal.
Durbin says the interests of the chamber’s wide business constituency must be represented in the negotiations, adding that chamber officials met with John Kerry at COP27 in support of that view and recently met with COP28 leaders in Abu Dhabi.
“I don’t know why we’re trying to push people away instead of saying, ‘Come in and let’s all work on this together,’” said Durbin, speaking from an oil and gas conference in October in Abu Dhabi.
For the upcoming talks in Dubai, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which organizes COPs, has changed its badging process to be more transparent. Attendees will be required to state affiliation and relationship to their delegation.
LEGACY OIL INFLUENCE
Historian Depledge points to the first COP in Berlin for what has happened since. Thanks to oil industry lobbying, when setting its rules the convention decided against adopting decisions by majority rule and instead opted for the much harder consensus, she said. That means if a big player or several nations object, a proposal fails. India scuttled a 2021 proposal to phase out coal, watering the language down.
The No. 2 of the upcoming COP, Adnan Amin, told AP that consensus rule means that an agreement to phase out fossil fuels is unlikely. However, he said that in participating in the talks the oil and gas industry “will understand they need to move much faster than they’ve been moving” to reduce emissions.
Pedro Pizarro, president of Edison International, a major California utility, is quick to say his firm doesn’t burn fossil fuels and he doesn’t consider it a fossil fuel company, even though they get at least 40% of the electricity they supply from burning natural gas.
When Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which set targets to limit global temperature rise, Pizarro still went to the negotiations, telling AP that “the U.S. was essentially absent; there were a few of us CEOs were there saying, ’Hey, we’re still in this’.”
Then in 2021, President Joe Biden returned the U.S. to the talks. Pizarro says he met with U.S. Special Climate Envoy John Kerry, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and domestic climate czar Gina McCarthy at those negotiations, talking about transitioning to clean energy and supporting Biden’s efforts to pass legislation.
Pizarro says he hopes that carbon capture and storage technologies will allow some fossil fuel burning to continue. Carbon capture removes carbon dioxide from the source of burning or from the air and is intertwined with fossil fuel businesses because promises to to abate emissions are critical to the net-zero pledges of many nations and companies, especially the oil and gas industry. However, the technology is years, if not decades, away from having an impact at scale.
“Right now the problem to solve isn’t fossil fuel,” Pizarro said. “The problem to solve is climate.”
Su disagrees and says all utilities are connected to fossil fuels.
“It’s the fox guarding the henhouse and they should not be at the table when it’s governments who have the jurisdiction to regulate,” Su said. “They are only accountable to shareholders and governments should have full say over what is best for the public.”
“The (COP) process is broken,” Su said. “It’s deeply frustrating.”
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