In the narrative crafted by environmental groups, the fossil fuel industry is depicted as a greedy, politically connected, and downright evil conspirator working to undermine the democratic will. It has been compared to the mid-century tobacco industry as a disseminator of misinformation about the harm of its products to keep people “addicted” to them. To fight this evil Goliath there has emerged a ‘David’ – a scrappy, rag tag team of environmental groups and renewable energy companies, whose weapons of “truth” and science must overcome the larger might of money and power wielded by their opposition. But this self-serving narrative is false.
Who Has the Money?
A prominent presenter of the “David vs. Goliath” narrative is Drexel University professor of sociology Dr. Robert Brulle. Brulle, an Energy Foundation-funded ‘environmentalist for Bernie,’ accuses the fossil fuel industry of using “outsize economic and cultural power to distort the public debate by introducing falsehoods.” His best-known work was a 2013 study “tracking the ‘dark money’ trail from conservative foundations to the think tanks that make up the ‘climate change counter-movement’ that promote climate denial.” The study reverberated in an echo chamber of environmental journals and left-leaning mainstream media sources, with headlines such as “Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change.” Yet the actual study showed only that conservative think tanks (what Brulle called the “climate change counter-movement”) received an average of $900 million per year in income (IE: donations), making no attempt to determine how much of this money was actually spent fighting climate action.
In response to the study, the Capital Research Center created the Climate Dollars project, critiquing Brulle’s study and calculating the unaddressed factors. It found that in 2010, the total money conservative think tanks received for all of their operations, $1.51 billion, was outmatched by environmental groups’ $3.70 billion (increasing in 2014 to $1.73 and $4.59 billion, respectively). Furthermore, conservative think tanks only spent $100 million on any activities relating to climate science. The Heartland Institute’s James Taylor estimated that of the money spent climate change, only a net of $46 million was actually opposing climate action.
The conclusion that environmental groups are the real Goliath corroborates a 2011 study by Dr. Matthew Nisbet, which found:
Overall, in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available, the major conservative think tanks, advocacy groups and industry associations took in a total of $907 million in revenue, spent $787 million on all program-related activities, and spent an estimated $259 million specific to climate change and energy policy. In comparison, the national environmental groups took in $1.7 billion in revenue, spent $1.4 billion on program activities, and spent an estimated $394 million on climate change and energy-specific activities.
Brulle was well aware of Nisbet’s more encompassing study before he released his own, having been one of five peer reviewers to comment on it. Perhaps after realizing that the findings contradicted his favored narrative, however, Brulle abruptly asked his name to be withdrawn and helped Center for American Progress’ Joe Romm slam the study two days before its release.
Who Controls the Government?
Brulle was in the news again this June with a study analyzing federal lobbying spending on climate-related issues since 2000. He concludes that “environmental organizations and the renewable energy sector lobbying expenditures were dwarfed by a ratio of 10:1 by the spending of the sectors engaged in the supply and use of fossil fuels” —the latter of which counted as all fossil fuel and transportation corporations, electric utilities, and affiliated trade organizations. The study made rounds in a familiar echo chamber, with the Huffington Post reporting, “Fossil Fuel Industries Outspend Clean Energy Advocates On Climate Lobbying By 10 To 1” and Joe Romm at ThinkProgress declaring, “Fossil fuel industry spent nearly $2 billion to kill U.S. climate action, new study finds.”
These headlines overstate the study’s findings in important ways. Transportation corporations and electric utilities are not part of the fossil fuel industry. They use and transport fossil fuels, but they also use and transport steel, aluminum, and uranium oxide. It is even less tenable to assume that all of the money that the transportation and electric utility sectors spend in climate-related lobbying is to kill climate action; in fact, climate action is as likely to benefit these industries as it is to hurt them. A carbon tax would make the 30.1% of electricity being produced by coal more expensive, but subsidies for clean energy would make the 37.1% of electricity being generated by nuclear and renewable sources much cheaper. The auto industry may pay extra to comply with emissions standards, but they love subsidies for electric and hybrid vehicles.
In practice, little of that $2 billion in total 2000-2016 climate lobbying expenditures was used to try to kill climate action. Before lumping it wholesale along with the fossil fuel and transportation industries, Brulle admits, “the utility sector did not lobby as a unified block… utilities that were expected to benefit from passage of climate legislation, especially those with large natural gas power generation capacity lobbied in favor of climate legislation.” In fact, even coal-reliant electric utilities have reason to love plenty of government climate action. That is because, due to the Averch-Johnson effect on utilities subject to rate-of-return regulation, by increasing capital accumulation utilities can increase their profits. Large-scale nuclear, hydro, and wind projects have been great for this, and disallowances have simply turned utilities’ sights on capital-intensive expenditures for pollution abatement and excessive safety and reliability standards. As for transportation, major automakers negotiated and endorsed President Obama’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mandates and, eventually, lobbied against President Trump’s rollbacks to them.
Alone, fossil fuel corporations and their trade organizations still out-lobby environmental groups 3 to 1—but they are far from a united force against climate action either. Natural gas competes with coal, whereas subsidies for wind and solar will only increase the demand for natural gas as the critical backup to unreliable intermittent sources. Fossil fuel corporations are also huge players in the renewable and carbon-offsetting industries. BP, for instance, heavily invests in biofuels, solar energy, and touts itself as one of the top wind producers in the US. Shell sells carbon capture and storage, so every bit of the extra state support for CCS that they lobby for benefits them significantly. Even where climate action may hurt the fossil fuel industry as a whole, large fossil fuel corporations often lobby for and help create regulations that will strengthen their competitive advantage; BP, Shell, Exxon, and others support a carbon tax, a policy that will cost them initially but will debilitate their smaller competitors. Despite what Brulle’s study implies, the total climate-related lobbying expenditures are not a coordinated attack on climate action.
Nisbet’s study found that in 2009, environmental groups and their network of organizations and corporate allies spent $229 million on lobbying, while opponents of cap and trade legislation spent $272 million. Part of this imbalance is due to the fact that many environmental groups are 501(c)(3)s and are thus restricted from lobbying. But lobbying is not the only way to advance a mission, and environmental groups have found great success in funding academics like Dr. Brulle and suing fossil fuel corporations, states, and the federal government. They outspent their opponents and successfully shot down the fossil fuel-friendly Proposition 23 in California, and nationally outspent oil & gas interests by more than 3 to 1 in the 2016 elections and more than 2 to 1 (thus far) in the 2018 elections.
When these factors are considered, the environmental left looks less like David and their opponents look less like Goliath. In the end, the $1.51 billion in total annual income for conservative think tanks and the $2 billion that the (generously-defined) fossil fuel industry spent on climate lobbying over 16 years is a drop in the bucket compared to the $100 billion that Citigroup has committed to climate action or the $110 billion in clean energy investments under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the product of an alliance of environmental groups and major labor unions). These numbers speak for themselves, as do the numbers in our latest project, Big Green, Inc. —tracking more than $3.7 billion in environmental grants flowing from just ten left-leaning foundations. When the fog clears, it appears that the ostensibly giant fossil fuel Goliath has fallen, and the no-longer puny green David has been crowned ruler.