Shell Leaves ALEC, Improves Consistency on Climate Lobbying

, former science communication officer | August 7, 2015, 4:24 pm EDT
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Shell has told several journalists that it will sever ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a U.S.-based lobbying group that spreads misinformation about climate science and tries to roll back clean energy polices. According to Shell, ALEC’s stance on climate change “is clearly inconsistent with our own.”

It’s not often that you hear science policy advocates say things like, “Woohoo!” but this one of them. (Another was earlier this week, when the EPA finalized its Clean Power Plan.)

On the one hand, Shell accepts mainstream climate science. On the other hand, it supports a powerful interest group that actively misinforms state legislators about climate science.

Shell earned a 2014 “Science Fail” from UCS for its ALEC membership. Source: UCS

Why the excitement? ALEC is a fairly gnarly group, even by the standards of semi-clandestine, industry-backed lobby shops. Not only has ALEC tried to fight energy polices in places where those policies are already working, but it also lets crackpots brief legislators about the latest climate science.

Shell, meanwhile, is among a handful of oil producers that says it wants the world to set a price on carbon. The company employs a full time climate adviser, is broadly on board with scientific realities of climate change, and, earlier this year, worked with shareholders to hold the company more accountable when it comes to climate lobbying, including stress testing its business model against dramatic emissions reductions.

Considering that Shell is the 6th largest historical producer of industrial carbon emissions, that’s all pretty darn cool, though a lot of people who work on climate and energy issues – especially those who own kayaks – would also caution that Shell is far too excited about drilling for oil in the rapidly melting Arctic.

Nobody puts science in a corner

My colleagues and I have been asking Shell for more than a year to leave ALEC. Many tech companies, and even other fossil fuel companies, have already done the same. We weren’t alone either: more than 130,000 supporters, activists, and allies joined us in calling on Shell to leave ALEC. We also partnered with investor groups like ShareAction that urge companies to act more responsibly.

No company is monolithic, so it’s not surprising that it took Shell – which employs nearly 100,000 people – some time to figure out how it should approach its relationship with ALEC, even a year after the company’s CEO said it didn’t align with groups that reject climate science.

Shell employees met with us a few times to discuss our concerns. I was initially surprised to hear that they weren’t as familiar with ALEC’s attempts at misinforming legislators as we were. That underscores just how important it is to watchdog groups like ALEC, including their funding sources. And it’s doubly important to make sure companies know what sort of activities they’re really supporting.

Three decades is a long time to be fighting all the time

From the outside, it’s hard to tell where fossil fuel companies really stand when it comes to climate policy. Scientists, engineers, CEOs, lobbyists, and philanthropic offices at individual companies aren’t always on the same page and, indeed, may even work at cross-purposes from time to time.

As we learned last month, Exxon employees were considering climate risks from projects as early as 1981. That revelation came as a shock, especially since executives and lobbyists at Exxon continued to spread misinformation about the realities of climate change for decades.

Most people point to 1988 as the year climate change became a national concern. At least one fossil fuel company was already worried about it *7 years* before that. Source: UCS, New York Times.

Shell responded to that news by pointing to the long history of climate science, which stretches back more than 200 years.

Obviously, Shell’s own take on climate science evolved over time, too, as the science itself has evolved. My colleague Dave Anderson found a great example from 1959, in which a Shell International Chemical Company scientist argues that, “There seem few grounds for believing that our furnaces and motor car engines will have any large effect on the carbon dioxide balance.”

That was 1959. The science became clearer. In fact, it became undeniable. But companies, including Shell, supported efforts to publicly deny it anyway, usually as part of lobbying campaigns to block climate policy.

I’m glad more companies are coming to their senses when it comes to cutting off support for scientific misinformation as well as efforts to undermine climate policies.

It seems clear that there is a divide, and perhaps a growing one, among fossil fuel companies when it comes to how they want to approach climate change. Those divides seem to exist within the companies themselves, too.

The good news is that the world is moving ahead with increasing alacrity to reduce carbon emissions and grapple with the risks that are already baked in from climate change.

It would be great if the men and women who deal with climate policy at oil companies chose to lead.

If they can’t do that, they could at least follow.

And if they can’t do that, the least they can do is get out of the way.

Posted in: Global Warming Tags: , , , , , , ,

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  • umwspr

    Now if shell would get out of the Arctic, that would really be something. Forever, of course.

  • Harrison

    This is a good sign and hopefully a change in the right direction, or it could be shell putting a bandaid over there oil drilling, so they can hide from us, and drill all the oil they want. It would if people were to reduce fossil consumption, by at least bicycle ride, walking and taking transit to work and to do arends once a week . We need to get rid of oil trains. Hear talk about how bombs used by terrorists to destroy communities is wrong, yet no one is getting punished when a oil train explosions that kills people!!! If we don’t reduce pollution more than global warming happens, we destroy our health, exhaust fumes can cause black lung, like smoking can.

  • Joseph D

    It is unfortunate that so many people are unwilling to debate in the public arena with those who disagree with them about what is actually driving the changes we are observing in our climate. Their only response seems to be to shutdown the voices of those who disagree with them. There is something about that which does not seem very scientific. Their is ancient proverb that I will attribute to those with common sense and modify for the circumstances at hand: the first people to complain rather than debate in the public arena until their is clear scientifically proven conclusion as opposed to a collection of empirically modified experimentally data…….. are those who are the least informed. So if you are so confident in your understanding of the science of climate change, you would not be worried about who RDS receives input from. Certainly their pockets are no where near as deep as RDS’s.

    • Shell wasn’t getting input from ALEC, they were supporting ALEC’s efforts at the state level to fight energy and climate policy, which also included hosting briefings that misled state legislators on climate science. See the links above for the types of arguments ALEC was passing on to legislators. Lots of stuff that had already been discredited in the scientific literature.

      There’s a big distinction between real, substantive, evidence-based debates in the academic literature and the back-and-forth we tend to see in the political and lobbying realms. They simply aren’t the same thing and the actors don’t play by the same rules, much to the consternation of logic-and-evidence-loving scientists.

      John Cook has some more related commentary here:

  • Ben

    “to watchdog”? Really? :-> How about “to monitor” or “to watch” or any of a variety of other actual English verbs. But apart from that quibble, great news – yay!

    • Ha. You know, one of my colleagues in our Cambridge office wondered the same thing. It’s often used a verb, at least among the circles I run in. See the 5th definition here:


      • Ben

        If you scroll down a bit on that dictionary page, you’ll see that the Brits do not use it as a verb. The usage as a verb is a modern American innovation that I would say is improper. See the blog of the Oxford English Dictionary at which says “Another typical feature of corporate jargon is the transformation of nouns into verbs, either by adding –ize/ise to the end of a noun (incentivize, synergize, metricize), or by just adding the usual English verb inflections –ed, -ing, and –s (this gives us to silo, to transition, to task, to impact, to leverage, and umpteen more). Although this evolution of nouns to verbs occurs in other areas of language apart from jargon, it still causes the hackles of many people to rise.”

  • pnwfemale

    Shell is an oil company. ALEC spreads misinformation about climate change. Please explain how oil exploration and drilling help mitigate climate change? Even if one goes all the way down to the retail level of selling gasoline to those drivers who use it in their motor vehicles, it doesn’t seem like it makes much sense to continue being involved with oil and its byproducts.

    • It certainly doesn’t help. I think the companies (and countries) involved in Arctic drilling seem to be operating under the assumption that if they don’t extract the oil, someone else will. We need more credible alternatives to oil in our economy, including cellulosic fuels, electric cars and better transit options. Among the broadest political faults oil companies have made, in my mind, is fighting those policies and spreading misinformation about climate science to do so.

      My colleague Dave Babson has also written more about policies that would allow us to know where fuel is coming from: Right now it’s pretty opaque.

  • My colleague Gretchen Goldman has a good post about the degree to which companies are comfortable even disclosing their relationship with another powerful lobbying group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: