Shell Leaves ALEC, Improves Consistency on Climate Lobbying

August 7, 2015 | 4:24 pm
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

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.