Ashley Olinger

3. Who is influencing key decisions?

When an administration, Republican or Democratic, proposes a change to a federal rule, it can look like a cut-and-dried affair.

But behind the scenes, rule-making involves extensive lobbying. My job as a journalist looking at the intersection of climate and industry has been to follow the money trail to figure out who’s asking for what, and who’s getting what they want.

That often involves scrutinizing the powerful fossil fuels industry, which for years has lobbied against policies to tackle global warming, and funded efforts to obscure the well-established science that global warming is caused primarily by greenhouse gases generated by burning fossil fuels and other human activities. These efforts are often obscured from public view, but their influence becomes clear in regulatory and lobbying records and by piecing together information from insiders and other sources willing to talk to us.

The industry has gotten results. Since taking office, President Trump has begun withdrawing the United States from the landmark Paris climate accord, signed five years ago by almost 200 countries to help reduce global emissions. At the urging of coal companies like Peabody Energy, the president halted the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, designed to rein in emissions from coal-fired power plants. (That hasn’t halted the decline of the coal industry, now on even more precarious footing as the Covid-19 outbreak triggers a slump in coal use.)

A powerful oil and gas group also backed weaker oversight for emissions of methane, an invisible, particularly potent greenhouse gas; my video colleague Jonah Kessel and I made some of the gas leaks visible last year with the help of infrared technology.

Led by Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, a separate group representing fuel and petrochemical manufacturers ran a stealth campaign to roll back car tailpipe emissions standards, the biggest climate initiative ever adopted by the United States. The rollback has gone so far that it has alarmed even some of the carmakers the measure was supposed to help.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the oil and gas industry spent more than $125 million in lobbying at the federal level in 2019 alone. The coal mining industry spent close to an additional $7 million on lobbying. And together, fossil fuel companies have already made at least $50 million in political contributions this year, the vast majority to Republican politicians.

In recent years, as climate activism has gathered steam, oil and gas companies have made commitments to help combat climate change. As world leaders gathered at the United Nations climate summit last fall to discuss the urgency of slashing carbon emissions, for example, 13 of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies announced a set of wide-ranging pledges, from supporting a carbon tax, promising to cut down on methane leaks and investing in technology to scrub carbon dioxide from the air.

But there are concerns those efforts could fall by the wayside, as the oil and gas industry, reeling from the global pandemic, reins in spending. As the coronavirus has spread, industry groups have lobbied, successfully, for drastic rollbacks of environmental rules governing power plants and other industrial facilities. The Environmental Protection Agency has said it will temporarily halt fines for violations of certain air, water and hazardous waste reporting requirements.

As the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway argue in their seminal book, “Merchants of Doubt,” the methods used by industry to deny the harms of fossil fuel use were in many cases the same as those used by the tobacco industry to deny the harms of cigarettes.

At least in the United States, the tobacco industry is in a long decline. It remains to be seen whether the fossil fuel industry will tread a similar path.