Polluted Politics: The fossil fuel lobby at Holyrood
The movement for a just transition to a renewable powered and zero-fossil-fuel Scotland has been pushing for change for decades. The need for action has never been clearer, and yet progress remains inadequate and painfully slow.
It can seem as if every time a democratic movement calls for climate action, it is forcibly opposed by a powerful lobbying operation run by the fossil fuel industry.
Fossil fuel companies benefit from the lack of progress and remain a hugely powerful obstacle to action on the climate crisis. In 2022 North Sea oil companies BP, Shell and Equinor made $143 billion in profit and every major oil company remains fully committed to exploring for new sources of fossil fuel.
At UK level the fossil fuel industry have aggressively protected their interests by donating millions to UK political parties, entertaining Westminster MPs, running Parliamentary bodies, sponsoring major sporting events and trying to greenwash their image. A recent report found that all this fossil fuel lobbying is working, the industry having watered down the oil and gas ‘windfall tax’ by pressurising the UK Government.
Revealing the oil lobbying at the Scottish Parliament
Friends of the Earth Scotland wanted to find out how the fossil fuel lobby was infiltrating the Scottish Parliament. Our new investigation “Polluted Politics: The fossil fuel lobby at Holyrood” is one of the largest reviews of corporate lobbying ever undertaken in Scotland.
Going back through the records starting in 2018 we found 790 meetings between the fossil fuel industry and members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs).
During an average working week at the Scottish Parliament fossil fuel companies were meeting over six MSPs, well above one every working day.
309 incidents were with MSPs who have served as Scottish Government ministers, with another 481 of big polluters meeting with backbench and opposition MSPs.
Michael Matheson MSP, cabinet secretary since 2014, including for Net Zero, Energy and Transport from 2018-23 received 78 engagements, almost 10% of all recorded lobbying. Gillian Martin MSP, Minister for Energy and Environment, has met the fossil fuel industry once a fortnight since being appointed in March 2023. Conservative MSP Liam Kerr was the most lobbied opposition or backbench MSP followed by Alexander Burnett MSP, Conservative, and Lewis MacDonald MSP, Labour.
Companies putting pressure on decision makers
Fossil fuel companies BP, Shell, SSE and Centrica had the most meetings, successfully pursuing MSPs nearly 400 times. Lobby group Offshore Energies UK, previously known as Oil & Gas UK until 2022, had 103 meetings.
The two busiest months for recorded lobbying were November 2021, coinciding with the UN COP26 summit taking place in Glasgow, and May 2023, shortly after Humza Yousaf became First Minister.
Political party conferences were a common venue for fossil fuel lobbying. Scotland’s political parties advertise access to “high profile MSPs” in exchange for paying for a stall and or hosting a fringe event at their conference.
The scale of lobbying is likely to be much larger than what was found due to loopholes in the law, including that phone calls and online calls with no video do not need to be recorded
Examples of the fossil fuel lobbying unearthed
Fossil fuels and the Scottish Government at the UN climate talks
01/11/2021 and 03/11/2022
Fossil fuel companies gained access to Scottish Government representatives at the United Nations climate summits in Glasgow and Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. In 2022 lobbyists Alistair Phillips-Davies and Glenn Barber representing SSE met with Scottish Government Special Advisor Liz Lloyd at COP27. Earlier that year, SSE had submitted a planning application to the Scottish Government to build a new gas burning power station at Peterhead.
In 2021 Equinor lobbyist David Cairns met with Kate Forbes MSP (then Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy) inside COP26, Glasgow, where they discussed oil and gas and “future opportunities for engagement with MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.” Equinor are also involved in proposals for new gas power at Peterhead and recently received approval to develop the massive Rosebank oil field despite huge public opposition.
A COP26 banquet at Edinburgh Castle
While the COP26 summit was taking place in Glasgow, the Scottish Government held a banquet for representatives of the hydrogen industry in Edinburgh Castle. Oil industry representatives David Bunch of Shell, Louise Plutt of BP and David Bryson of Uniper attended and met with MSPs including then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation Ivan McKee MSP. The event was not reported on until six months later. A press report based on a freedom of information request suggests that the Scottish Government spent £11,000 on the event at Edinburgh Castle.
BP telling stories
BP lobbyists Karri Tough and Chris Whitehead lobbied several MSPs at a Scottish Renewables event at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The event, entitled “Meet the Experts”, took place while the COP27 summit in Egypt was ongoing. BP were invited after being admitted to Scottish Renewables following bidding for offshore wind assets.
At the event, BP spoke about “matters relating to our North Sea oil and gas business” with Audrey Nicoll MSP (SNP), John Mason MSP (SNP), Liam McArthur MSP (Liberal Democrat) and Michelle Thomson MSP (SNP). The company has been accused of using renewable investments as a smokescreen: a 2023 study found that 97% of BP’s investments went into fossil fuel development.2
Doors wide open at the SNP conference
13/10/2019, 13/09/2021 and 08/10/2022
The SNP conference has become a regular venue for fossil fuel lobbying, with companies invited to hold stalls and fringe events and to meet ministers. In 2019, BP held a fringe event with a panel including Stewart Stevenson MSP, Drew Hendry MP and Holyrood Magazine.
BP held further fringe events in 2021 and 2022, on both occasions with Michael Matheson, who was the Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport at the time. At the former event he was again joined by Holyrood Magazine and at the latter by oil lobby group OEUK. BP held a stall in 2022 and since MSPs generally tour the stalls it is likely that BP met with many of the MSPs present, although this is not reported.
Burns Supper with the Lord Mayor of London
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attended a Burns Supper at Mansion House, London, in January 2019. BP lobbyist Ariel Flores gained access to the dinner and met with the First Minister where they discussed “digital innovation in the oil and gas industry” and “the importance of a skilled workforce to the oil and gas industry.” UK-based BP is the world’s eighth largest oil and gas company and currently produce 1.37 million barrels of oil per day.
A trip to Shell HQ ahead of a crucial climate vote
In the week before the Scottish Parliament’s final vote on the Climate Change Bill to improve Scotland’s climate targets, Shell hosted a round-table for MSPs at its headquarters in Aberdeen. MSPs were told about “Shell’s UK Upstream business and the North Sea energy industry” with a team of eight Shell lobbyists working on seven MSPs from four parties: Conservative MSPs Alexander Burnett and Peter Chapman, SNP MSPs Gillian Martin, Maureen Watt and Stewart Stevenson, Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald, and Liam McArthur MSP from the Liberal Democrats. One of the Shell lobbyists, David Shaw, had just finished a two-year stint as a political adviser to the Labour Party, leaving that post at the time of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as party leader.
The Florence Opera House
28/01/2019 and 03/02/2020
Paul Wheelhouse MSP, then Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, made two trips to Florence on behalf of the Scottish Government, meeting with oil lobbyists on both occasions. He was attending the AGM of oil services company Baker Hughes which took place at the Florence Opera House. At the meeting in 2019, the Minister was lobbied by Shell representatives Harry Brekelmans and Guido Kuiper, and in 2020 by Gordon Birrel of BP, when they discussed “the importance of oil and gas in the future.”
An annual fixture: the Holyrood Magazine garden party
20/06/2019, 16/09/2021 and 28/09/22
Fossil fuel lobbyists have used an invitation to the Holyrood Magazine garden party to lobby MSPs and representatives of the Scottish Government. The annual event, at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, saw a team of three Drax lobbyists speak to then Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work Derek Mackay MSP, Special Advisor Kate Higgins and Labour’s Neil Findlay MSP in 2019. Drax operates the UK’s largest source of climate emissions, the Drax power station in Yorkshire. In 2021, four BP lobbyists addressed SNP’s Ben Macpherson MSP and Special Advisor Ross Ingebrigtsen and in 2022 the same company lobbied Conservative’s Murdo Fraser MSP and Labour’s Richard Leonard MSP with topics including oil and gas.
Equinor meeting MSPs ahead of Rosebank push
16/02/2022 to 28/10/2022
Oil company Equinor went on a lobbying spree of 18 meetings in 2022, during the period Equinor were preparing an application to develop the massive Rosebank oilfield in the North Sea. Company lobbyist David Cairns alone had 15 meetings with MSPs in eight months, including Scottish Government ministers Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport, Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture and Ivan McKee MSP, Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise.
Among a string of meetings with backbench MSPs he met both Fergus Ewing MSP and Michael Marra MSP twice in the period. Other Equinor lobbyists met the Minister for Just Transition, Employment and Fair Work, Richard Lochhead MSP, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who was lobbied on two separate occasions that summer. Equinor received approval to develop the Rosebank field from the UK Government in September 2023.
New sponsors at Murrayfield
Scottish Gas lobbyists met with Mairi McAllan MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition, at a ceremony marking the gas company’s sponsorship of Scotland’s national rugby stadium, Murrayfield. Lobbyists Chris O’Shea and Andrew Middleton represented Scottish Gas’ parent company Centrica, a major gas supplier and owner of North Sea oil company Spirit Energy. A number of arts organisations have recently rejected fossil fuel sponsorship on climate grounds, which may be encouraging oil and gas companies to sign new deals with sports organisations. A recent report found over 250 examples of fossil fuels sponsoring sport globally.
Policy making could be improved by keeping fossil fuel companies at bay.
At COP26 the UK Government resisted pressure from oil companies by refusing to offer them conference sponsorship opportunities, and new rules have since made oil lobbyists at the UN more visible. The Welsh Parliament’s fossil free policy seeks to end conflicts of interest by divesting parliamentarians’ pensions from fossil fuels by 2025.
Based on UN guidelines, the UK Government has rules designed to exclude tobacco companies from influencing health policy: government representatives cannot attend tobacco industry events, meetings minutes must be published, and tobacco companies are barred from funding public programmes. The Scottish Government could adopt a similar approach to protect climate policy-making from the powerful and pernicious influence of fossil fuel lobbying.
The Scottish Government, MSPs and Scottish MPs should also support measures to end fossil fuel funding of UK political parties, exclude the fossil fuel industry from UN climate negotiations, and advance non-proliferation of fossil fuels globally.
We all can also do our part in challenging our elected officials about their involvement with fossil fuels, including asking our MPs to sign the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge ready for the forthcoming General Election.
We explored our findings in a ‘Polluted Politics’ webinar in January 2024.
A just transition to a safe climate future can only be achieved if we end the pollution of our politics by fossil fuel companies. We hope you can join Friends of the Earth Scotland as we try to make this a reality.