Lobbyists representing fossil fuel giants are quietly helping run parliamentary groups on energy and climate policy without the need to formally declare their involvement.
The trade associations, which are funded by oil and gas producers including Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, provide administrative and public relations support to groups of MPs.
Their roles are not included in official parliamentary transparency logs because of rules that say only benefits in kind above £1,500 a year must be recorded – a threshold the trade bodies say they do not meet.
In one case, the UK Petroleum Industry Association (UKPIA) – an alliance of eight of the world’s biggest oil companies – is playing a key role in the running of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on downstream energy and fuels. The association’s involvement is not listed as a benefit, and the names of the firms it represents do not appear in official parliamentary records. But it has helped arrange and chair meetings for the APPG and is listed as the public inquiry point, meaning people getting in touch about parliamentary business may first encounter an oil-industry PR representative.
The association’s members have also had access to MPs. In a meeting of the APPG in June – which the trade body jointly chaired – MPs were given keynote presentations by two of its members, the oil giants BP and Phillips 66.
The UKPIA said the APPG was “set up in accordance with relevant guidance” to consider the role the sector could “play in meeting government net zero goals” and that its “limited activities” meant the value of its services did not meet the £1,500 threshold.
Another trade body, Oil & Gas UK, recently rebranded as Offshore Energies UK, is listed as the inquiry point for the British offshore oil and gas industry APPG.
The association – which states that its primary goal is to ensure the North Sea “remains an attractive place to do business” – coordinates meetings, distributes invites and prepares minutes for the APPG but says the total value of its services is less than £100.
Its link to the group has given it access to the heart of Westminster. In 2020 a reception for the APPG was held on the House of Commons Terrace Pavilion “on behalf of” Oil & Gas UK, according to hospitality logs. A spokesman said: “Offshore Energies UK acts as the secretariat for the APPG but recent costs have been minimal. The cost in the last reporting year, for February 2021, fell below £100.”
Some MPs in the groups are among the most vocal advocates for policies that benefit oil and gas producers, including calling for greater investment in the sector and opposing the recently proposed windfall tax, which would see the industry pay about £3bn extra in corporation tax.
While there is no suggestion of impropriety, the findings have raised concerns about the possibility of APPGs being used to influence policymakers. Professor Elizabeth David-Barrett, director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex, said the undeclared arrangements could allow external groups to “distort policy without the public knowing”.
She said it was problematic that industry representatives were contact points. “You might think you’re writing to the APPG … but actually the person has a particular advocacy agenda,” she added.
Others said it was surprising that the minimum threshold for declaring services had not been met. In many cases, where outside organisations handle the administration of an APPG, this is registered as a benefit and appears in the official register of APPGs.
The entry for the APPG on autism, for example, listed secretariat services provided by the National Autistic Society, a charity, as being worth up to £18,000 per year, while Macmillan, the secretariat for the APPG on cancer, said the annual value of its service equated to a £25,000-£27,000 benefit in kind.
But for the energy-related APPGs identified in the Observer analysis, no benefits are listed.
The office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said groups can appoint “whoever they wish” as their public inquiry point and that only benefits worth more than £1,500 must be included on the register.
Groups receiving more than £12,500 in benefits over the year must complete an income and expenditure statement listing all benefits above £100. The APPG on downstream energy and fuels says its total benefits do not meet this threshold, so has not completed a statement. The British offshore oil and gas Industry APPG has completed a statement, but says Oil & Gas UK’s services amount to less than £100, so do not need to be included.
Dylan Tanner, executive director of InfluenceMap, a thinktank tracking lobbying by polluting industries, said the value of the administrative services being provided was “tiny compared to what’s at stake”. “The focus shouldn’t be on the money,” he said.
The findings follow a series of revelations about lobbying by the fossil fuel industry. In October, the Guardian revealed that the Conservative party and its MPs had registered £1.3m in legally declared gifts and donations from climate sceptics and fossil fuel interests since the 2019 election.
They also add fuel to concerns about APPGs, which can provide a valuable forum for charities, campaign groups and companies to contribute to discussions, but are seen by some as a backdoor route to policymakers that can be easily exploited. Companies often make direct payments or donate gifts to the groups to help with their running.
Rose Whiffen, research officer at Transparency International UK, said a danger could arise when APPGs became “too closely aligned with private interests”. “Without reform, they will remain a backdoor for undue influence in Westminster,” she said.