Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, skyline
Downtown Pittsburgh, PA skyline, July 29, 2010. Photo credit: IK's World Trip / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Powerful lobbyists represent both oil and gas interests and environmental groups.

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In 2022, the Pittsburgh Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic organization based in its namesake city, doled out almost $800,000 worth of grants for environmental causes. One, for $60,000, went to a smaller nonprofit addressing “climate injustice.” Another, for the same amount, went to a group “addressing environmental exposures that impact public health.” 

The same year, the foundation spent just over $75,000 on lobbying — and retained one of the top firms in Pennsylvania, a shop called Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, which has long represented a suite of clients with a different set of aims in mind: those from the fossil fuel industry.

Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney is one of five powerful lobbying firms across the state named in a recent report by environmental research and advocacy organization F Minus that found that Pittsburgh — more than any other big US city — is entangled in “the most ‘extreme embrace’” of fossil fuel lobbyists. The five firms identified are retained by oil and gas companies, environmentally minded groups, as well as city government — a dual-loyalty situation that threatens to undermine local climate goals and the state’s progress on its greenhouse gas reduction goals, according to the report.  

The report’s authors identified Pittsburgh after looking at states with big cities where key functions of the city’s public life — government, public schools, and philanthropy — all share lobbyists with fossil fuel companies. The southwestern Pennsylvania city, which sits in the heart of shale gas country, beat out cities like New Orleans, which must reckon with Louisiana’s oil and gas and petrochemical industry, and other Keystone State cities like Philadelphia, which came second in the authors’ analysis.

These lobbyists pose a problem for climate-related causes and the environmental groups that employ them, argues report author James Browning, founder of F Minus. While it’s theoretically possible that an individual lobbyist might be able to compartmentalize work between clients, he believes it’s unavoidable that one with deeper pockets wouldn’t hold more sway. 

“Fossil fuel companies have far more money and clout and gravity and so the magnets are always going to move in their direction,” he said. 

While representing the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Riverlife, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, for instance, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney has also represented natural gas producer EQT, pipeline company Kinder Morgan, and Koch Industries, the report notes. 

Koch has been tied to an effort to fight a state carbon trading program. Meanwhile, Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney is a member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a natural gas industry trade group that has sought to discredit research on the health effects of fracking and advocated against health and safety setbacks, protective buffers between fracking wells and homes, schools, and hospitals.  

It’s conceivable that these clients could lobby on opposite sides of the same bill. So, which client would get more attention from the firm? Likely the one with more money on the table, Browning believes.

That environmental groups have to retain fossil-fuel lobbyists at all points to a deeper problem in state politics, F Minus argues. “Multi-client lobbyists are often described as ‘gatekeepers’ to state officials,” the site says. That leaves even small players that lack hefty lobbying budgets without much choice but to buy in. 

“It’s a tragedy of our system; it’s a stuck place to be,” says Michael Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, a nonprofit anti-corruption advocacy group. “The city of Pittsburgh should be able to talk directly to the state government without the need to go through a room full of ex-legislators and staffers who are armed with gifts, campaign contributions, side job offers, [and] access to deep dark money pockets.” 

Among other firms that represent conflicting interests on climate is Malady & Wooten, which boasts its “time-tested relationships” and unparalleled “access to the decision makers.” The firm has represented the city of Pittsburgh — a city with an ambitious climate plan and a successful play to divest its pensions from fossil fuels — since 2017. It has also represented ExxonMobil — owner of XTO, an active natural gas player in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale — since 2010; Sunoco between 2018 and 2019; and gas plant operator Invenergy since 2019. 

Long, Nyquist & Associates, which represents the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia zoos, also represents Shell, owner of a heavily polluting petrochemical facility in southwestern Pennsylvania and the most heavily subsidized project in the state. Allegheny Strategy Partners, which represents medical institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, also represents coal major CONSOL. And One+ Strategies, which recently hired a former staffer of Gov. Josh Shapiro, has represented Kinder Morgan, pipeline operator with 865 miles running through Pennsylvania, and EQT, a Pittsburgh-based fracking giant. It also represents the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, an advocate for clean water and healthy forests and wildlife.

Browning has seen firsthand how well-meaning campaigns can end up in such a “stuck place.” Around two decades ago, he, too, was lobbying a state government: Working as an anti-tobacco lobbyist, he was urging legislators in Maryland to enact a ban on indoor smoking in restaurants. It was in this role that he encountered a colleague lobbying on the same issue, who’d also been retained to lobby on behalf of automakers at the same time. Browning was struck by the irony of someone pushing for indoor pollution mitigation while representing a major source of outdoor air pollution. 

“Apply that same critique to climate and you’ll come up with hundreds of examples of lobbyists playing both sides of the climate crisis,” he said. 

Though F Minus is less than a year old, the report is the product of Browning’s personal decades-long endeavor to track fossil fuel lobbyists and the array of other interests and industries they represent.  

The final product — a searchable registry of state fossil fuel lobbyists and all of their unrelated clients — took years to create because states’ lobbying disclosure requirements differ so greatly and are often opaque and abstruse, requiring expert knowledge or acute patience to navigate. Pennsylvania, for its part, requires lobbyists to disclose their clients and expenditures, but does not require them to disclose with whom they’re meeting and on what bills. Rather, it asks for a “subject,” which can be broad — Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, for instance, listed “infrastructure” as a topic area on its third-quarter 2023 registration. Despite its Rolodex of fossil fuel clients, the firm made no reference to energy on this form.

“Good, detailed transparency is not there,” Pollack said. “We don’t really know what [these firms are] doing on behalf of [their] principals.” 

A registry like that of F minus can offer environmental groups the information they need to make decisions about where to put their money — and provide activists with a tool to hold these groups accountable.

March on Harrisburg has pushed for policy reforms that, broadly, take the money out of politics, like gift bans and campaign contribution limits. Browning sees his research as serving a different divestment call — urging environmental groups and public institutions to stop funding fossil fuel lobbyists. 

“It’s a call to action,” he says. “Cut ties with lobbyists who represent fossil fuel companies.”

This story by Audrey Carleton was originally published by Capital & Main and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.


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