According to data reviewed by a new climate group in California, the same fossil fuel lobbyists trying to sink climate legislation are also representing the state’s cities and counties being pummeled hardest by the climate crisis.

A car is partially submerged in floodwaters as Tropical Storm Hilary moves through the area on August 20, 2023 in Cathedral City, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

The same fossil fuel lobbyists pulling out all the stops to defeat game-changing climate legislation in California this month are simultaneously collecting checks from dozens of cities and counties in the state being pummeled by the climate crisis, as well as major environmental and clean-energy groups pushing state lawmakers to adopt solutions, the Lever has learned.

In other words, powerful California lobbying firms — including those with ties to Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state Democratic leaders — are effectively acting as double agents for both the culprits of climate change and its victims, according to F Minus, a new climate group that reviewed thousands of state registrations for a database exposing the lobbying connections.

In the final two weeks of California’s legislative session, lawmakers are preparing to vote on a climate bill that would require thousands of large companies to fully disclose their carbon emissions for the first time. That means many of the same lobbyists who take taxpayer money to represent local governments will also be working overtime to sink a climate bill with national implications.

“Lobbyists have been playing both sides of environmental issues for decades,” said James Browning, the group’s executive director and a former state director for the watchdog group Common Cause. “Now we can see the extent of it — for hundreds of local governments facing crushing climate costs, their own lobbyists are part of the problem.”

Nationwide, the group’s database shows that more than fifteen hundred fossil fuel lobbyists are also being paid to represent liberal-run cities, universities, and environmental groups. In California, where the effects of climate change — including coastal erosion, wildfires, and other extreme weather — could cost the state $113 billion annually by 2050, the conflicting interests of major lobbyists’ clients are especially notable.

Take coastal San Mateo County, the site of a new, $90 million steel sea wall along the San Francisco Bay. The county is one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit seeking to hold Big Oil financially liable for the costs that local governments will incur from rising sea levels. In April, the Supreme Court ruled that the novel suit could proceed after oil companies sought to have it thrown out. But as the county makes the case that the world’s largest oil companies knowingly caused climate change, it is also sharing a lobbyist with one of the defendants.

San Mateo County has paid $32,000 this year to the lobbying firm Political Solutions LLC, which over the same period received $44,000 from the energy giant BP to lobby on fossil fuel legislation in California, according to state records. A county spokesperson said that Political Solutions did not provide services related to the lawsuit. State records show that it lobbied on funding for child support agencies and other budgetary issues.

Yet the county’s use of political insiders employed by oil and gas firms sets up a potential conflict of interest, according to Browning — one that sometimes extends to environmental groups.

The conservation nonprofit the Nature Conservancy this year retained Axiom Advisors, a lobbying firm whose founders include a longtime advisor to Governor Newsom, as well as a former policy director for Newsom when he served as lieutenant governor. The firm also lobbies on behalf of offshore wind and solar companies.

But the firm’s other clients include Marathon Petroleum, which paid Axiom $175,000 this year to lobby the legislature and governor’s office on climate and energy issues, including the climate disclosure bill. Marathon, the nation’s top crude oil refiner, operates the largest refinery on the West Coast in Los Angeles County.

A spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy told the Lever that the group supports the climate disclosure bill on which Axiom has lobbied.

“When we hire lobbyists to work on conservation policies, we strive to hire firms with a breadth of experience because their expertise, relationships, and perspectives across a spectrum of issues increase their effectiveness,” the spokesperson said. “While there can be areas of cross-purpose in different sectors, we always seek to find the best outcomes for conservation.”

Climate Conflict of Interest

California may have a liberal reputation, but the fossil fuel lobby is a formidable force in Sacramento, spending $18 million to influence state politics in 2022 as state legislators considered a wave of new climate legislation.

Despite the onslaught, California legislators managed to pass most of last year’s climate bills, including a plan to reach carbon neutrality by 2045.

This year, legislators reintroduced a bill requiring climate disclosures by large corporations and floated a new proposal to divest the state’s pension funds from fossil fuels — both ambitious measures that could set new nationwide precedents.

The divestment measure quietly stalled in July after fossil fuel companies spent more than $13 million on state lobbying during the first half of this year.

But last week, the California Assembly’s appropriations committee passed the climate transparency bill, clearing the way for a floor vote before the legislative session ends in mid-September. The landmark legislation, which would require thousands of large companies to report the full scope of their carbon emissions, failed narrowly last year after a handful of corporate Democrats switched their votes at the eleventh hour.

The transparency bill’s success this year is anything but guaranteed — especially given fierce opposition from oil and gas companies along with tech, fast-food, finance, and virtually every sector hoping to continue concealing their contributions to climate change.

While the fate of similar federal climate disclosure rules remains uncertain, the California bill would apply to all large companies doing business in the state, effectively setting national policy. Industry opponents have reported spending more than $7 million this year on state lobbying issues that included efforts to influence or kill the climate disclosure bill, as the Lever has reported.

Leading opposition to the climate disclosure bill is the Western States Petroleum Association, a lobbying group that represents fossil fuel companies in California and five other states. The group has paid $22,500 this year to Nielsen Merksamer, a lobbying firm also linked to front groups opposing oil price-gouging protections this legislative session, according to recent reporting by the San Francisco Chronicle.

The firm reported lobbying on the climate transparency legislation on behalf of several clients, including the American Council of Engineering Companies of California, which represents the engineering and surveying industry, and Inspire Brands, the parent company of Dunkin’ Donuts and Buffalo Wild Wings.

Nielsen Merksamer also represents Contra Costa County, which has paid the firm $90,000 to date this year, and San Diego County, which has paid the firm $131,000. Both counties have created ambitious climate action plans — and face increasing threats from extreme heat, rising sea levels, and wildfires.

A spokesperson told the Lever that “the County of San Diego is committed to reducing the impacts of climate change.”

The Lever reached out to nine other California cities and counties that share lobbyists with the fossil fuel industry — including the city of Riverside, located in an area beset by four separate wildfires as well as severe flooding over the past two months. The city is represented by the firm Buchalter, which lobbies on behalf of the oil companies Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, and Phillips 66.

None of the other local governments responded to the Lever’s requests for comment.

Most states, as well as the federal government, require lobbyists and their employers to register and report influence payments — and California requires more detailed disclosures than most. But lobbyists are not subject to legal or professional conflict-of-interest rules that would prevent them from representing clients on opposite sides of key issues.

Cities and counties typically lobby on more mundane budgetary issues, but where they’re seeking to take action on the climate crisis, that poses a problem, said F Minus’s Browning.

“They may have great-sounding climate plans, but the choice of lobbyist totally cuts against that,” he said.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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