We often talk about how the fossil fuel industry uses philanthropy as a means to benefit their bottom line by shaping potential regulations and public opinion. And if you don’t believe us, despite the ample evidence, you’re in luck: now we have confirmation, straight from the horse’s mouth.
In a pair of Guardian stories published Wednesday, reporter Sharon Kelly exposes how Mobil oil company (prior to the Exxon-Mobil merger) spread its money around in the early 1990s with the explicit aim of shaping regulations in the company’s favor--to the extent that its grants included a “benefits to Mobil” section to detail how that supposed gift would benefit the company.
If that sounds like a problem, you’re right! As Marcus Owens, former director of the IRS division responsible for charitable organizations, told Kelly, “even if it isn’t an act of self-dealing, it sure smells like it. It’s like a red flag, a blinking red siren light.”
Fortunately for Mobil, the statute of limitations regarding charity fraud has passed. Even if it hadn’t, conservatives so effectively worked the refs regarding the IRS supposedly targeting Tea Party organizations that odds are slim they’d be willing or able to do much of anything anyway.
So sure, charity is supposed to be for the benefit of the public interest, but it looks like Mobil will get away with funding the industry front group ACSH because their spokesperson Elizabeth Whelan “often appears as a counterpoint to so-called ‘public interest’ groups.” Mobil recognized that since ACSH defended poisons like DDT, and Agent Orange and carcinogens like asbestos, it would serve as a useful line of defense against groups that defended the public from polluters.
In its defense, Mobil also gave money to legitimate research organizations--but again, often with its own interests in mind. For example, its grant to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University was spent with the recognition that global warming was “likely to be the key international environmental issue of the 1990s,” making regulations “a real possibility within the next five years.” As such, Kelly writes, Mobil believed that a grant would allow the company to “develop personal relationships with some of the key experts on this issue,” which in turn allowed the fossil fuel company to “participate in the debate on these regulations” of fossil fuels.
Similarly, Mobil also funded a program that brought together environmentally-minded corporate executives, because they had “the potential to challenge the EPA behind the scenes on the effectiveness of a regulation for the environment and whether sound science supports the proposed law.” (Remember, this was at the same time the tobacco industry was developing its “sound science” approach to undercutting regulations.)
And the company was certainly willing to sit on its charitable investments, carefully picking recipients who might potentially prove useful in the future. That’s exactly what happened with Mobil’s funding for Dr. David Page, a marine pollution expert whose lab had “a healthy attitude toward the oil industry’s requirements for transportation and storage of petroleum on the world’s waters.”
Mobil, Kelly reports, foresaw a day when it could tap Page for help in “rapid response to any possible Mobil spill events,” with an eye on tamping down threats from “litigation concerning environmental damage.”
The company got its chance to use its connection to Page just five years later, when Mobil oil was spilling from Nigeria into the Atlantic Ocean. It was one of the biggest spills in Nigerian history, with around a million people in the hardest hit area, with oil spread across 500 miles. But, according a quote Dr. Page gave to the New York Times, “Mother Nature and Mobil’s highly effective and targeted response” meant that “the shoreline was spared what could have been a very serious environmental event.”
And while hundreds of thousands of Nigerians saw their coastal livelihoods soiled and demanded compensation from the oil giant, Page told the Times he would “be very surprised if fishermen’s livelihoods were cut off.” (Convenient for him that Mobil had already ensure his livelihood was well-funded.)
All together, the stories expose Mobil’s supposed charity as nothing more than a legal defense strategy for screwing people out of payments after an oil spill, for the company to buy its way into respectable circles to debate regulations openly while also using “behind the scenes” pressure to shape them covertly, and of course, propping up a front group for its role as a counterpoint to the public interest.
All with money supposedly spent to benefit the public interest.
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