This story by Melissa Jones and Andy Rowell originally appeared on Spinwatch on 29 April 2015.
It’s well known that the shale gas industry has spent millions on PR trying to sway public opinion in its favour. Less visible is the extraordinary political influence it potentially wields via some of the world’s most controversial lobbying firms.
You won’t find any such connections listed in the Coalition’s new and much-vaunted official Register of Consultant Lobbyists.
From heavyweight mega-firms Burson-Marsteller and Bell Pottinger to Edelman, Hill & Knowlton and Weber Shandwick, all employ ex-political staff or have ex-colleagues now in plum government roles. As do smaller players such as Westbourne Communications and PPS, who are tasked with winning over local communities.
The revolving door between the lobbyists, industry and government swings with almost dizzying ease straight to the top. And no more so than for special advisers, otherwise known as ‘spads’.
Take Tara Singh, prime minister David Cameron’s energy adviser in Number 10. Not too long ago she was chief lobbyist at energy giant Centrica, which has a big stake in Britain’s biggest and most controversial fracker Cuadrilla. She replaced the PM’s special adviser Ben Moxham, who left to work at US private equity firm Riverstone Holdings, which also owns part of Cuadrilla.
Before entering government, Tara Singh did a short stint as senior associate director at Hill & Knowlton (H+K Strategies), a firm infamous for helping Big Tobacco deny the link between smoking and cancer for decades, which in recent years has pocketed millions for its efforts in selling fracking to the US public and politicians.
Once described by an ex-employee as ‘a company without a moral rudder’, H+K now runs the UK All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Unconventional Oil and Gas. Founded to ‘debate and explore the potential’ for developing such reserves, membership of this group offers the frackers easy backdoor access to Westminster’s MPs.
H+K’s energy team includes former spad Michael Stott. He used to work for ex-energy minister and PR man Charles Hendry MP, who just so happens to be vice-chair of the aforementioned APPG. Stott knows a thing or two about hard-to-sell projects – he was previously EDF Energy’s chief lobbyist pushing nuclear new build.
Then there’s Stott’s boss at H+K – a former Tory Central Office operator called Simon Whitehead, who as far back as 2012 pronounced fracking a PR disaster and ‘a dirty word’ in dire need of a rebranding.
‘There’s no love for shale in the UK,’ he told a ‘shale gas environmental summit’ in London. ‘There needs to be an industry-wide offensive campaign with a fresh new narrative giving more of a brand feel to shale gas developments.’
Among Whitehead’s suggestions for ‘getting the message right in the UK’ was a ‘kitemark’ for ‘safe developers’. Building on the mantra that, unlike in the US, strict regulations here would protect people from the ever increasing environmental and health problems associated with fracking.
Whitehead’s business pitch clearly paid off. Last summer H+K took over as secretariat of Westminster’s unconventional gas APPG from Edelman, another global PR and lobbying player with a controversial record in developing ‘grassroots advocacy’ for the US oil and gas industry, most recently on the highly-politicised Transcanada XL pipeline project.
Edelman, in turn, was appointed several months later as secretariat of the so-called ‘independent’ Task Force on Shale Gas. Headed by former Environment Agency boss and ex-Labour MP Lord Chris Smith, this task force is fully funded by the likes of Centrica, Cuadrilla, Dow, GDF Suez, Total and the Weir Group, who all stand to profit from shale gas development in the UK.
Just six months earlier, Edelman had bagged its own suitably well-linked ex-spad, Katie Waring. She used to work for business minister Vince Cable, and energy minister Ed Davey, who has steered the Coalition’s ‘all out for shale’ policy. Although appointed associate director at Edelman last June, Waring only popped up on the firm’s voluntary lobbying register entry this February, the same month her two-year lobbying ban by the PM’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments conveniently expired. What she worked on for the previous eight months at Edelman is not a matter of public record.
Waring’s replacement at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) in February 2013 was another ex-lobbyist, Paul Hodgson. Now Ed Davey’s spad, he used to be an associate director at Fishburn Hedges, which along with Edelman, lobbies on behalf of the powerful Energy UK trade association, and Shell, among others.
Decc, it seems, has a habit of employing ex-lobbyists. Climate and energy minister Amber Rudd’s special adviser Maria Allen worked for years at controversial firm Burson-Marsteller (B-M) and was head of its UK energy, environment and climate change unit before she joined the government in 2013.
Globally, B-M has a long history of working for repressive regimes and tobacco firms, setting up front groups and aiding major polluters in their greenwashing. Last year it won a prestigious PR award for helping Shell ‘deal with’ fracking in the Netherlands (where a moratorium is in place until 2016), and recently added the climate sceptic-funding oil firm Exxon Mobil to its UK client list.
B-M also lobbies for the £37billion petrochemical giant Ineos, owner of the Grangemouth plant and now Britain’s third largest shale gas explorer since it bought up swathes of IGas licences in 2014-15. Listed as the sole industry ‘independent advisory panel member’ of the Westminster gas APPG, Ineos apparently provides ‘specialist knowledge and guidance’ to MPs. Its access extends well beyond the lobby though – founder and chairman Jim Ratcliffe has met with a raft of ministers and senior civil servants, including cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.
Little wonder then that Ineos is doggedly pushing ahead with its plans for fracking and coal bed methane exploration, particularly in Scotland, whose parliament passed a temporary moratorium shortly after a similar call was defeated in Westminster earlier this year. In a BBC film screened last night, director Tom Crotty admitted he views the fracking ban as merely the Scottish government wanting ‘to take a breather while we gather information’.
By this, Crotty presumably means their ‘shale gas community engagement programme’; a PR charm offensive launched last month to try to overcome widespread public opposition. No amount of spin, however, appeared to help the firm when it revealed plans to drill wells close to playgrounds and 400 metres from homes in Stirlingshire, sparking outrage from residents at its public consultation roadshow.
B-M bolstered its ranks in January with another ex-ministerial environment spad, Tom Evans. Fresh from a few years at ‘opinion changers’ Westbourne Communications, Evans is well-versed in community consulations. He previously worked with clients such as the North West Energy Task Force (NWETF), a ‘local’ lobby group set up by Centrica and Cuadrilla to push the business case for fracking in Lancashire. Recent analysis by Greenpeace revealed however that less than half of NWETF’s members were based in the county, and included an elderly care home and a Welsh fishing resort. Westbourne has form for this kind of ‘astroturfing’ tactic; its fake grassroots campaigning for the controversial HS2 high-speed railway link was exposed in a 2013 Spinwatch investigation.
Emails released recently by Defra under freedom of information rules reveal that in May 2014 a Westbourne staffer wrote to Guy Robinson, who was at the time spad to former environment secretary Owen Paterson (now Liz Truss), to request a meeting on ‘shale gas and farming’. The lobbyist, whose name is redacted but mentions NWETF is a client, was ‘working on a research paper exploring the potential benefits of shale gas developments to farmers’. He/she wanted ‘to discuss some of the findings’ over ‘some lunch or a brief coffee’ ahead of a launch event.
Within hours Robinson had replied, asking the lobbyist to set up a meeting with his diary office. Unfortunately we have no way of knowing whether they met – the emails don’t give any dates in the secretariat’s reply, or indicate if they arranged it by phone. Nor is it listed on Defra’s most recent disclosed spads’ meetings dated 30 June 2014.
Guy Robinson, as it turns out, is an ex-lobbyist himself – he once worked for Crosby Textor, the UK-Australian lobbying outfit co-owned by David Cameron’s infamous election spin doctor Lynton Crosby. One of this firm’s longstanding clients is the oil and gas trade body APPEA, which has lobbied vigorously in Australia for the development of unconventional gas, and whose members include Dart Energy (bought out by IGas, the UK’s largest shale gas firm last year).
And on it goes, this seemingly never-ending list of revolving door connections. Others include:
• Hanover (clients: Cuadrilla, Tamboran, Tata Steel)
Founder Charles Lewington is a former press secretary to John Major. In February 2014 he was spotted drinking in London’s Intercontinental Hotel bar with the then environment secretary Owen Paterson and former energy minister Charles Hendry. Within months, Hanover had announced two new recruits: former Department for Energy and Climate Change strategic policy manager Alison Woodhouse as its new ‘head of energy and resources’ and Julia Goldsworthy, former longtime spad to Lib Dem Treasury minister Danny Alexander, as a senior policy adviser. The latter is standing as a LibDem candidate in the 2015 election.
• Burson-Marsteller UK (clients: Ineos, Shell)
Managing director and public affairs chair Stephen Day is a former Tory special adviser. He joined B-M in 2014 from Portcullis Affairs, bringing longstanding client Ineos with him, who he had provided senior counsel to during the Grangemouth industrial dispute. Chairman Mike Love is a former political agent to Margaret Thatcher. Global public affairs practice chair Kevin Bell advised the Tories via ‘Conservatives in Communications’.
• Bell Pottinger (clients: Centrica; Cuadrilla until 2014)
A key target of anti-fracking activists, who in 2014 super-glued themselves to the firm’s front doors in London. Founder Lord Bell is a Tory peer and former spin doctor to Thatcher; chairman Tim Collins is an ex-Tory MP and party vice-chair, who in 2011 was caught in a media sting on tape boasting of the firm’s access to Downing Street. Two key executives were advisers/political secretaries to Tony Blair as PM: Darren Murphy is chairman of Bell Pottinger Geopolitical, Razi Rahman is MD of Bell’s public affairs unit.
Former staffers now at Number 10 include Jonny Oates, chief of staff to deputy PM Nick Clegg and Stephen Lotinga, Lib Dems director of communications, who was a Bell partner and public affairs MD until 2013, then worked at Edelman in 2014.
• FTI Consulting (acts as secretariat for trade lobby group Shale Gas Europe)
Former Labour trade and industry minister and ‘politician for hire’ Patricia Hewitt joined this global firm as a senior adviser in December 2014, soon after Alex Deane, a former aide to David Cameron when in opposition, was appointed managing director of public affairs. Shale Gas Europe is a ‘resource centre’ founded by Cuadrilla, Chevron, Halliburton, Shell, Statoil and Total, and has been nominated for a PR award.
• PPS (Clients: Ineos, Celtique Energy, Cuadrilla Balcombe/Bowland)
Founded by Stephen Byfield a former Labour MP’s staffer, and Charles St George an ex-Tory councillor. Staffers include Nicola Brown who works on the Cuadrilla account and previously worked with shadow Labour minster Helen Jones; and Leander Clarke, a former Labour councillor candidate who previously worked at Defra.
• Westbourne Communications (clients: Cuadrilla, North West Energy Task Force, Centrica, UKOOG until November 2014).
Led by Baron James Bethell, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate, in February 2015 the firm signed up ex-Labour minister Jacqui Smith as chair of its public affairs practice. Tom Evans (now at B-M) was a special adviser for a Labour minister and associate partner Campbell Storey was previously a shadow Tory minister’s chief of staff.
• MHP (clients: IGas)
Led by Gavin Devine, a former senior civil servant and managing director James Gurling, a LibDem federal executive member who worked for party leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. Flora Coleman, an ex-spad to Lord Strathclyde, is an associate director. MHP’s advisory board chairman is former senior civil servant Brian Bender, who was permanent secretary at Defra, DTI and Dept for Business. Also on the board is former UK FCO diplomat Sir John Grant, now vice-president of policy and corporate affairs for BG Group, which has substantial shale gas interests in US.
Associate director Gareth Jones is an ex-Lib Dem researcher and previously worked at the Home Office. Managing partner Simon Nayyar, who sits on the board of several Conservative Party organisations, resigned two weeks ago to concentrate on standing as a parliamentary candidate for Felton and Heston in the 2015 general election.
• Fishburn (clients: Energy UK; Shell)
Management includes managing director Rory Scanlan, a former Labour Party election adviser; associate director Ben Crosland, a former No.10 press staffer, and until last month, David Skelton, the founder of Tory campaign group Renewal, former deputy director of Policy Exchange and a former parliamentary candidate (he moved to Weber Shandwick).
• Weber Shandwick (clients: Tamboran; Rathlin Energy)
Former staff include Tory MP Priti Patel, now exchequer secretary to the Treasury.
• Brevia (client: GDF Suez) Founder David Beamer is a former Tory senior political adviser. Chairman David Porter is an ex-member of the government’s renewable advisory group, and was Energy UK’s first chief executive. Associate director Andrew Maugham was special adviser for 12 years to chancellor of the exchequer Alastair Darling and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers to HM Treasury. Deputy director of energy Myles Bailey was previously energy adviser in the Conservative research department advising Decc and Defra.
*Special thanks to Tamasin Cave for creative help with the infographics, published as part of Spinwatch’s series on ‘Things the lobbying register won’t tell you’.