June 08, 2005

Whitewash at the White House?
Tony Blair faces opposition from within the White House and the oil industry over plans to tackle climate change.
Special report by Rhys Blakely and Helen Nugent

Links between the White House and the energy industry have come under renewed scrutiny as Tony Blair prepares to ask President George W Bush for help at next month's G8 summit to tackle global warming.

The Prime Minister today told the House of Commons he would be do "his very best to persuade countries, including the United States, to take action" on the issue when world leaders meet at Gleneagles on July 6.

However, Mr Blair could encounter entrenched opposition from within the US administration to his plans, judging by a report in today's New York Times.

The newspaper showed that a White House aide with links to the energy industry altered official US papers to reinforce doubts over the link between global warming and gas emissions.

The New York Times said Philip Cooney, the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, altered several documents which had already been approved for publication, to "soften" the case for cuts in greenhouse gases.

On one document, the paper said Mr Cooney added the word "extremely" to this sentence: "The attribution of the causes of biological and ecological changes to climate change or variability is extremely difficult." The alterations Mr Cooney allegedly made on drafts of reports issued in 2002 and 2003 often appeared in the final reports, the paper added.

Mr Cooney, who before working at the White House in 2001 was a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute (API), which led the oil industry’s fight against limits on greenhouse gases, is a lawyer with no specialist scientific training.

Greenpeace told Times Online that it was astounded by the reports. "We thought that our capacity to be surprised by this administration had reached its high water mark, but we are shocked by these revelations," Ben Stewart, a spokesman for the environmental group, said.

"Here you have a lawyer crossing out the findings of respected scientists. This is the stuff conspiracy theories are made of."

Although it is common practice for business to seek meetings with government figures through lobby groups such as the API, official US State Department documents obtained by Greenpeace and seen by Times Online shed light on the level of influence the oil industry has exerted over America’s environmental policy.

ExxonMobile, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, has been linked to The Global Climate Coalition (GCC), a lobbying group for major industrial interests, that held several meetings with senior Washington figures.

One briefing states: "ExxonMobil is among the companies most actively and prominently opposed to binding approaches to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Through previous efforts with the GCC and its own ongoing public outreach, ExxonMobile stresses scientific uncertainty regarding human impact on climate change."

The official documents were prepared for Paula Dobriansky, theUnder Secretary, Global Affairs at the US State Department, ahead of a meeting with GCC. In one, it states that the lobby organisation was successful in influencing White House policy. "POTUS [the President of the United States] rejected Kyoto. In part, based on input from you," a US official encouraged Ms Dobriansky to say to GCC at the meeting.

The State Department briefings added that GCC "has been one of the most ardent opponents of the protocol, and on behalf of its coal and other members, has actively worked against most US government efforts to address climate change".

The papers contradict evidence given by Exxon to the British Government. In evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in 2003, Exxon's head of public affairs, Nick Thomas, said: "I think we can say categorically we have not campaigned with the United States government or any other government to take any sort of position over Kyoto."

The stance set out by the GCC, which has since disbanded, is also at odds with the views of Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, who said last year that the US must take the threat of global warming more seriously. "In my view, climate change is the most severe problem that we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism," he said.

Other documents suggest that ExxonMobile has targeted figures from business, the government and the media in an attempt to influence the debate over climate change, especially in the run-up to G8 meeting.

According to briefing papers seen by Times Online, Exxon has invested in a massive campaign, targeting the UK, Germany and Brussels. The documents say Exxon is looking to "push the needle further" in efforts to shape public thinking.