Brookings Institution senior fellow Charles Ebinger testifies before Congress in favor of lifting the crude oil export ban in 2014 (via C-SPAN)
In early July, Brookings Institution Vice President Darrell M. West blasted Unearthed, an investigative journalism project of Greenpeace UK, in a since-deleted post on the Brookings blog for secretly recording ExxonMobil lobbyists candidly disclosing the company’s playbook for blocking government action on climate change.
Lawrence Carter, a reporter at Unearthed, had published an exposé based on undercover interviews with two ExxonMobil lobbyists who revealed how the company persuaded lawmakers to drastically limit the scope of the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill, backed proposals for a carbon tax to give the appearance of supporting climate action in the belief that the policy was unlikely to ever pass, and backed “shadow groups” to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change.
After West criticized the Unearthed report as “erod[ing] trust in civic life,” Kate Aronoff pointed out that Brookings is funded by ExxonMobil and was explicitly named, along with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as one of “the two big think tanks that we work with and that we’re actively involved in” by one of the ExxonMobil lobbyists in the report.
Aronoff noted in her article at The New Republic that “funding the institutions that help define ideas about what constitutes a reasonable climate debate” can help ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies influence climate policy in ways that are hidden to the general public.
Indeed, while the lobbyists’ unwitting admissions to Unearthed revealed ExxonMobil’s tactics in particularly stark terms, Big Oil’s use of think tanks to shape policy is nothing new. We documented this phenomenon as it related to a specific policy debate in our 2015 report “The Oil Tanks.” The report examined fossil fuel industry funding for Brookings, CSIS, and seven other elite think tanks advocating for repealing the ban on exporting crude oil from the United States.
In 2014, Brookings published a report titled “Economic Benefits of Lifting the Crude Oil Export Ban” written by Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow at Brookings with a long history of advising energy companies and governments on energy issues. In that year Brookings reported receiving between $1.7 and $3.6 million from nine major oil and gas companies, including between $500,000 and $999,999 from ExxonMobil. Further, at the time 15 of Brookings’ 74 were current or former directors, executives, or lobbyists of oil and gas companies who gave an additional $1.3 to $3.1 million to the institute.
Other think tanks profiled in our report who worked to lift the crude oil export ban while taking money from the fossil fuel industry include CSIS, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Atlantic Council, the Aspen Institute, and the Bipartisan Policy Center.
In her article, Aronoff describes the influence that Brookings and other elite think tanks funded with fossil fuel money and other corporate donations have on US policy: “These institutions often feed experts to top posts in the White House and serve as landing pads for ex-administration officials when their parties lose control, weighing in on key policy debates with recommendations for lawmakers.”
We observed this precise dynamic in our 2015 report on the effort to allow oil drillers to begin exporting crude oil from the United States.
Frank Verrastro, senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ energy security and climate change program and lead author of the report “Delivering the Goods: Making the Most of North America’s Evolving Oil Infrastructure,” held positions in the White House energy policy and planning staff as well as the Department of Interior’s oil and gas office and the Department of Energy’s domestic policy and international affairs office, according to one bio.
David Goldwyn was co-director of the Atlantic Council’s pro-export report “Empowering America: How Energy Abundance Can Strengthen US Global Leadership.” Previously, as Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs in the State Department, Goldwyn was critical to the Obama administration’s strategy of encouraging eastern European countries to embrace fracking and lease land to US oil companies, including Chevron, a major Atlantic Council donor. Goldwyn has also held roles at other elite, fossil fuel-funded think tanks that promoted lifting the export ban. From 2001 until 2009 when he joined the federal government, Goldywn was a senior associate at CSIS. In 2007, Goldwyn was a member of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency. In 2014, Goldwyn was a member of the Brookings Institution’s natural gas task force, which endorsed liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.
Overall, as we observed in 2015, the effect was to create an “echo chamber of highly influential institutions funded, directed, and staffed by many of the same corporations and people and delivering the same pro-industry messages,” through 2014 and 2015 calling for a major policy shift to benefit the United States oil industry. On December 18, 2015, just two weeks after we published our report, then-President Barack Obama signed a bill lifting the export ban. Now, thanks to the reporting of Lawrence Carter at Unearthed and Kate Aronoff at The New Republic we have evidence, in Exxon’s own words, of how they use elite liberal and right-wing think tanks to advance their agenda in Washington.