Fossil fuel companies have long established themselves as one of the most important lobbying groups in the EU. Their sway over the institutions has significantly increased since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, which prompted the European Commission to devise a plan for EU countries to phase out Russian energy sources – the so-called REPowerEU package. 

As part of REPowerEU, the Commission set-up the EU Energy Platform Industry Group, an expert group exclusively composed of oil and gas companies tasked to assist the Commission to develop  a  strategy to diversify EU energy imports. The establishment of this industry-led group  has led the European Ombudsman to launch an investigation into how the Commission decided on the composition of the EU Energy Platform Industry Advisory Group (EPIAG). 

Industry’s privileged role in influencing EU energy policy

The EPIAG case is particularly noteworthy as it demonstrates that the fossil fuel industry is in a privileged position to lobby for its interests within the very heart of the EU institutional framework. The Ombudsman’s inquiry was sparked by complaints by NGOs Corporate Europe Observatory and Food & Water Action Europe, who allege that the Commission has violated its rules on balanced representation by restricting group membership to industry representatives and excluding non-corporate actors.

Corporate Europe Observatory has shown that the EPIAG was in fact set-up at the behest of Europe’s leading oil and gas companies. These effectively created an influential advisory that is swaying EU energy policy at the highest level. More alarmingly, this is happening amid a devastating cost-of-living crisis, while fossil fuel companies in Europe are reporting record-breaking profits

Parallels with Tobacco Control: A Call for Restrictions

All of this begs the question as to whether the fossil fuel industry should be subjected to a regime similar to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Adopted in 2003, this international agreement significantly limits the tobacco industry’s ability to engage in lobbying activities across the world. It established for the first time the existence of “a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. 

The rationale behind the Convention was straightforward. Smoking had been scientifically demonstrated to be unhealthy, tobacco companies privately knew about it, and the industry engaged in a decades-long campaign to obscure the truth in an effort to promote sales. This was deemed unacceptable. 

We now know that the fossil fuel industry has undergone an eerily similar path. It has been shown that oil companies knew about the deleterious effects of fossil fuels on the environment since at least the 1970s. While many of these companies now nominally commit to decarbonisation, these firms still frequently fund anti-climate-action and continue to invest in large-scale fossil fuel exploration and production projects. 

Transparency and Conflict: the Ombudsman’s Investigation

Historically, the lobbying sector has grappled with a reputation for opaqueness, with companies often concealing their operations from public scrutiny. The EU Ombudsman has recently launched another investigation into the Commission’s lack of transparency in its interactions with representatives from the tobacco industry – which is increasingly finding new ways to covertly lobby lawmakers. A recent report by the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control found that tobacco companies have reverted to new strategies such as donating to COVID-19 relief funds, funding tree-planting programs, and sponsoring – often questionable – programs to eliminate child labour.  But the EPIAG case is different. Transparency, per se, is not the issue, but rather the flagrant conflict of interest involved in contracting the help of fossil fuel companies to design laws directly impacting their sector. 

Citing the undue influence of the EPIAG, several European lawmakers have issued calls for a restriction on fossil fuel companies’ access to the EU institutions – as is the case of the tobacco industry. They also endorse international conventions similar to the WHO Convention on Tobacco Control to curb the industry’s sway over policy at the global level. The Petitions Committee (PETI) in the European Parliament is also set to hold a public hearing on the fossil fuel industry’s influence over EU policy in early 2024. The Committee agreed to this following a request by the Fossil Free Politics coalition.

Professor Alberto Alemanno, founder of The Good Lobby, observes that: “The EPIAG affair should make us think twice about the nature and extent of the fossil fuel industry’s influence in Brussels. Regardless of whether the sector will end up being banned from engaging with public authorities like the tobacco industry, there is no justification for granting oil and gas companies an exclusive, privileged channel to shape EU policy.”