Today
Mon 29 November 2021

Nafeez Ahmed explores the strange case of a Government climate change forum, and its apparent association with a major representative of the fossil fuel industry

The UK Government chose to receive advice on the feasibility of using carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS) to achieve net zero from a partner at a giant global law firm, one of whose clients is oil giant BP – which has ended up being among the first beneficiaries of CCUS contracts overseen by the Government.

The Government and the law firm now deny the latter’s involvement, in stark contradiction of the firm’s own repeated previously published statements, Byline Times can reveal.

In 2018, the Government commissioned Charlotte Morgan of Linklaters LLP, a multinational law firm headquartered in London, to chair its new CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce. According to the Government’s terms of reference for the taskforce, it was set-up to “inform and propose a strategic plan for supporting the development of CCUS in the UK”, including its value to the economy and wider society, as well as its “cost reduction potential”. 

Documents seen by Byline Times indicate that at the time Linklaters openly described the appointment as one involving the law firm, but the Government and Linklaters now insist that Morgan was acting in her own personal capacity – contradicting previous claims.

Linklaters has been flagged by law industry experts as one of a firm that has reaped profits from fossil fuel expansion – due to its work for oil and gas companies, one of which is BP. The latter ended up sitting on the same taskforce chaired by Linklaters’ Charlotte Morgan, and has now won multi-billion-pound contracts for CCUS projects signed off on the eve of COP26.

In response to enquiries from Byline Times, both the Government and Linklaters not only deny the firm’s role in the report, but have refused to clarify how the firm or its members were paid for their involvement.

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Backtracking

The new CCUS taskforce was chaired by Charlotte Morgan, Linklater’s energy and infrastructure partner, along with a team from Linklaters according to the company’s own statements. Under Morgan’s leadership, the CCUS taskforce published its report in July 2018, with a series of recommendations for how CCUS could be scaled up to become commercially sustainable and cost-effective. 

“CCUS has potential not just to support the UK’s carbon reduction commitments, but support growth, improved productivity and competitiveness in a future low carbon economy,” Morgan said at the time in a press release by Linklaters, issued about the report. 

According to the release, available on the Linklaters website, Morgan “chaired the Taskforce with a team from Linklaters including managing associate Dalia Majumder-Russell and associate Gavin Jackson, with Melanie Shanker also assisting.”

The release went on to confirm that “Linklaters has been involved in CCUS in the UK for a number of years” and that “Linklaters’ leadership on the Taskforce build from leading on the Commercial and Project Finance workstream of the Green Finance Taskforce’s report…”

tweet sent out regarding the report from the Linklaters LLP official Twitter account further confirmed that: “We worked with the CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce”.

Charlotte Morgan delivered a presentation at a CCUS conference the following year, hosted by the Carbon Capture and Storage Association. The conference proceedings describe her as “the author” of the taskforce report, and her presentation slides explain the core findings of the taskforce while carrying the Linklaters logo.

Despite these clear statements from Linklaters, confirming that the firm had been appointed to the taskforce, the Government now denies that this was the case, insisting that Morgan chaired the taskforce entirely in her own voluntary capacity.

A Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) spokesperson told Byline Times that: “The CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce was established in 2018 and included representatives from industry, Non-Governmental Organisations, academia, and the finance sector. Charlotte Morgan was appointed to chair the Taskforce based on her suitability for the role, including expert knowledge of CCUS, wider infrastructure projects, and the finance sector. This appointment was on a voluntary, personal basis, and Linklaters was not appointed. Neither Linklaters nor Ms Morgan received any fees for the work carried out as part of the Taskforce.”

When Byline Times asked Linklaters about its role in the taskforce, a spokesperson for the law firm referred to the BEIS statement and further reiterated: “For our part we can of course confirm that Linklaters as a firm wasn’t appointed to act on the report or for the Taskforce, whether as Chair, counsel or otherwise, and we weren’t remunerated. As active advisors in the sector, however, we were pleased to help contribute to the debate the report generated.”

Yet both of these denials appear to contradict Linklaters’ own previous explicit confirmations of its role, including its press release statement about “Linklaters’ leadership on the Taskforce.” 

There thus remains the question of who funded the work of Morgan’s Linklaters team on the Government’s taskforce, and if they were remunerated or not by the Government. 

When Byline Times put this to the Government, the BEIS spokesperson refused to provide any further information: “We have already made clear that Linklaters did not receive any payment from the Government for this taskforce, we have nothing further to add to the statement already sent over.”

Linklaters did not respond to questions about how a Linklaters team of at least three people was funded to assist Charlotte Morgan on her chairing of the Government taskforce. In the absence of any further clarification, it appears difficult to avoid the conclusion that Linklaters itself sponsored several of its staff members to assist Morgan’s work on the Government taskforce.


Fossil Fuel Links

Government documents marked “official – sensitive” confirm that members of the taskforce chaired by Linklaters included some of the world’s largest carbon polluters such as BP, Shell, Statoil (now known as Equinor), BHP, and Total. 

The process was overseen in Government by Claire Perry O’Neill, then Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth, who first led the UK’s bid to host the COP26 UN climate summit. She is currently managing director for climate and energy at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), which had a prominent presence at COP26. 

Linklaters operates heavily in the oil and gas sectors, with its major clients including several fossil fuel industry giants such as BP, ExxonMobil, Eni, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation, among many others. In particular, the top Legal 500 firm has been a longstanding advisor to BP for more than a decade, having worked on its $27 billion sale of assets to the Russian oil firm Rosneft among many other projects. 

Linklaters was described in August as one of the “worst” law firms for its overall contributions to climate change, due to a mixture of transactional work, lobbying and litigation, by the 2021 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard. The firm’s US branch came sixth in the scorecard’s list of American firms accelerating climate change through transactional work with the fossil fuel industry. 

What’s more, BP, which was a member of the CCUS taskforce, is a prime beneficiary of the Government’s net zero strategy – that has adopted the taskforce’s core recommendations. 

On the eve of COP26, BP won a bid from the Government to lead a consortium of oil firms including Eni, Equinor, Shell, Total and the National Grid on two carbon capture projects in Teeside and Humber. Four of those companies – BP, Equinor, Shell and Total – had sat on the Government taskforce chaired by Linklaters’ Charlotte Morgan. BP, Equinor and Eni are all longstanding Linklaters clients.

The relationship between BP, Linklaters and the UK Government raises serious conflict of interest questions. These relate to BP’s role as a major client of Linklaters, BP’s input into the work of the taskforce chaired by Linklaters, and BP’s resulting windfall thanks to two Government-backed multi-billion-pound CCUS schemes.

A recent Byline Times analysis of Government transparency data found that BP had met BEIS ministers a total of 36 times over the last two years in the run-up to COP26. BP did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


Questionable Science

The credibility of the taskforce’s findings has been challenged by independent experts. As previously reported by Byline Times, Cambridge University energy transition expert Professor Julian Allwood, who chairs a Government-funded research consortium on the subject, has argued that the role of CCUS in the Government’s net zero strategy amounts to a “fanatically religious belief”. CCUS, he said, simply will not work to scale up in time to meet the country’s net zero commitments in line with the Paris Agreement 1.5C target. 

Byline Times also spoke to earth system scientist Professor Ugo Bardi at the University of Florence, who co-authored a peer-reviewed study on CCUS published in Nature Energy in 2019. Bardi and his colleagues compared the ‘Energy Return on Investment’ (EROI) of CCUS and renewable energy technologies such as solar, wind and batteries, concluding that the net energy return of renewables is far higher and therefore far more effective in transitioning to net zero than CCUS. 

According to Bardi, the Government CCUS taskforce report produced under Linklaters’ leadership is little more than a “remarkable piece of verbiage… Nowhere do they bother explaining what CCUS means – this is amateurish, to say the least. Anyway, as these documents go, it says nothing and everything. It can be translated as ‘we want to spend some money on this thing, whatever it is’. It sounds green, it is ‘hi-tech’, and the acronym has a nice ring to it.”

Explaining his own team’s research findings, he said: “Energy return for energy spent is better for renewables than for carbon capture utilisation and sequestration. And, as depletion progresses, the unbalance in favour of renewables increases. But, of course, this point is nowhere discussed in the document.”

One new study focusing on ‘direct air capture’ – a form of CCUS designed to suck carbon dioxide out of the emissions generated when burning fossil fuels – found that it requires almost as much energy as that contained in the fossil fuels that produced the CO2 in the first place. The study by Australian maths-as-a-service company Keynumbers suggests that hoped-for economies of scale and efficiency improvements touted by the Government taskforce would not be enough to make a meaningful contribution to net zero.

The fundamental problem, then, according to Bardi, is “where to find the money to invest in this idea when we are producing nothing useful”. While CO2 has some value, capturing it from the atmosphere is “simply too expensive to be practical.”

Linklaters’ curious role in the UK Government’s CCUS Costs Challenge Taskforce may seem obscure, but has significant implications. The report has been used by the Government as the basis for its insistence that CCUS is a viable input to its net zero strategy, which in turn has allowed it to increase already exorbitant taxpayer subsidies to the most carbon polluting oil and gas companies in Britain – including BP. 

As the host of COP26, Britain’s climate strategy has therefore had a global impact, but not in a positive way – instead it has arguably legitimised business-as-usual, a situation from which fossil fuel giants can expect to profit.

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