Environmental Consulting Firm Double Dips On U.S. Methane Fight

An energy consulting firm with ties to several major environmental groups also represented a group of large oil producers as they sought to shape the Biden administration’s new methane emission rules.

In June, Massachusetts-based consultancy M.J. Bradley & Associates published an analysis that ranked the oil and gas industry’s largest emitters of methane and other greenhouse gases. The environmental group Clean Air Task Force and investor-focused climate nonprofit Ceres commissioned the report, which found that in 2019 the nation’s top 100 oil and gas producers accounted for nearly 80% of the industry’s total reported emissions of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas, and other warming pollutants.

“As our report shows, it’s the Wild West right now, with dramatic differences between companies when it comes to methane emissions and emissions intensity,” Sarah Smith, director of the Super Pollutants Program at the Clean Air Task Force, said in a statement at the time. “We need strong, sensible regulation of the oil and gas industry if we’re to have any hope of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius and staving off the worst impacts of climate change.”

The report’s authors hoped the findings would “inform regulators, lawmakers and even company executives themselves, particularly as the EPA prepares to revise federal methane regulations this fall,” CATF and Ceres noted in a release.

But a few months earlier, MJB&A had represented a group of oil and gas producers in a meeting with high-level government officials to discuss upcoming methane regulations, according to emails and calendars that the watchdog group Documented obtained and shared with HuffPost.

Five of MJB&A’s fossil fuel clients are among the industry’s highest methane emitters, according to the firm’s own analysis: ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Pioneer Natural Resources and Equinor. ConocoPhillips and BP rank among the industry’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters.

The documents show MJB&A is “happy to play both sides,” said Jesse Coleman, a senior investigator at Documented.

Oil pumpjacks operate in the Belridge oil field near McKittrick, California.
Oil pumpjacks operate in the Belridge oil field near McKittrick, California.

Mario Tama via Getty Images

In late March, MJB&A’s founder and president, Michael Bradley, emailed Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Assistant Administrator Tomás Carbonell to request a sit-down on behalf of his industry clients.

“MJB&A has recently agreed to manage a collaborative process between several oil and gas companies focused on the anticipated EPA proposed methane regulation,” Bradley wrote. “These companies include ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell and Pioneer. Equinor and Oxy may also decide to participate in the future. The companies are looking to play a constructive role in the development of the methane rule for the oil and gas sector.”

EPA staff met with Bradley, two of his MJB&A colleagues and representatives of all six oil and gas producers on April 8, calendars show. Ahead of that meeting, Bradley sent agency officials a list of priority questions related to the looming methane rules, including whether the agency was considering any other policy pathways to reduce industry emissions and what industry data would be helpful to the agency as it worked to develop regulations.

A Shell white paper from May offers clues about how the industry sought to shape the rules. Above all else, the rules should reduce methane emissions “in a manner that is flexible and cost-efficient,” Shell wrote.

Robert LaCount, executive vice president of MJB&A and lead author of the CATF-Ceres report, told HuffPost his company “works with clients in the energy sector to respond to the challenges associated with climate change,” and that mitigating methane emissions from oil and gas operations is one of the firm’s specific focus areas.

The April meeting, he said, was organized on behalf of one industry client — he did not disclose which — “who asked us to help facilitate a discussion with EPA on the use of advanced technologies to detect fugitive methane emissions.”

“We’ve worked with many clients to advance approaches to better detect, quantify, reduce and report on methane emissions,” LaCount said. “We perform this work through engagements with individual organizations and through multi-stakeholder initiatives. Our energy sector clients are aware that we have environmental NGOs as clients and our environmental NGO clients are aware we have energy sector companies as clients.”

The documents, unearthed via public records requests, shine a light on a little-known consulting firm whose clientele includes organizations fighting for stricter climate regulations and the industry that stands to be most impacted by them. MJB&A represents a variety of energy companies, green groups and other organizations. International consulting firm Environmental Resources Management acquired MJB&A last year.

The Clean Air Task Force and Ceres told HuffPost they’ve both worked with MJB&A for years, and noted that the report was compiled from publicly available data reported to the EPA.

“It was intended to put social license pressure on companies to reduce their emissions by grading their performance,” said CATF’s Smith.

Smith said her organization selected MJB&A to conduct the emissions analysis because it has “excellent analysts” who are familiar with the oil and gas industry and its emissions.

“But, moreover, because [MJB&A] is well-known to the oil and gas industry, we saw them as a consulting firm that the companies know and whose analysis they trust, so that they could not ignore or quibble with the findings of the report,” Smith said.

Mara Abbott, a communications manager at Ceres, said via email that it is not uncommon for consulting firms to have clients across multiple industries.

“So while we rarely know the full scope of a consultant’s client base, most consulting, economic, accounting and law firms have a wide range of clients,” she said via email. “We have chosen to work with M.J. Bradley over the years, as they have been leaders in their space — working with utility companies and others to provide expertise to move those companies to proactively address mercury, methane, and carbon emissions and to get those companies to be vocal on policy and regulatory changes.”

‘A Massive Shift In Public Opposition’

Banks, public relations firms, advertising agencies, universities and foundations are facing mounting pressure to cut ties with fossil fuel interests amid rapidly worsening climate change. Consulting firms are an emerging battlefront in that campaign. Last month, The New York Times reported on an internal “revolt” at consulting giant McKinsey & Company over the company’s extensive business with dozens of the world’s biggest corporate polluters.

“We’ve seen a massive shift in public opposition against Big Oil and Gas’s deadly lies — and rightly so,” Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at the climate advocacy group Oil Change International, told HuffPost via email. “Corporations like Shell and BP are working overtime to preserve their business model that’s wrecking the planet, and anyone taking blood money to help them do so is culpable.”

Rees added that the institutional fossil fuel divestment push has been “a massive success,” and that there is an increasing focus on pushing advertising and communications firms to break ties as well. A report published last week estimates that nearly $40 trillion in global assets have been divested.

“Management consultants like M.J. Bradley need to see the writing on the wall and get out now — if they don’t, they’ll go down in history as the last gasp of a dying, deadly fossil fuel era,” Rees said.

A gas flare at an oil well site outside Williston, North Dakota. Methane, the main component of natural gas, accounts for one-third of all human-caused planetary warming.
A gas flare at an oil well site outside Williston, North Dakota. Methane, the main component of natural gas, accounts for one-third of all human-caused planetary warming.

Andrew Burton via Getty Images

The Biden administration unveiled its sweeping new methane rules this month, which aim to rein in methane emissions from existing oil and gas wells and require stringent monitoring for leaks. Methane, the second most common greenhouse gas, has been described as “CO2 on steroids” for its warming capabilities. Over a 20-year period in the atmosphere, methane is at least 86 times more potent than CO2.

Several large oil companies, including Shell and BP, have voiced support for federal methane regulations and opposed the Trump administration’s effort to dismantle Obama-era rules. But the industry’s largest trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, has a long history of working to block and weaken methane regulations. In response to the Biden administration rules, API said it “supports the direct regulation of methane” and “will continue working with [EPA] to help shape a final rule that is effective, feasible and designed to encourage further innovation.”

MJB&A’s parent company, ERM, touts itself as “a global pure-play sustainability consultancy with deep sectoral, technical and business expertise in the low-carbon energy transition.” But its historical ties to the tobacco industry and ongoing business with fossil fuel interests have drawn heavy criticism. ERM has a number of major fossil fuel clients, including Chevron, Shell and Total, and is a member of the American Petroleum Institute, which spent decades sowing doubt about human-caused climate change.

ERM wrote the environmental assessment for TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Grist reported “estimates, and then dismisses, the pipeline’s massive carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, because, it asserts, the mining and burning of the tar sands is unstoppable.”

MJB&A did not respond to several of HuffPost’s specific questions, including whether it is expanding its business with fossil fuel interests. The company advertises many of its clients online; none of drilling companies it represented during the April meeting with EPA are listed.

Earlier this year, the firm added BP as a registered lobbying client. The company also pays Nichole Distefano, a former Obama EPA official and current attorney at K Street powerhouse Mehlman Castegnetti Rosen & Thomas, to lobby on its behalf on energy and environmental issues. In early March, Distefano and one of her industry clients, oil and gas trade group American Exploration & Production Council (AXPC), had their own meeting with EPA officials to discuss methane, according to agency calendars. MJB&A’s clients ConocoPhillips and Pioneer are members of AXPC.

AXPC often teams up with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, an industry trade association with a record of anti-climate lobbying, to write letters to members of Congress and weigh in on regulatory proposals. In comments submitted to EPA in July on the upcoming methane rule, IPAA challenged the findings of the methane emissions analysis that MJB&A conducted for Ceres and the Clean Air Task Force. The industry group claimed that the report is part of a broader effort by environmental groups to “tar low production wells and the small businesses that operate them.”

IPAA guards its membership, but a partial list that the nonprofit Western Values Project obtained in 2018 shows that AXPC, Shell and Pioneer are all members of the organization.

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