Big Toxics and their lobby firepower

The chemical giants outspend even Big Tech and Big Energy on lobbying the EU—and it’s working.

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Big Toxics,lobby

In recent weeks the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo, have demanded a ‘green regulatory break’—including on the long-awaited reform of the European Union REACH regulation on chemicals. It is only the most recent indication that the agenda of Big Toxics is being heard at the very top levels of EU decision-making.

New analysis, derived from LobbyFacts (a joint project of Corporate Europe Observatory and LobbyControl), reveals seven Big Toxic lobbies among the 50 organisations which declare spending most on lobbying the EU. They comprise four companies—Bayer, ExxonMobil Petroleum & Chemical, Dow Europe and BASF—and three trade associations: the EU chemical industry lobby, CEFIC; its German equivalent, Verband der Chemischen Industrie, and Plastics Europe.

Together, they post expenditure of €33.5 million on lobbying EU institutions in the most recent year for which figures are available. Perhaps surprisingly, this puts them ahead of Big Tech and Big Energy, in terms of declared lobby spending.

Looking at the past decade, LobbyFacts data indicate that the seven have declared a total lobby spend of €293 million. They have also availed themselves of 495 access passes to the European Parliament and 249 meetings (since December 2014) with the highest levels of the European Commission.

Of the other 43 organisations in the top 50 LobbyFacts ranking, 12 are consultancies with significant clients in the industrial- or agro-chemicals sectors, while two are pan-industry lobby groups also active on chemicals. All in all, 21 of the top 50 highest spenders in the EU lobby register are thus actively promoting a corporate-friendly agenda on chemicals policy.

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Yet the full lobby firepower of the entire industry is greater still. Outside the top 50 are many other major chemical-industry players, including Yara, Syngenta, Ineos, Chemours, Solvay and 3M.

Ugly battle

In the past four years Brussels has seen an ugly battle play out, as corporate lobbies—from energy to agri-business to industrial chemicals—have instrumentalised the European Green Deal for their own ends. The chemicals component of the deal was the subject of heavy lobbying before it was launched in October 2020.

At the time, the European Commission’s DG Environment appeared largely to have won its internal battle over the content with the industry-friendly DG Grow. But the mood has now shifted within the commission.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent inflation have been used by the chemical industry and its allies, in the conservative European People’s Party group in the European Parliament and the commission, to undermine and delay the much-needed reform of the REACH regulation. Meanwhile, plans to cut pesticides use by 50 per cent by 2030 and to stop the export of banned chemicals have yet to appear. And with heavy political hitters such as Macron and De Croo calling for a ‘regulatory break’, Big Toxics can apparently count on support within the European Council too.

‘Forever chemicals’

Now industry is turning its sights on the proposal to ban the polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—the ‘forever chemicals’.

Characteristically, Big Toxics seek to rebrand regulation in the public interest as ‘burdensome’ on private companies. Yet the real burden is the huge cost to public health and the environment from the manufacture and sale of their products. Last week, ChemSec, which advocates for the substitution of toxic chemicals with safer alternatives, estimated the global societal costs of PFAS—including health impacts and associated remediation—at an incredible €16 trillion per year.

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The attempt at burden-shifting is particularly galling as this is not a struggling sector. EU chemical-industry exports have grown by 6 per cent a year since 2002, to a massive €553 billion in 2022, and last year six member states each exported chemicals worth more than €30 billion outside the union.

As we look ahead to the debate on the urgent proposal to restrict thousands of PFAS, the firepower of the industry should really worry us. It has deep pockets and can and must be held to account for the toxic legacy in our bodies, soils, air and waters. Regulation to deal with the past and to prevent future pollution is urgently needed and should be decided on public-interest grounds alone.

There is a public-interest firewall against tobacco-industry lobbying on public health and there is growing momentum for the same to apply to the fossil-fuel industry. It’s time to kick toxic polluters out of political decision-making too.

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