The leader of one of Washington, DC’s most influential foreign policy think tanks got caught shilling for an oil CEO on a major news site—by a right-wing publication that runs hit pieces on renewable energy. This sounds like a Mad Lib, but it’s 2023, and anything is possible!
On Saturday, CNBC posted an op-ed from Fred Kempe, the CEO of the Atlantic Council and a regular contributor to the site. Kempe has several decades of journalistic experience on his resume, but since 2007 he has led the famous think tank, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan organization that galvanizes US global leadership and engagement in partnership with allies and partners.”
In the op-ed, originally called “Sultan Al Jaber is the ideal person to lead the UN climate conference this year,” Kempe lays out an argument for oil and gas giants to be part of the climate solution. “This could be the year fossil fuel producers and climate activists bury their hatchets and join hands to reduce emissions and ensure our planet’s future,” Kempe’s op-ed begins; he goes on to laud natural gas’s position as a “bridge fuel” and claim that the “climate community” has recognized “the energy transition to renewables can’t be achieved without fossil fuels, so they must be made cleaner.” (I’d love to meet this “climate community” who is somehow overlooking the mounting pile of scientific evidence that the world needs to wean off its fossil fuel addiction as quickly as possible.)
The column came on the heels of strong criticism for Al Jaber’s appointment as head of this year’s UN climate conference, known as COP28, thanks to his position as the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Climate activists claim that Al Jaber is a wildly inappropriate figure to lead what should be the preeminent international meeting on climate issues. In response, Kempe argued in his column that the CEO’s “rich background in both renewables and fossil fuels make him an ideal choice at a time when efforts to address climate change have been far too slow, lacking the inclusivity to produce more transformative results.”
Turns out there was a little bit more context to Kempe’s support of Al Jaber than just belief in the idea that activists should work with fossil fuel companies. On Tuesday, CNBC changed the title of the piece and inserted a lengthy editor’s note at the front of the column.
“This article and headline were updated to reflect the fact that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Masdar are major sponsors of the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Forum,” the note reads. “Sultan Al Jaber is CEO of ADNOC and chairman of renewable energy investing firm Masdar. The financial relationship between the companies and Atlantic Council as well as the obvious conflict of interest were not disclosed to CNBC prior to publication of this column and does not meet our standards of transparency.” The piece’s title is now “Making the case for oil CEO Sultan Al Jaber to lead the UN climate conference this year.”
Public donor records posted to the Atlantic Council’s website show that the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates donated more than $1 million to the organization in 2021, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates gave between $100,000 and $250,000. (The donor rolls of the Atlantic Council are filled with some pretty interesting names: the Charles Koch Institute donated between $500,000 and $1 million, while oil companies Chevron, Cheniere Energy, Eni, BP, ExxonMobil, and Equinor have all given money—as have climate groups like the Clean Air Task Force, the European Climate Foundation, and the National Resources Defense Council.) Al Jabar was the keynote speaker at the Council’s recent Global Energy Forum this month.
We sent several questions to CNBC about the op-ed, including about who flagged the issue as well as the editorial process and any norms around checking for conflicts of interest, but did not hear back as of press time.
A spokesperson from the Atlantic Council told Earther that the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company had no input into what Kempe wrote in his op-ed. “We have an intellectual independence and disclosure section in our editorial guidelines that should have required disclosing the donor relationship,” the spokesperson said. “It hadn’t been followed here, and we made changes to ensure that it was. We made a mistake in not disclosing, contrary to our standards, and we fixed it.”
The oversight appears to have been noticed, by all places, by the Washington Free Beacon, a prominent right-wing outlet whose slogan is “Covering the Enemies of Freedom the way the Mainstream Media Won’t.” According to the Beacon, it sent questions about the potential conflicts of interest with the op-ed after it was published; shortly after, CNBC added the editor’s note.
The Free Beacon is not exactly a place for unbiased news about climate change, fossil fuels, or renewables. (“LOCK HER UP: These Photos of Greta Thunberg Being Carried Away by German Police Will Brighten Your Day,” reads a recent headline, with the subhead “The celebrity climate activist has yet to face justice for her crimes.”) The website itself is bankrolled by Fred Singer, a venture capitalist and top GOP donor who is an active investor in oil and gas (and who has publicly blamed the UAE in the past for the falling price of oil). The outlet has been keeping a close eye on the Atlantic Council, publishing a variety of pieces on funding sources for the think tank in recent months.
Founded in 1961, the Atlantic Council is one of the most prominent foreign policy think tanks in Washington, with connections to governments and high-powered individuals worldwide. Over the past few years, the organization has gone through some public crises as it struggles with conflicts of interests related to its funding. Last summer, it parted ways with a Koch-funded initiative set up at the Council after a rare falling out among members over what some saw as Koch influence on the Council’s political direction.
This whole mess illustrates the complexity of cutting the energy transition along traditional political lines. A think tank that takes money from oil companies, tech giants, and environmental groups alike versus a conservative “news” website funded by an oil-invested venture capitalist—gripping stuff. All over the world, the lines of power are being redrawn around energy policy, and outlets like CNBC need to keep up in order to stay journalistically honest.