In July, Policy Exchange, an opaquely-funded free-market think tank, published a widely-reported research paper that branded environmental protesters Extinction Rebellion (XR) as “subversive” and “extremist”.
It said some Extinction Rebellion supporters might “engage in violence” and could “cross the threshold into terrorist activity” – all allegations that got widespread media coverage. But a big question-mark remained hanging over the paper. Namely: who gains from trash-talking a group of eco-warriors as potential terrorists?
Defending the activists on Radio 4’s Today programme, XR spokesperson Rupert Read said to presenter John Humphrys:
“The only purpose of this report is to defend business as usual and it’s business as usual that is killing us. And what I would love you to do, John, is to ask, who is funding this report? Who funds Policy Exchange?... The funders of Policy Exchange are completely non-transparent, but I bet you if we were to find out who they were, we would find out in whose interests it is to undermine XR.”
While Policy Exchange doesn’t like to divulge its funders, VICE can reveal that the think-tank receives funding from some of the UK’s leading energy firms.
They include Drax, the power generator planning to build a huge gas power-plant in Yorkshire, and Energy UK, the lobbying group for all British power companies. These energy firms have even recently paid the company for corporate sponsored events.
Policy Exchange are an influential right-wing think-tank and charity, founded in 2002 by a group that included current Cabinet Minister Michael Gove. Their director, Dean Godson, is a former
chief leader writer of the Daily Telegraph and associate editor of The Spectator magazine.
Their accounts, as published by the Charity Commission, show they get £3 million in financial support a year. A substantial proportion will come from corporations, but the organisation refuses to say which big companies fund them. Who Funds You, the campaign for think tank transparency, says Policy Exchange is among the least transparent British think tanks.
Policy Exchange’s full funding remains secret, but through their public events it is clear they have been marketing themselves to energy firms for many years through their “sponsorship” programme.
Energy companies pay Policy Exchange to arrange meetings at Conservative Party conferences, typically with a government minister on the platform. In 2017, Drax and Energy UK paid for Policy Exchange meetings, as did gas and electricity supplier E.On. In 2016 energy firms Centrica, E.On and the Energy Networks Association all paid for Policy Exchange meetings.
Some Policy Exchange corporate funders were named as sponsors of their meetings at the last Conservative conference in 2018. They include Energy UK, Drax and gas distributor Cadent Gas.
Policy Exchange arranged for government ministers to attend all three meetings. The think tank does not advertise the cost of sponsored meetings at party conferences, but other similar organisations charge over £12,000 to hold these events, which only last about an hour a half.
In October 2018, Drax funded one such meeting on “clean growth” that was attended by a VICE reporter. At the meeting, Drax were challenged on whether their “green” bio-mass pellets to burn at Drax power station are green at all, following revelations from Channel 4’s Dispatches that huge areas of hardwood forests in Virginia are being chopped down to make the pellets. Energy Minister Claire Perry leapt to the defence of the firm at the meeting. “The good thing about having big responsible partners," she said, "is that they take this corporate reasonability seriously.”
At the same conference, Energy UK sponsored a Policy Exchange meeting titled “Powering the clean growth revolution: Making opportunity a reality”. Energy UK talk about decarbonisation, but they represent all the biggest energy companies in the country, including the most carbon-intensive. (Drax have a seat on the Energy UK board.) Energy UK’s Chief Executive made sure that he backed all his polluting members, including Drax, by telling those at the meeting that “every form of [power] generation has a role in the future market”.
Another Policy Exchange meeting on "the role of hydrocarbon in a decarbonised world" was sponsored by Cadent, an energy company that runs gas pipelines for industry and homes. They are promoting the idea they can be a decarbonised firm by delivering hydrogen, but their primary business is pumping natural gas – a fossil fuel that needs to be phased out to avert climate change.
So Policy Exchange markets themselves as a useful paid-for voice for big energy companies pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere so they can sound like green revolutionaries, all the while publishing papers accusing eco-campaigners of being “subversive”.
VICE asked Drax whether they were happy to be associated with Policy Exchange while they made claims that Extinction Rebellion were “subversive” and “extremist”. A Drax spokesperson said that, “Drax had no involvement in the report Policy Exchange has published.”
They added: “We believe everyone has the right to peaceful protest. Climate change is the biggest challenge the world faces.”
Drax spokesperson also said that their firm “has done more than any other large power generator globally to cut its carbon emissions”, particularly by using “bio energy”.
VICE also asked Energy UK if they were happy with Policy Exchange branding Extinction Rebellion “extremist”. Their spokesman suggested the energy lobby group were not close to the think tank, saying, “Energy UK worked with Policy Exchange to organise an event on clean growth at the Conservative Party Conference Fringe last year. We have not had any other involvement with them since.”
VICE also asked Cadent the same question, but they did not respond at time of publication.
VICE asked Policy Exchange if they could say anything about which companies fund them, and whether their interest in energy company funding influenced their publication of the anti-Extinction Rebellion paper. We approached their media contacts, but they made no response.