By Casey Shea
RepresentUs Marketing Director

June 29, 2023

Let’s be clear: we cannot truly address climate change until we remove the scourge of corruption from our nation’s environmental policy.

Actions that hurt the environment but protect the bottom line are too common. And they can come from corporations, government officials, or a mixture of the two.

Here are just a few examples of how corruption affects our environment and health.

Environmental disasters spawned by corruption

The most vivid images of environmental damage often come from massive human-made disasters. And in most instances, the industry actors responsible for these disasters also worked to weaken environmental protections that threatened their profits.

Canadian wildfire smoke. We recently saw firsthand that climate change doesn’t recognize international borders. Americans up and down the East Coast experienced severe discomfort and dystopic conditions as a result of uncontrolled Canadian wildfires. New York City even briefly held the record for the world’s most polluted city. Government inaction has worsened the impact of climate change as wildfires are quickly becoming more frequent and more severe, according to climate researchers.

While several factors contribute to wildfires, experts say there is no disputing that climate change is a key contributor. Political corruption limits our ability to address the ever-worsening effects of climate change, as special interest groups seek to extinguish environmental safety reforms which threaten corporate profits.

East Palestine train derailment. Earlier this year, we got a crystal clear example of how unchecked corruption can damage our environment and harm public health. The devastating train derailment in East Palestine, OH, sent hazardous chemicals into the air and water. Millions of people across several states were impacted. As more details emerged about the cause of the derailment, attention focused on Norfolk Southern – the derailed train’s owner – and the rail industry as a whole. Over the past two decades, the four largest railroad companies and trade associations spent nearly $500 million on federal lobbying. Much of this spending went toward weakening existing protections or preventing new ones.

@representus "At the end of the day, this isn’t about Right versus Left, or rural versus urban. It’s about who has power in our government, and who our elected officials listen to." — Shea Williams. Our message is clear: elected officials must stop putting the needs of special interests over the needs of the voters. Shea has seen firsthand how corruption threatens the health of those living in East Palestine. Enough is enough. Join Shea, and us, by adding your name to our petition calling on the Biden administration to crack down on corruption and protect Americans' health. (link in bio). #EastPalestine #Democracy #Anticorruption ♬ original sound - RepresentUs


BP oil disaster. The spring and summer of 2010 were marked by the 5-month-long BP oil disaster, a catastrophic oil spill that pumped 143 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill was a man-made tragedy that launched a years-long advocacy effort to secure federal regulations to prevent another disaster of this scale

The crisis also marked the beginning of a years-long advocacy effort to ensure federal protections to prevent another disaster - efforts that ultimately never came to fruition. BP faced widespread public relations damage from the disaster – and for good reason. The company was woefully unprepared to handle an accident of this magnitude. BP’s own former boss admitted that the technology required to repair an equipment failure like this was not only unavailable, it had not even been invented. Yet, rather than taking their failure to heart and investing in safety and R&D, they immediately spent millions on lobbying to re-open the gulf for drilling and to reduce their liability for the spill. Their lobbying efforts ultimately succeeded as the Trump administration weakened federal protections in favor of more industry-friendly ones. Together, the oil industry and politicians have decided again and again that the health of people and ecosystems in the Gulf region is worth risking for corporate profit.

Corporate lobbying efforts to stop environmental safety

One of the most direct links between corruption and environmental damage is corporate lobbying. Given free rein to lobby against protections, corporations will almost always spend on lobbying to save on not having to protect the air, water, and land.

Monsanto. Agrochemical giant Monsanto – known for its lengthy history of unethical behavior – recently pleaded guilty to illegally exposing workers to a dangerous pesticide. This action came after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) canceled that pesticide and placed strict rules on its use. Since the cancellation, Monsanto has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying against stricter chemical rules and enforcement. Corruption at its worst is lobbying to ensure your products can be more dangerous for workers and consumers.

PG&E. When California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) pleaded guilty to crimes surrounding the 2018 wildfires their equipment caused, they showed the world how their corruption hurt our environment. PG&E has a long record of failing to protect the environment because doing so would hurt their bottom line. Meanwhile, the company lobbied the state extensively to pass legislation that would make customers – rather than the company itself – pay for liability costs.

To be pro-environment, we must be anti-corruption. Join our movement


Bad actors who let corruption overrule stewardship

When corporations try to skirt the law or grease the wheels, it comes down to government officials to put the environment first. Unfortunately, corruption impacts government and private individuals alike. Far too many officials have seen protecting their future job prospects as more important than upholding their current obligations.

Scott Pruit. When President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, criticism quickly emerged. Pruitt frequently sided with fossil fuel interests as Oklahoma’s Attorney General and sued the EPA numerous times. This criticism was warranted as he would face 15 federal investigations into his corruption. From misusing funds to ignoring independent advisors to shady lobbying practices, Pruitt was a flat-out ethical nightmare. Luckily, the weight of these investigations forced Pruitt to resign. But his corruption left the EPA in a cloud of uncertainty.

Joe Parrish and Gregory Scott. Parrish and Scott are former District of Columbia Department of the Environment air quality inspectors. As a part of their duties, they informed contractors at a DC apartment building that serious asbestos issues needed to be addressed. Yet, instead of fulfilling their obligations, they demanded and received bribes of $10,000 each to ignore the asbestos. This blatant corruption demonstrates how officials can abuse their position without regard for protecting people's health and the environment.


To be pro-environment, we must be anti-corruption

When green means money and not nature, we cannot trust that the best decisions are made for public health or environmental protection. If you’re passionate about fighting the corruption that threatens our environment, join our movement to rein in lobbyists, defang special interests and crackdown on corruption

Contributors: Nolan Bush, RepresentUs Writer; Alexi Santiago, RepresentUs Research Assistant

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.