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Cambridge Analytica's Fossil Fuel Connections

Several key directors at Cambridge Analytica's parent company have direct connections to the fossil fuel industry, records show.

Nafeez Ahmed

Image: Getty Images

The world has been reeling in the wake of whistleblower revelations about how Cambridge Analytica, the notorious data analytics firm, used information from third party apps to compile profiles on 50 million Facebook users.

Much has been written about the scandal, and the firm's ties to right-wing benefactor Robert Mercer, who invested $5 million into the company. Mercer has funded a wide range of conservative campaigns and causes, including Breitbart. Through the Mercer Family Foundation, he has funded a wide network of climate denialist groups including the Heartland Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Media Research Center, and the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine.

But several key directors at Cambridge Analytica's parent company, SCL Group, also have close ties to the fossil fuel industry, according to business records filed with the British government, fossil fuel company presentations obtained by Motherboard, and employee LinkedIn pages.

The connections show that, yet again, there is often crossover between fossil fuel interests and politically focused firms. SCL Group and Cambridge Analytica did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Big Coal

Cambridge Analytica is an offshoot of British company SCL Group, a former UK Ministry of Defence contractor which retains close ties to the British Foreign Office (FCO) and other elements of the UK political and financial establishment. SCL Group set up a subsidiary called SCL Elections in 2012 which, in turn, set up Cambridge Analytica as an incorporated venture with Mercer.

Media coverage to date has understandably focused on the persona of Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who is a director of the firm’s UK alter-ego, SCL Elections.

British company records, however, show that SCL Elections had another director, Christian Patrick Teroerde, who joined the company just months after it was incorporated. Teroerde went on to hold a one-year director role at SCL Elections from February 2013 to 2014.

Teroerde’s position coincided with a simultaneous role he held at another company, Hanson Asset Management, where he has been co-founding managing director since 2010.

Hanson Asset Management was set-up to manage the wealth of the Hanson family, whose fortune was built under the leadership of the late Lord James Hanson—a Thatcherite industrialist who donated millions to the Conservative Party. Tereorde works directly under Lord Hanson’s son, Robert, who chairs the board.

One of the major contributors to Lord Hanson’s wealth was the burgeoning American coal industry.

Among Hanson’s major acquisitions, for instance, was the Peabody Holding Company, the largest coal producer in the United States in the 1990s. The firm was sold and grew into Peabody Energy—now the largest private-sector coal company in the world.

In April 2016, Peabody filed for bankruptcy due to plummeting coal prices. Trump’s election victory, which Cambridge Analytica helped target ads for, turned Peabody’s imminent collapse around. One day after Trump’s win, Peabody shares surged by over 50 percent, and six months later the global coal giant came out of bankruptcy.

Cambridge Analytica’s connection to Hanson’s wealth appears to have been close during that founding year. The company correspondence address for Teroerde’s directorship at SCL Elections was the same address as Hanson Asset Management, meaning he essentially fulfilled his duties to the company from the Hanson office.

Big Oil

Cambridge Analytica has other ties to fossil fuel interests. Julian Wheatland has been chairman of Cambridge Analytica parent company SCL group since 2009. During this period, Wheatland has simultaneously held a number of other directorships in companies with overlapping energy and military interests.

One such company is Phi Energy Group, a short-lived oil venture where Wheatland was a director from 2014 to 2016. According to an internal company presentation deck, Phi Energy’s focus was “exploring opportunities” in Libya, the US, Africa and Eastern Europe.

Image: a Phi Energy presentation

Wheatland is listed in the document as Phi Energy Group’s Chief Finance Officer; he also lists that position on his LinkedIn page. The document identifies the companies that Phi Energy worked with: Shell, Noble Group, Eni, Esso, BP, Statoil, Tamoil, Total and Saras—a veritable who’s who of international oil majors.

Since 2009, Wheatland has also been Chief Executive of Hatton International, a company about which almost no public information can be found. The Phi Energy document shows, however, that Hatton also overlapped with fossil fuel interests.

Image: Phi Energy presentation

Phi Energy’s presentation deck lists its then-Chief Commercial Officer as Tarick Kreimeia, who is described as “a Director of Hatton International” working under Wheatland.

According to Kreimeia’s LinkedIn profile, he was a “non-executive director” of Hatton International from 2012 to 2016. That profile not only refers to Hatton’s work “with defence and aerospace companies”, but further describes how Hatton “supports client companies, particularly in the energy industry, to develop financing strategies that will deliver the strategic objectives and help bring new products and propositions to market.”

The regions where Phi Energy/Hatton’s energy work was carried out include Iraq and Libya, both subjected to US-UK military interventions.

Kreimeia’s Phi Energy bio, for instance, depicts him as a key player in negotiating refining agreements in key Middle East countries, specifically assisting major EU refineries in negotiations with the Libyan National Oil Company (LNOC), the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Company and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Climate denialism

An investigation by DeSmogUK reveals that Cambridge Analytica is also embedded in a web of power denying climate change. Besides the Mercer funding, Cambridge Analytica has numerous ties to Vote Leave, the official British campaign to leave the European Union, which was chock full of politicians who rejected climate science.

Vote Leave was run by Dominic Cummings, a former head of strategy for the Conservative Party. The Vote Leave campaign paid £3.5m for Facebook profiling and advertising to AggregateIQ, a Canadian firm which had secretly licensed its data tools to SCL Elections.

Cummings is also connected to SCL Elections and Hanson Asset Management director Patrick Teroerde, through Lord Hanson. From 1999 to 2002, Cummings had run the anti-EU ‘Business for Sterling’ business lobby, founded by Lord Hanson. Neither Teroerde nor Cummings could be reached for comment.

The pro-fossil fuels agenda of the Vote Leave campaign was no secret.

One senior Vote Leave committee member, Andrea Leadsom, currently Leader of the House of Commons and previously energy and climate minister, admitted to questioning climate change science when she first got her ministerial job. During the Brexit campaign, she was aligned with a pressure group agitating for more fossil fuels and less renewables.

Two other Conservative politicians who supported Vote Leave, Owen Paterson and Matt Ridley, are “well-known allies of the UK’s most prominent climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation,” according to DeSmogUK.

And so we come full circle. Cambridge Analytica’s political associations with the Trump campaign in the US, and the Brexit campaign in the EU, overlap directly with the firm’s ties to major oil and gas companies and anti-science campaigning to deny climate change.

The story of this firm’s massive breach of Facebook to manipulate public opinion is not just about the increasing impunity of giant technology companies, nor their capacity to allow nefarious entities to interfere in our fragile democracies from outside.

It is about how technology has been used to subvert democracy from within—not by foreign powers—but by increasingly unaccountable corporate power, including those tied to the rampant exploitation of oil, gas and coal. It’s power that continues to hold great sway over governments on both sides of the Atlantic.