The Day of Reckoning for the Oil Industry?

October 26, 2021
Reid Neureiter/Flickr
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Are we about to witness a replay of the tobacco industry’s moment of truth, when tobacco company CEOs finally acknowledged under oath at a 1998 Capitol Hill hearing that smoking is indeed hazardous and addictive?

The only difference this time around is the CEOs in the hot seat are from the oil industry. On October 28—this Thursday—executives from four of the largest oil companies and two related business associations are scheduled to testify about their decades-long disinformation campaign to stymie government efforts to address the climate crisis. (You can stream the hearing live here.)

Just four years before those tobacco company heads came clean at that 1998 hearing, another set of tobacco industry chiefs told Congress that they did not believe cigarettes were addictive. What changed? The release of damning internal company documents showing that the industry had known for years about the threat its products pose to public health, revelations that had already prompted attorneys general and private lawyers in 41 states to sue the industry to recoup healthcare expenses and stop its deceptive business practices.

The oil industry may be at a comparable turning point.

Thanks to the spade work of enterprising reporters, public interest advocates and academics, there is a now a wealth of documentation showing that the major fossil fuel companies were aware of the harm their products cause at least 50 years ago and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars since then to manufacture doubt about climate science. Likewise, more than two dozen cities, counties and states—armed with those disclosures—have filed lawsuits against oil companies for climate change-related damages and consumer fraud.

The executives scheduled to appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee are from BP America, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s largest trade association.

“We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and ravaging the natural world,” the House Oversight Committee wrote in its letter to the executives. “We are also concerned that to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.”

It’s World Series time, and as they say in baseball, you can’t tell the players without a program. Let’s take a quick look at the Oversight Committee’s October 28 lineup in the order that they’re scheduled to step up to the plate.

ExxonMobil: Darren Woods

Chair and chief executive officer since January 2017 / Total annual compensation (2020): $15.6 million / Company revenue (2020): $181.5 billion

In 2013, ExxonMobil was the largest company in the world. Today the oil and gas giant is not even among the top 10. It lost $20 billion last year, and in 2019 it was kicked off the Dow Jones Industrial Average, an index it had been on, in one incarnation or another, for 92 years.

But ExxonMobil is still the biggest US oil company and is in the top 10 worldwide when it comes to carbon emissions. According to a 2019 analysis, the company is responsible for more carbon dioxide and methane emissions since 1965 than any other investor-owned fossil fuel company besides Chevron. And it is known to have engaged in a decades-long campaign to spread climate disinformation and stymie government efforts to curb carbon pollution.

What Exxon knew and when

1977: A senior company scientist told Exxon’s Management Committee that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels would drive up global temperatures and could eventually threaten humanity.

1979: An internal company document dated October 16, 1979, and stamped “Proprietary Information” stated that increasing fossil fuel combustion “will cause a warming of the earth’s surface … and dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.”

What ExxonMobil did

1990s: Exxon was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, which included the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron, Shell, the US Chamber of Commerce, and more 50 other U.S. and British corporations and trade associations. Founded in 1989 to block international efforts to address global warming, the coalition successfully lobbied the US Senate to reject ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement that set carbon emissions reduction targets for developed countries.

1998: A year before Exxon merged with Mobil, the company began funding a network of think tanks and advocacy groups to manufacture doubt about climate science to stave off government action to address the problem. Since then, the company has spent at least $39 million on this disinformation campaign. Only Charles Koch and his late brother David, owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries, are known to have spent more.

2007: A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists revealed that ExxonMobil had spent at least $16 million between 1998 and 2005 on its climate disinformation network. When asked by a reporter about the organization’s findings, a top ExxonMobil executive claimed the company had stopped funding climate science denier groups altogether, but from 2008 through 2020, the company spent at least another $16 million on the network.

2017: ExxonMobil was a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, an industry-backed group promoting a US carbon tax. The catch is the carbon tax the council envisions would preempt or replace “all current and future federal … carbon [emissions] regulations.”

2020: Unlike BP and Shell, ExxonMobil projected no carbon emissions reductions from the energy sector through 2040, proposed no date when carbon emissions must reach net zero, and refused to acknowledge responsibility for reducing emissions from the use of its products.

2021: Then-ExxonMobil Senior Director of Federal Relations Keith McCoy conceded during a secretly videotaped interview that the company’s support for a carbon tax is just a “talking point” because it is confident that Congress will never pass one. He also said the Biden administration’s plan to cut US carbon emissions is “insane” and acknowledged that that the company had enlisted the help of “shadow groups”—the disinformation network it continues to fund—to manufacture doubt about climate science to protect its investments. Shortly after the video became public, the company fired McCoy and the Climate Leadership Council suspended ExxonMobil’s membership.

Noteworthy Quote

“Today, oil and gas make up about 60 percent of the global energy mix. In 2040, despite increasing investments in renewables and concerns with emissions, oil and gas are still projected to make up about 50 percent of the global energy mix. …Our outlook projects oil demand to grow at 0.6 percent a year and gas demand to grow by 1.3 percent. With depletion rates, new oil production needs to increase by nearly 8 percent per year and natural gas by 6 percent.” —Darren Woods, Employee Forum, October 21, 2020

BP America: David Lawler

Chair and president since July 2020 / Total annual compensation: unknown / Total company revenue (2020): $180.4 billion

Formerly British Petroleum, BP is an oil and gas conglomerate based in London, England. BP entered the United States market in 1969 by acquiring Sinclair Oil’s East Coast assets. BP America, headquartered in Houston, Texas, is the company’s largest division, perhaps best known for the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill that spewed more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, one the worst environmental disasters in history.

Bending to pressure from European governments and shareholders, BP, like Royal Dutch Shell and some other European-based companies, is beginning to sell its oil fields and invest in renewable energy, while US counterparts Chevron and ExxonMobil are betting that oil and gas will continue to make up at least half of the energy market for at least the next 20 years.

What BP knew and when

1990: British Petroleum produced a 24-minute documentary film, What Makes Weather, which explains the greenhouse effect caused by burning “carbon-based fuels” and details the “devastating consequences” if there is “an overall increase in temperature of even a few degrees.” BP’s education service distributed the film to British schools in the mid-1990s.

1997: British Petroleum publicly acknowledged the reality of climate change for the first time when former CEO John Browne gave a landmark speech on the topic.

What BP did

2000: British Petroleum changed its name to BP, launched a $200-million rebranding campaign, and adopted the tag line “Beyond Petroleum” to portray itself as an environmentally sensitive company.

2004: BP conceived and promoted the term “carbon footprint” and created a “carbon footprint calculator” to make it appear that individuals are responsible for climate change, not the fossil fuel industry.

2018: BP donated $13 million to the Western States Petroleum Association’s successful campaign to kill a Washington state ballot initiative that would have would have created a first-in-the nation carbon fee.

2018: Then-BP CEO Bob Dudley applauded President Donald Trump for providing “vital” support to the business community by rolling back environmental regulations and speeding up decisions.

Chevron: Michael Wirth

Chair and chief executive officer since February 2018 / Total annual compensation (2020): $29 million / Total company revenue (2020): $94.7 billion

Chevron, the name Standard Oil of California chose after buying Gulf Oil in 1984, may be the second-largest US oil company, but according to a 2019 analysis, the company is responsible for more carbon emissions since 1965 than any other investor-owned fossil fuel corporation worldwide. Unlike some of its European counterparts that are taking tentative steps into renewable energy, Chevron insists that oil and gas will comprise half of the energy market for the foreseeable future.  

What Chevron knew and when

1979 to 1983: The predecessors of Chevron—Standard Oil of California and Gulf Oil—participated in a task force with the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, Mobil and Shell that monitored and shared climate science research.

What Chevron did

1990s: Chevron was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of more than 60 US and British companies and trade associations founded in 1989 to block international efforts to address global warming.

1998: Chevron participated in a task force organized by the American Petroleum Institute to spend $5.9 million to covertly fund seemingly independent researchers and front groups to dispute established climate science.

2017-18: Chevron attempted to block climate-related shareholder proposals and recommended that shareholders vote against all climate-related resolutions.

2020: Chevron issued a report on climate lobbying that falsely claimed that its positions conform with the Paris climate agreement.

2021: Chevron published a climate report that claims the company supports a price on carbon but intends to reduce its carbon emissions by only 5 percent over the next seven years.

Notable Quote

“The world runs on the energy system we have today and the whole global economy depends on the mix we have today. And even as that mix changes, demand also increases…. And so the reality is … over the next 20 years, energy demand is likely to increase by 25 percent and the traditional [fossil fuel] energies that we produce will be a large part of that system as it grows, even as we bring in these lower-carbon energies to diversify that system.” —Michael Wirth, Washington Post Live: The Path Forward: The Future of Energy with Chevron Chair & CEO Michael Wirth, August 16, 2021

Shell Oil: Gretchen Watkins

President since January 2019 / Total annual compensation: unknown / Total company revenue (2020): $180.5 billion

Shell Oil is the US-based, wholly owned subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, which is headquartered in the Netherlands and incorporated in the United Kingdom. According to a 2019 analysis, Royal Dutch Shell is the fourth largest investor-owned fossil fuel company emitter of carbon dioxide and methane since 1965, behind Chevron, ExxonMobil and BP, in that order.

What Shell knew and when

1979 to 1983: Shell Oil collaborated with the American Petroleum Institute and other major oil companies to monitor and share climate science research.

1988: Royal Dutch Shell produced a confidential report on climate science and its own role in global warming. Titled The Greenhouse Effect and labeled “confidential,” it detailed the company’s extensive understanding of the threat posed by climate change and observed that “by the time the global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation.”

1989: Shell redesigned an offshore natural gas platform to account for climate change-induced sea level rise.

1991: A Shell-produced film, Climate of Concern, warned about climate change “at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age—change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation.”

What Shell did

1990s: Shell was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, which formed in 1989—just a year after the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—to undermine international efforts to address global warming.

2019: Shell opposed the Trump Environmental Protection Agency’s draft rule to roll back regulation of oil and gas industry methane emissions but did not repudiate the American Petroleum Institute, which had requested the roll back in the first place, and retained its membership in the trade association.

2020: Royal Dutch Shell set a firm target to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but adopted a business strategy that will delay its largest emissions reductions.

2021: A Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to bring its global operations in line with the Paris agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, which will require the company to slash its own emissions as well as its customers’ emissions 45 percent from 2019 levels by 2030. Shell is appealing the ruling.

American Petroleum Institute: Michael Sommers

Chief executive officer since May 2018 / Total annual compensation (2019): $3.88 million / Total organization revenue (2019): $238.5 million

The country’s oldest and largest oil and gas industry trade association, the American Petroleum Institute (API) has been playing a key behind-the-scenes role in Washington going back to its founding in 1919. It has helped block congressional action on climate change for decades and successfully lobbied the Trump administration to roll back longstanding environmental safeguards.

What API knew and when

1959: Nuclear physicist Edward Teller warned attendees at an API-sponsored conference about the likelihood of sea level rise, predicting that a “10 percent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York.”

1965: Then-API President Frank Ikard, speaking at an annual API meeting, shared the dire conclusion of a federal report by the White House’s Science Advisory Committee. “The substance of the report is that there is still time to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of [carbon dioxide] pollution, but time is running out,” Ikard said. “One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.”

What API did

1990s: API was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, which included Chevron, Exxon, Shell, the US Chamber of Commerce, and more than 50 other U.S. and British corporations and trade associations.

1998: API organized a task force comprised of representatives from Chevron, Exxon, and a handful of major libertarian think tanks to draft a plan to spend $5.9 million to covertly fund seemingly independent researchers and front groups to dispute established climate science. The coalition’s “action plan” memo stated that “victory will be achieved” when “average citizens [and the news media] ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science.”

2009: API helped quash the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009—commonly known as the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade climate bill—by mobilizing front groups to hold staged “energy citizens” rallies in some 20 states to give the false impression that there was significant public opposition to regulating carbon emissions.

2011: API joined a coalition of fossil fuel companies and front groups to file a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act.

2020: API opposed any carbon tax that would increase the price of US oil and gas exports.

2021: API now supports direct regulation of methane, but opposes legislation that would impose a fee on oil and gas industry methane emissions. The trade association also says it now backs carbon pricing, but it does not explicitly endorse a carbon tax and its support is predicated on carbon pricing supplanting all federal and state climate regulations.

Noteworthy Quote

“The majority of the world’s energy needs are projected to come from natural gas and oil far into the future. Meeting this demand is going to require hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, more exploration, more production. Our industry is prepared to meet this challenge. … After a year of crisis, everyone is ready for recovery. The surest way to bring recovery to a stop is to remove affordable energy from the picture—with more regulations, more taxes, more restrictions on access. …Mandates get us nowhere.” —Michael Sommers, State of American Energy Keynote Speech, January 13, 2021

US Chamber of Commerce: Suzanne Clark

President and chief executive officer since March 2021 / Total annual compensation (as president and director) (2019): $3 million / Total association revenue (2019): $29.2 million

The US Chamber of Commerce, the country’s largest lobbying group, has been a major player in blocking action on climate change going back to at least the late 1980s. According to a recent report that reviewed Chamber statements during what the report called US climate policy’s “formative period” from 1989 to 2009, the Chamber emphasized climate science uncertainty and argued that proposed solutions to reduce carbon emissions “would be harmful to the American economy and put us at disadvantage to other countries.”

Although the Chamber finally acknowledged in 2019 that the “climate is changing” and “humans are contributing to these changes,” it is still standing in the way of government climate action, preferring private-sector innovation to regulation, which has historically driven technological advances.

What the Chamber knew and when

1990s: The Chamber, along with API, Exxon, Chevron and Mobil, was a member of the Global Climate Coalition, a consortium of US and British corporations and trade associations founded in 1989 to thwart international efforts to cut carbon emissions.

2009: The Chamber maintained in comments submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency that “a warming of even 3 [degrees Celsius] in the next 100 years would, on balance, be beneficial to humans.”

2009: A handful of Fortune 500 companies—including Apple, Exelon and Pacific Gas & Electric—quit the Chamber over its opposition to the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Nike and Johnson & Johnson retained their membership but publicly rebuked the business lobby for the same reason.

2017: The Chamber produced a widely debunked report that grossly exaggerated the cost to the US economy of complying with the Paris climate agreement. President Trump cited the report as his primary rationale for ignoring the US commitment to the accord and pledged to officially withdraw the United States from it.

2019: The Chamber declared on its website that “Our climate is changing and humans are contributing to these changes. Inaction is simply not an option.” (In fact, human activity is the primary cause of climate change.)

2021: A section on the Chamber’s website addressing climate change calls for “the increased use of natural gas” to make “further progress.”

2021: Chamber President and CEO Clark vowed in an August 24 press release that the Chamber “will do everything [it] can to prevent” the proposed $3.5-trillion Build Back Better reconciliation bill, which would slash carbon emissions from the electric power and transportation sectors, “from becoming law.”