An A to Z of Fossil Fuel Industry Deception

May 10, 2023 | 10:20 am
Chris LeBoutillier/Unsplash
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

This year has brought new evidence of what major fossil fuel companies knew and when about the role their products play in climate change, as well as what they did in spite of what they knew. The evidence builds on revelations from the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s investigation during the last Congress into Big Oil’s climate disinformation. And this growing body of evidence is highly relevant to climate accountability lawsuits against fossil fuel polluters, proposals to mandate and standardize corporate climate disclosure, and shareholder resolutions up for votes at major oil and gas companies’ annual meetings this spring.

As a handy reference for litigators, regulators, investors, and all who are affected by climate change, below is an A to Z of fossil fuel industry denial, deception and delay tactics.

A is for American Petroleum Institute

The American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest US oil and gas industry trade association, receives millions of dollars in annual dues from such companies as BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell. In 2021, an ExxonMobil lobbyist described API as a “whipping boy” that takes the heat for bad policy positions while allowing the oil and gas giant to appear reasonable. In a telling moment during a 2021 congressional hearing, top oil and gas company executives refused to tell API’s president to stop opposing climate and environmental policies the corporations claim to support.

B is for Beyond Petroleum

In the 1990s, BP famously rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” then backpedaled from its plans to invest in renewable energy. It’s déjà vu all over again in 2023, with BP rolling back its climate pledges after record-breaking 2022 profits since Russia’s unjust war on Ukraine.

C is for Customer emissions

Most major investor-owned oil and gas corporations claim to be on a pathway to net zero global warming emissions by 2050, which science says is necessary to limit the worst impacts of climate change. However, like a tobacco company distancing itself from the epidemic of disease and death caused by its products, ExxonMobil disavows responsibility for reducing the emissions from burning its products, known as Scope 3 emissions, which account for about 85% of the corporation’s total contribution to global warming. Meanwhile, companies such as BP and Shell sneakily frame the Scope 3 portions of their net-zero pledges as “helping customers” to reduce emissions. They seem to be trying to have their cake and eat it, too: winning praise and taking credit for the full range of emissions cuts, while transferring responsibility to all of us to clean up the mess they created.

D is for Divestment of dirty assets

Internal corporate documents reveal that BP is using asset divestments as a substitute for real reductions in global warming emissions. (An asset divestment is the sale of a particular oil or gas field, with the seller removing associated emissions from its portfolio and taking credit for cutting emissions as oil and gas pollution continues—and overall emissions may even increase—under a new owner.) According to documents made public by the House Oversight Committee investigation in 2022, BP executive Elizabeth Jackson wrote to company employees in March 2021 that “divestments are, and continue to be, an important part of our strategy. They enable us to strengthen our balance sheet and high grade or diversify our portfolio. …While these divestments may not directly lead to a reduction in absolute global emissions, they can accelerate the pace BP can grow low carbon businesses that underpin our aim to reduce our oil and gas production.” Asked about this strategy by my Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) colleague Laura Peterson during BP’s annual general meeting last month, CEO Bernard Looney replied, “It’s not financial maneuvering, it’s financial optimization.”

E is for (Anti)-ESG

Over the past few years, more asset owners and managers have been taking environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues into consideration when making investment decisions. Friends and surrogates of the fossil fuel industry, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Financial Officers Foundation, are at the forefront of an anti-ESG backlash to try to block even the modest progress that financial institutions have made on addressing the climate crisis. Heading into its annual shareholders’ meeting later this month, Chevron—still an ALEC supporter—appears to be using anti-ESG attacks as a shield against more ambitious climate action.

F is for Front Groups

Creating front groups is a tried-and-true tactic, especially useful now that fossil fuel corporations themselves profess to support climate action. For years, UCS has tracked and exposed how fossil fuel companies hide behind front organizations, and experts with Climate Social Science Network and a range of academic institutions continue to analyze and document the industry’s web of obstruction and denial. (See A and E.)

G is for Greenwashing

Major oil and gas corporations practice greenwashing by making misleading or outright false claims about their environmental performance. A 2022 peer-reviewed study that built on UCS’s Climate Accountability Scorecard found that BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell continue to depend almost entirely on fossil fuels, with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy. The House Oversight Committee investigation came to the same conclusion as the 2022 study: Accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.

H is for Hydrogen

ExxonMobil, which spent an estimated $68 million to advertise its $300-million investment in algae biofuels, has pulled the plug on that research and now wants us to put our faith in hydrogen and carbon capture and storage as climate solutions. But these technologies are no substitute for sharp cuts in fossil fuels if we keep the goals of the Paris climate agreement within reach. Furthermore, hydrogen as a true decarbonization pathway hinges on the fuel being generated in a way that is carbon-free. Today, most hydrogen is produced from fossil (“natural”) gas.

I is for Intensity Targets

Reducing global warming emissions intensity alone is not sufficient to slow the pace of climate change. A fossil fuel corporation increasing its production could achieve intensity reduction targets (that is, reduce the emissions per unit of fossil fuel produced) even as its absolute emissions—and its contributions to climate change—continue to grow. Given the industry’s massive expansion of oil and gas exploration and production, modest emissions intensity reduction pledges by ExxonMobil, Chevron and their competitors are woefully inadequate and ignore the oil and gas sector’s other negative health impacts.

J is for Just Transition

Internal corporate documents made public by the House Oversight Committee investigation revealed that Chevron drafted talking points to frame oil and gas as vital to a “just transition,” the process of moving to a low-carbon energy system while ensuring that the needs of workers, communities and local economies are met, and that energy access, health and pollution inequities created by the fossil fuel energy system are repaired and not replicated by the new system. In Chevron’s twisted logic, the reliance of billions of people worldwide on a high-carbon energy system for decades to come is part of a transition to ever-cleaner energy as long as the industry lowers the carbon intensity of oil and gas. (See I.)

K is for Kafkaesque

Speaking of twisted logic: The very corporations that designed and funded campaigns to deceive the public and block climate action for decades now want the public to trust them. And they expect us to believe not only that they’re part of the solution to climate change, but that we can’t accomplish the transition to clean renewable energy without them.

L is for Lies

In sworn 2021 testimony before Congress, the CEOs of four major oil and gas corporations denied that they had ever approved a disinformation campaign, essentially spewing disinformation about disinformation. The congressional investigation uncovered substantial evidence that the leadership of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell know that their emissions reduction pledges are inadequate and their massive long-term investments in fossil fuels are inconsistent with achieving climate goals. No wonder cities, counties and states across the United States and its territories are suing ExxonMobil and other major fossil fuel corporations for allegedly lying to consumers.

M is for Methane

Methane, the main component of fossil (so-called “natural”) gas, is about 80 times more potent in warming the atmosphere over a 20-year period than carbon dioxide. As revealed by the House Oversight Committee investigation, an advocacy campaign developed for BP by the Brunswick Group described methane as the “Achilles heel of a gas case” and suggested advocating for methane regulation to advance and protect BP’s self-interest in continuing to produce and sell gas. Internal documents show that Shell has similar worries that a full accounting of the global warming emissions from gas would make it more difficult to sell it as a “transition” fuel.

N is for No-Action

In recent years, investor-owned oil and gas corporations have faced shareholder rebellions over their failure to take ambitious climate action and adapt for the energy transition. As climate-conscious shareholders have continued to raise issues for consideration at corporate annual meetings, Chevron and ExxonMobil have filed “no-action” letters with the Securities and Exchange Commission seeking to block shareholder votes on proposals. The companies’ objections are a throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall exercise, claiming that proposals are both vague and substantially implemented or vague but somehow constituting micromanagement. As companies drag their feet, some investors are addressing the climate emergency with such escalation tactics as voting against members of corporate boards. (See Majority Action’s 2023 Proxy Voting Guide for recommendations on upcoming votes.)

O is for Offsets

Instead of sharply reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels, some major oil and gas companies’ climate pledges rely on dubious carbon offsets, which essentially allow polluters to continue emitting carbon dioxide by paying for projects that purportedly reduce emissions elsewhere. But the additionality and permanence of these projects can be difficult to verify, and some offset projects may have negative environmental or social impacts. Shell, for example, planned to spend about half of the current market for nature-based offsets every year, and its original 1.5 degrees Celsius scenario included planting trees over a Brazil-sized area, which it reduced in its newer scenario to a Mexico-sized forest. UCS recently joined with other organizations in calling for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to crack down on misleading claims about carbon offsets as it updates its Green Guides to regulate marketing of products’ environmental benefits.

P is for Paltering

Researchers describe paltering as the use of technically true statements to create an overall false impression. Fossil fuel industry advertisements, such as those promoting carbon capture and storage or highlighting relatively insignificant investments in renewable energy, are rife with paltering. That’s why public interest organizations are urging the FTC to address paltering in its Green Guides update.

Q is for Quest

Major oil and gas corporations misrepresent carbon capture and storage (CCS) and carbon capture, use and storage as a substitute for swift and deep reductions in emissions from burning fossil fuels. For example, Shell’s Quest plant (in which Chevron also holds a stake) is a showpiece in the industry’s promotion of CCS. However, a 2022 investigation by Global Witness found that the plant actually emits more carbon dioxide than it captures.

R is for Redacted

The fossil fuel corporations and trade associations that were the focus of the House Oversight Committee investigation sought to hide the truth about their operations and conduct by refusing to comply fully with subpoenas and inappropriately withholding and redacting key documents. Although the committee released hundreds of pages of internal documents, the evidence it made public only highlights the need for further investigation.

S is for Social License

Leaders of major fossil fuel corporations and their trade associations are acutely aware that the public does not trust them, and survey data back that up. The industry is scrambling to regain its “social license.” According to documents made public by the House Oversight Committee investigation, API strategically supported efforts to reduce methane emissions from flaring as “an opportunity to further secure the industry’s license to operate” and legitimize continued fossil fuel production.

T is for Time for Energy

Time for Energy, a 1981 film, is part of a collection of Shell materials compiled by Dutch researcher Vatan Hüzeir that DeSmog and Follow the Money posted earlier this year The collection reveals that Shell knew about the hazard its products posed to the global climate in the 1970s but downplayed the risks, emphasized scientific uncertainties, and promoted an unsustainable business model centered on fossil fuels, including coal. These internal corporate materials add to a growing body of evidence—submitted in court briefs—that the fossil fuel industry has known that its products would cause dangerous global warming since at least 1965, but failed to disclose this information or take steps to protect the public.

U is for US Chamber of Commerce

The US Chamber of Commerce was targeted by the House Oversight Committee investigation of fossil fuel industry climate deception. Despite its broad membership and its claims to support the Paris climate agreement, the Chamber still does the bidding of the fossil fuel industry when it comes to climate policy. The Chamber was especially obstructive and evasive in response to the congressional investigation, refusing to turn over almost all internal documents requested by the committee’s subpoena.

V is for Victory Memo

A notorious 1998 memo by an API task force described “victory” as the moment when “average citizens” recognize “uncertainties” in climate science. It mapped out a multifaceted strategy to use purportedly independent scientists as spokespersons for the industry’s views and inundate the news media, the public and policymakers with industry messaging that countered the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change.

W is for Windfall profits

With record profits approaching $200 billion in 2022 and continuing through the first quarter of 2023, major oil and gas companies have plenty of money to invest in a just transition to clean renewable energy. Spoiler alert: They’re doing nothing of the sort.

X is for eXXchange

In response to shareholder pressure, ExxonMobil expanded its disclosure of its lobbying activities and expenditures, including more than $1 million on Exxchange, the corporation’s grassroots lobbying platform. Among other ploys, ExxonMobil has used Exxchange to lobby on oil well setbacks in Colorado—despite the scientific consensus that fracking operations should be set back 2,000 to 2,500 feet from schools, drinking water sources, and other vulnerable sites to reduce air and water pollution and protect public health and safety.

Y is for You

With such tactics as the carbon footprint (invented by BP), the fossil fuel industry wants to divert attention from its own egregious misconduct and make you blame yourself for climate change. The good news is you actually do have a lot of power to rein in climate chaos by holding major fossil fuel corporations accountable for climate deception and damages. You can take action here.

Z is for (Net) Zero

Major oil and gas corporations are trying to use “net zero by 2050” pledges as an excuse for inaction and delay. In 2022, a United Nations High-Level Expert Group concluded that to avoid further delays and stop greenwashing, businesses cannot claim to be net zero while continuing to build or invest in new fossil fuel supply. Ahead of their annual general meetings, shareholders of Shell (May 23), ExxonMobil (May 31), and Chevron (May 31) are voting on proposals to strengthen corporate climate targets and accelerate meaningful action. About one-sixth of BP shareholders supported a similar proposal last month, sending a warning signal to corporate leadership.

From attribution science to following the lead of Gen Z, climate scientists and activists are employing an A to Z of tactics to thwart this A to Z of corporate deception. Please join us—and share your additions to this glossary!