Congress Releases New Evidence of Big Oil Climate Disinformation

October 12, 2022 | 3:24 pm
House Oversight and Reform Committee
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

As part of its ongoing investigation of fossil fuel industry climate disinformation, the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform released more than 200 pages of internal corporate documents last month that provide new evidence of industry deception. Among the more startling revelations, the documents show that oil and gas corporation executives acknowledged in private emails that their companies’ climate pledges and professed solutions cannot deliver swift and deep cuts in global warming emissions and will further delay the necessary transition from fossil fuels.  

The committee, which launched its investigation in September 2021, held a series of hearings over the past year, including one with the chief executive officers (CEOs) of BP America, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell USA. In a video released last month, several of my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reacted to some of the CEOs’ most outrageous statements, while another UCS colleague documented their disinformation in a December blog.

Following the executives’ deceptive and misleading testimony last October, the committee issued subpoenas to the four major oil and gas companies, the American Petroleum Institute, and the US Chamber of Commerce. The subpoenas requested that they turn over key documents they failed to produce in response to the committee’s initial request, which focused on the period beginning in late 2015, when nearly 200 countries signed the Paris climate agreement.

Since then, the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis has escalated as inequitable climate impacts intensify around the globe. And the movement to hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for climate damages and deception—including through litigation—has grown in size, scope, and urgency.

As someone who has tracked and analyzed Big Oil’s climate-related communications and actions since co-authoring The Climate Deception Dossiers in 2015, I eagerly dug into this online treasure trove of internal corporate documents. Below are some of the observations I shared during a talk I gave at the International Conference on Fossil Fuel Supply and Climate Policy in Oxford last month.

Companies Plot “Greenwashing” Campaigns

According to a peer-reviewed paper published in February, all four of the companies under investigation engage in greenwashing: They make misleading or outright false claims about their environmental performance. That conclusion was confirmed by a recent InfluenceMap analysis, which found that their investments and lobbying activities don’t match their climate claims.

The documents the Oversight Committee released reveal that company officials are well are of this disconnect. BP, for example, publicly claims that carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) “plays a central role in supporting the transition to a low-carbon energy system.” Yet an April 2016 internal memo reveals that the company has a less climate-friendly purpose for this technology, which was at the time (and still is) unproven at scale. BP expects CCUS “to enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond.”

Like BP, ExxonMobil features carbon capture and storage in its ad campaigns. ExxonMobil’s ads also showcase the company’s research into making biofuels from algae, another technology that cannot deliver steep cuts in global warming emissions in the crucial period between now and 2030.

According to the Oversight Committee, ExxonMobil has spent $68 million to advertise its algae biofuel research, nearly a quarter of what the company reportedly spent since 2009 on the research itself (which is a tiny fraction of what ExxonMobil still spends on developing oil and gas).

In a December 2016 exchange with its ad agency, ExxonMobil highlighted its algae research but walked back from overpromising results by “remov[ing] any [copy] lines that imply the technology is live today, and [stressing that] the solution is more future focused.” Similarly, a draft presentation of the company’s 2018 Outlook for Energy admitted that algae fuel technology is “[s]till decades away from the scale we need.”

Talking the Talk

Another form of greenwashing is using weasel-words such as “pledge,” “aim,” and “ambition”—or bait-and-switch schemes with theoretical scenarios that don’t represent actual business plans.

Shell is a pro with these tactics. With great fanfare, the company launched its Sky Scenario, a “technically possible, but challenging pathway for society to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement.” Yet the internal documents show how carefully the company had to prep its spokespeople not to say explicitly what a casual listener might mistakenly believe.

Internal Shell “Net Zero Emissions” (NZE) messaging guidance from January 2020 includes the following points:

  1. Be explicit in defining NZE as a goal for society.
  2. Focus on the need to decarbonise the economy, rather than solely the energy system.
  3. Please do not imply, suggest, or leave it open for possible misinterpretation that NZE is a Shell goal or target.

The guidance warns: “Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense,” and notes that it “will require a careful and continuous balancing act that conveys credible optimism while setting realistic expectations of how fast both Shell and the energy system can change.”

There is a clear purpose to this semantic sleight of hand. In the face of legal complaints filed in the United States and other jurisdictions, Shell and the other targets of the congressional investigation are acutely aware of the litigation risks associated with making misleading and deceptive claims to consumers, investors, and the general public.

Lobbying Lip Service

All four of the oil and gas companies now claim to support the Paris climate agreement. For example, following candid revelations by then-ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy to an undercover reporter about the company’s deceptive lobbying and public relations strategies, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods asserted that his company has “fully supported the Paris agreement since its inception.” Woods repeated this assertion in his formal testimony at the committee’s October hearing.

However, it was not until September 2018—three years after the adoption of the Paris accord—that  ExxonMobil and Chevron joined the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), whose members “explicitly support the Paris agreement and its aims.”

More important than that three-year gap, internal documents show that neither ExxonMobil nor Chevron had any intention of backing their stated support with action. An ExxonMobil briefing memo for an OGCI CEO meeting, drafted in consultation with Chevron, lays bare the companies’ desire to avoid a “commitment to advocate on the Paris agreement goals,” noting that “support for the Paris agreement goals and member company advocacy are separate concepts and are not directly related.” Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.

Momentum Builds for Accountability

This first tranche of documents released by the House Oversight Committee last month is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. “We’re also going to release an explosive report documenting and detailing everything sometime in October,” Rep. Ro Khanna of California, chair of the Oversight Committee’s Environment Subcommittee, told Emily Atkin’s Heated newsletter. “We’re going to have even more documents, even more shocking than what’s already been released. And that report will be looked at by a lot of people who have an interest in holding Big Oil accountable.”

A growing community of researchers is poring over this new evidence of fossil fuel industry deception and eagerly awaiting the additional documents promised by Khanna. There is increasing concern over fossil fuel industry influence in academia:

  • Climate disinformation—and the complicity of enablers such as the public relations industry—was the focus of a public event at Harvard University last month. (Listen to the Drilled podcast of the event here).
  • In response to years of organizing by students and alumni, Princeton University recently announced plans to divest from fossil fuels and to reject funding from 90 companies involved in coal and tar sands. Unfortunately, Princeton rejected a faculty recommendation to dissociate from companies with a history of climate disinformation. This decision leaves BP eligible to continue its sponsorship of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative—the source of the above-cited recommendation that the company use CCUS as an excuse to avoid the transition away from fossil fuels.
  • The Guardian earlier this year exposed the ties of Elsevier, one of the world’s largest academic publishing companies, to the fossil fuel industry. Scientists have responded by launching a petition calling on the publisher to better align its business practices with its public commitments to address climate change. Read more in this new blog by my UCS colleague Kristy Dahl.

Meanwhile, other public officials beyond the House Oversight Committee are taking notice of the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation campaign and raising the specter of liability. Just last week, in a letter to President Biden, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and seven other US senators recommended that the “Department of Justice … investigate the fossil fuel industry for its decades of lying about its products and consider bringing a civil suit against the industry the way it successfully sued the tobacco industry.”

Merkley’s request was timely. Also last week, the US Supreme Court invited the solicitor general to submit a brief providing the federal government’s position on whether the climate liability case filed by three Colorado communities, which have been awaiting justice since 2018, should proceed in state or federal court.

The Colorado communities are among more than two dozen cities, counties and states across the country suing to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for climate damages and fraud. So it is a critical moment for the Department of Justice to follow through on President Biden’s campaign pledge to “strategically support ongoing plaintiff-driven climate litigation against polluters.”

The evidence continues to roll in: Fossil fuel polluters cannot be counted on to reform themselves. That is why scientists are joining with affected communities, elected representatives, investors, and litigators to hold these corporations accountable, drive deep cuts in emissions, and equitably address climate change-related loss and damage.