This week, the CEOs of four major oil and gas companies and two major trade associations will face questioning by the US House Oversight and Reform Committee about the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation. It’s about time. Since I started working at the Union of Concerned Scientists six years ago, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations (from, for example, investigative journalism and UCS’s own Climate Deception Dossiers) about what fossil fuel companies knew about climate change, when—and what they and their surrogates did in spite of what they knew.
The hearing this Thursday should be the beginning, not the end, of congressional investigations into fossil fuel industry misconduct. According to the Oversight Committee’s press release, the companies and trade associations have failed to adequately respond to letters it sent to each of them last month requesting information, so there are a lot of questions hanging in the air. And given their usual public posturing on climate issues, the witnesses are likely to be evasive.
For those following along at home, here’s a handy guide to some of the greenwashing we’re likely to hear from the top executives of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell Oil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the US Chamber of Commerce.
Why stopping climate disinformation matters
This hearing comes as the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis escalates and climate impacts become more severe, more frequent, and more visible in our everyday lives—with particularly devastating effects on Black, Brown and Indigenous communities and women. Congress is scrambling to step up climate action before President Biden and the rest of the US delegation travel to Glasgow, Scotland, for the COP26 meeting of countries that have ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (Read more here in this blog by my UCS colleague Rachel Cleetus).
The executives’ testimony should shine a spotlight on some of the strategies the fossil fuel industry uses to weaken and delay climate legislation—including the Build Back Better Act Congress is debating right now. Read my colleague Elliott Negin’s latest blog for a rundown on each of the fossil fuel witnesses and the institutions they represent.
Claim No. 1: “You can’t live without us.”
Actually, we can’t continue to live with fossil fuels. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasized the grave reality of the climate emergency, underlining the urgency of swift and deep cuts in global warming emissions.
A May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5° Celsius (C), investment in new oil and gas projects must stop now. The IEA’s World Energy Outlook, released earlier this month, reaffirms that a sharp, rapid turn away from fossil fuels is critical to limit climate change.
Claim No. 2: “Trust us—we’re part of the solution.”
We’re in this pickle because too many people in high places trusted the fossil fuel industry. But Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO was spot-on when he said in 2017 that “trust has been eroded to the point where it starts to become a serious issue for our long-term future.”
Institutions with more than $39 trillion in combined assets under management have divested from fossil fuels. And the shareholders who hang on are impatient with the pace and scale of fossil fuel companies’ climate action. Sure, BP and Shell have pledged to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050, but BP also acknowledged that it expects overall emissions to increase over the crucial next decade, and Shell’s auditors note that the company’s operating plan and pricing assumptions do not yet reflect its net-zero target. And despite its net-zero pledge, Shell is appealing a May 2021 Dutch court ruling ordering the company to slash its global warming emissions 45 percent by 2030—even when a new analysis forecasts a 4 percent increase in Shell’s emissions during that time frame.
ExxonMobil and Chevron, meanwhile, refuse to accept responsibility for the lion’s share of their emissions—those that come from consumers using their oil and gas products exactly as the companies intend them to be used. Shareholders of both companies rebelled this past spring, replacing three members of ExxonMobil’s board with directors better positioned to navigate the energy transition and demanding that Chevron set emissions reduction targets consistent with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
Claim No. 3: “There’s a silver bullet out there somewhere.”
Somehow, when it comes to investments in clean energy, these hard-nosed business people stop crunching numbers and start believing in magic. And they hope nobody will notice. According to a 2020 IEA report, low-carbon investments by oil and gas companies amount to less than 1 percent of their total capital expenditures.
For example, ExxonMobil touts more than $10 billion of investments in projects to research, develop, and deploy lower-emissions energy solutions since 2000. That figure may sound impressive, until you compare it with the more than $500 billion the company spent on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure over the same period—50 times as much. ExxonMobil also has reportedly spent $300 million since 2009 on research into making biofuels from algae. At the same time, the company spent $500 million on advertising, according to research led by Robert Brulle at Brown University, not to mention the $56 million annually it spent on climate branding from 2015—when the Paris agreement was adopted—through 2018, according to InfluenceMap.
Meanwhile, Shell’s scenario for limiting temperature increase to 1.5° C depends on reforesting an area the size of Brazil. Its sketch of a net-zero energy system for the United States imagines planting trees on an area the size of Colorado. Is Shell—just one company—counting on a huge expansion of forests to offset continued expansion of its oil and gas business?
Claim No. 4: “It’s climate action or a strong economy. We can’t have both.”
Fossil fuel CEOs love to talk about the “dual challenge,” pitting climate action against economic prosperity as if they are mutually exclusive. In fact, a just and equitable transition to clean energy can not only benefit workers and communities but also redress past harms. As my colleague Jeremy Richardson has written, the budget reconciliation package under consideration in Congress can spur clean energy deployment and support environmental justice communities, rural communities, and energy transition communities. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.
It turns out that deliberate scare tactics about the costs of climate action go back decades. In a recently published study, Stanford scholar Ben Franta found that economic consultants hired by the petroleum industry from the 1990s to the 2010s “used models that inflated predicted costs while ignoring policy benefits, and their results were often portrayed to the public as independent rather than industry-sponsored.”
In our new report on fossil fuel disinformation in Colorado, UCS found that the oil and gas industry claims unearned credit for high economic performance, overstates its financial contributions to the state and local economies, and leaves state coffers to cover much of the financial burden of cleaning up abandoned ventures. While the industry touts itself as “the cornerstone of prosperity” in the state, the oil and gas sector is actually a notoriously unstable, boom and bust enterprise that accounts for only about 1 percent of Colorado jobs.
Claim No. 5: “Our lobbyists and trade associations don’t always represent us.”
And you pay them for that? It’s no wonder that climate lobbying is increasingly recognized by mainstream investors as a corporate governance issue, as illustrated by the recent successes of shareholder proposals calling for improved disclosure.
Unfortunately, disclosure is necessary but not sufficient. Chevron’s 2021 climate lobbying report was worse than a box-ticking exercise: The company found all of its trade associations to be in alignment with Chevron’s own weak positions on climate policy. Decisions by BP and Shell to stick with the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil industry’s largest trade association, despite disagreeing with some priority climate issues, beg the question: What would it take for them to leave (like the French oil and gas conglomerate TotalEnergies did earlier this year)?
Candid revelations by (now-former) ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy to an undercover reporter this past summer provided a shocking but not surprising view into the company’s deceptive lobbying and public relations strategies. While ExxonMobil condemned McCoy’s statements and threw him under the bus, the Oversight Committee must probe the systems and structures that encouraged, enabled, and rewarded his actions.
Evidence + Organizing = Accountability
My colleague Elliott Negin wrote about the congressional hearing in 1998 when tobacco company CEOs acknowledged that nicotine is addictive in a dramatic reversal of testimony by their predecessors four years earlier. Internal documents revealed through litigation and leaked by whistleblowers, combined with grassroots campaigning and media visibility, forced tobacco companies to stop deceiving Congress and the public about how they hooked customers. (Sound familiar?)
I was in the hearing room that day, close enough to the action that Philip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible stepped on my foot when he made his way to the witness table. Bible apologized to me (“Sorry, mate”), but the tobacco bosses have never apologized for the disease, death, and economic burden wrought by their product. The tobacco companies were, however, forced by a federal court judgment to issue “corrective statements” admitting that they lied and defrauded the public about the harms of their products. As Big Tobacco did in the 1990s, fossil fuel companies and API are now facing lawsuits across the country over damages and fraud.
I’ll be watching the hearing online this Thursday. I’m not expecting the fossil fuel bosses to apologize, but I’m counting on members of the Oversight Committee to pull back the curtain on the industry’s deception. We should learn more about what fossil fuel companies and their trade associations have done to delay and block action to tackle the climate crisis—and Congress should be equipped to see through the industry’s present-day smokescreen. As with the campaign for tobacco control, new evidence is one vital catalyst for effective action; organized, visible movements to hold corporations and public policymakers accountable are another. Fortunately for people and the planet, both are now converging to spur climate action.