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How (not) to interview an oil CEO
Journalists have a responsibility to hold powerful polluters to account — not make oil execs feel comfortable.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Toxic smoke from still-burning wildfires in Canada and a vicious heatwave are bearing down on the United States this week, creating a public health crisis for more than 100 million people. Sweltering temperatures killed at least thirteen people in Texas, nine of whom were incarcerated in state jails, and at least twenty one people in northern Mexico. In the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, hundreds were buried after weeks of brutal heat there in mid-June.
But none of that news seemed to permeate an interview on Monday at the Aspen Ideas Festival between CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin and Chevron CEO Mike Wirth — head of one of the biggest climate polluters creating these deadly conditions for communities across the globe.
Chevron, the investor-owned oil giant responsible for the most energy-related greenhouse gas emissions since 1965, made a record $35.5 billion last year after spending decades deceiving the public about the harm it knew its fossil fuel products would cause. The company’s role in perpetuating climate disaster was the elephant in the room as I watched two guys in jeans and matching jackets have a friendly chat in a cushy, almost-definitely-air-conditioned room in Aspen, where billionaires go to ski, at a festival where elites discuss “the ideas and issues that both shape our lives and challenge our times.”
“There are a lot of people in this room and around the world who are desperate, I think for the right reasons, to want to really end fossil fuels, or at least move us in the right direction,” Sorkin told Wirth at the start of the interview. “I think you’re on the same mission too, to some degree, but at the same time, I think it would be impossible for you not to want your business to grow.”
As Wirth justified the company’s unwavering commitment to drilling oil (“we haven’t stopped drilling”) and paltered about Chevron’s role in a “lower carbon” energy future, Sorkin gave him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a problem we’ve seen for a long time in mainstream media when it comes to climate coverage — a tendency to “both-sides” the issue, or give fossil fuel executives a chance to shape the narrative without pushback, despite their track record of lies. After all, how many interviews has CNBC given to climate scientists compared to the many ones they give oil executives?
Journalists, especially with a platform as large as Sorkin’s, have a responsibility to fact check and clarify — particularly, I’d argue, when it comes to how we got into a deadly crisis. Here’s our (albeit unsolicited) advice to members of the media sitting down for interviews with oil executives:
#1 Be upfront about the harm caused by fossil fuels.
We’re in a climate emergency caused by fossil fuel products. The International Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency have made crystal clear that we need to stop producing oil and gas if we’re to stop the most catastrophic effects of global warming. A U.N. report this year said a rapid transition away from fossil fuels is necessary to save millions of lives, and the U.N. Secretary General recently called fossil fuels “incompatible with human survival.” Even the pope gets that it’s “absurd to permit the continued exploration and expansion of fossil fuel infrastructures.”
If you don’t believe the scientists or the pope, oil companies themselves knew decades ago and admitted internally that the consequences of burning fossil fuels would be “potentially catastrophic” — and they accurately predicted the extent of the damage.
Instead of acknowledging those facts at the outset, or questioning Chevron’s current plan to spend billions more on oil projects this year and, as Wirth said during the interview, “still be in the oil and gas business by 2050,” Sorkin asked Wirth what he “made of” climate activists.
“We’re all concerned,” Wirth responded. “Nobody wants to leave a climate to the next generation that is an unlivable climate.” (Translation: thoughts and prayers, suckers.)
#2 Anticipate and counter deceptive language.
Major oil companies are being sued by dozens of municipalities and states for climate deception and fraud. Last year, a congressional investigation into Chevron and other oil companies concluded that the fossil fuel industry is still lying to the public today. Chevron itself faces a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers about its role in climate solutions. It’s reasonable to think that any journalist interviewing an oil executive would ask about those lawsuits and the investigation, and be on the lookout for deception. But Sorkin just let it slide.
Here are just a few of the misleading statements Mike Wirth got away with during this interview, and how Sorkin could have responded rather than just moving to the next question:
What Wirth said: When Sorkin told Wirth that a lot of people “think [oil] is equivalent to cigarettes, it’s a terrible thing for the world,” the oil executive countered by saying “Cigarettes are not necessary for the quality of life that people enjoy on the planet today. Energy is.” Sorkin moved along.
How Sorkin could have responded: It’s true that energy is important to our quality of life — but energy does not have to mean fossil fuels. Renewables are safer and cheaper than fossil fuels, create millions of jobs, and are already successfully replacing fossil fuel energy on the grid. Meanwhile, the disastrous and costly public health consequences of oil and gas pollution and climate change are well documented. And unlike cigarettes, people have no choice whether or not they’re harmed by fossil fuel pollution. (Listen to investigative journalist Amy Westervelt for a thorough debunking of the “moral case” for fossil fuels.)
What Wirth said: When asked “what do you make of climate activists,” Wirth responded, “For an orderly and successful energy transition, we need every solution… everybody wants this to go fast, but we’ve gotta have all the solutions… How do we harness technology, innovation, markets, in order to deliver these solutions?”
How Sorkin could have responded: Climate change isn’t a technological problem — the solutions to it already exist. But the top five oil companies, including Chevron, are spending nearly $200 million each year to lobby against climate action and delay the transition to clean energy for as long as possible. We no longer have time for a gradual transition away from fossil fuels.
As U.N. Secretary Antonio Guterres said last year, “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing, but doing another. Simply put, they are lying… Increasing fossil fuel production will only make matters worse. It is time to stop burning our planet, and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.” Do you really want this transition to “go fast”?
What Wirth said: When questioned about the cost of bringing carbon capture and storage technology to scale, he said, “I’m a technology optimist… I believe we’ll find solutions that we can’t even envision today.”
How Sorkin could have responded: Why isn’t Chevron putting that money into existing clean energy solutions? Is it because, as the industry has admitted internally, carbon capture is just a tool to prolong the lifespan of oil and gas?
What Wirth said: “Every product has consequences, the use of it does.”
How Sorkin could have responded: But renewable energy products don’t cause planetary destruction. And you still haven’t owned up to your company’s decades of lies to the public about those consequences.
#3 Bring receipts.
Wirth made tons of excuses and told some real whoppers — but Sorkin didn’t refute or challenge them with follow-ups. For the sake of preventing the spread of disinformation, anyone selling a product — let alone one known for destroying the planet — should be forced to reckon with receipts.
Here are a couple of the blatant lies Wirth told, which could’ve been easily corrected:
What Wirth said: “This new (clean energy) system is about 1 percent built.”
How Sorkin could have responded: Last year, renewable energy made up 21.5% of total electricity generation in the U.S. That number would’ve been even higher by now if Chevron and other oil majors hadn’t fought tooth and nail to prevent an energy transition.
What Wirth said: “We’re working to reduce our emissions.”
Chevron has fought to ensure that they aren’t held accountable to their claims of climate action. In talking points provided to an executive, Chevron internally stated that “[o]il and gas” are the “lower carbon solutions that ensur[e] a just transition.”
When an audience member asked Wirth about Chevron’s net zero pledge, he just… didn’t respond to that part of the question. Why didn’t Sorkin follow up?
What Wirth said: Describing Chevron’s operations in other countries: “We try to be there for the people of the country, we pay our taxes, we follow the laws.”
How Sorkin could have responded: Chevron’s track record in Ecuador certainly says otherwise.
How have oil companies gotten away with deception and disinformation for so long, even as the climate crisis stares us in the face? Because they’ve been allowed to shape the narrative about a disaster they themselves caused, and are seldom challenged on it in public forums. Maybe that’s why some activists have resorted to interrupting similar speaking events — because those in a better position to hold oil and gas executives to account have failed to do so. While we blow past climate tipping points and the rest of us feel the heat, history will remember how people used their opportunities to question those fueling the fire.
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