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New Big Oil documents reveal a sinister strategy to keep fossil fuels alive
The latest batch of internal documents gives even more reason to continue probing the fossil fuel industry’s disinformation machine.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
“We continue to balk at taking accountability for the emissions of our products,” read notes about BP America’s climate initiatives from a board meeting in 2019.
Two years later, American Petroleum Institute CEO Mike Sommers suggested that the trade association’s support of emissions reductions efforts depended on whether they could be used to legitimize the continued production of fossil fuels. Sommers wrote in a memo to API’s Board of Directors that reducing emissions from oil and gas flaring provided “an opportunity to further secure the industry’s license to operate.”
These are just two examples from a new cache of internal industry documents that expose oil executives’ long-term strategy to prolong the era of fossil fuels.
This latest documents, released today by the House Oversight Committee just months after the first release of other explosive documents in September, show Big Oil has continued to stand in the way of a transition to renewable energy and double down on oil and gas projects while selectively greenwashing efforts that would buoy their image and keep their dirty business alive.
The new documents could be the final revelation of what has proved a groundbreaking House investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s ongoing campaigns of climate disinformation before the committee leadership changes hands next year. But this isn’t — and can’t be — the conclusion of investigations into the industry’s misconduct.
Here’s what the committee found:
Big Oil’s “climate pledges” only served to justify a continued global reliance on oil and gas.
BP, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell’s so-called climate initiatives sought to “greenwash” their reputations without legitimately investing in a transition away from fossil fuels, according to the committee’s report. They touted empty commitments “even as the industry moved aggressively to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades to come—actions that could doom global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change,” the report reads.
Much of those machinations revolved around the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” in the transition to renewable energy. Behind closed doors, executives manipulated public-facing language with the goal of eventually securing the public’s buy-in of gas instead as a “destination fuel.”
“For sure the bridge is very long in any event, but it is conceivable that gas could serve as a destination fuel to back up intermittent renewables (possibly with CCS [carbon capture and sequestration]) in the much longer term,” wrote Robert Stout, BP’s Vice President & Head of Regulatory Affairs, in an email to his colleagues. “We would not want to spell all this out, but also not implicitly concede the point by referring to it mainly as a “bridge.”
One internal email revealed that API’s 2021 Climate Action Framework was geared toward the “continued promotion of natural gas in a carbon constrained economy.” In an internal presentation created for BP, a public relations firm advised the company to publicly support methane regulations as a way to “advance and protect the role of gas – and BP – in the future of energy conversation.”
A private strategy slide from Chevron, the self-dubbed “human energy company,” explained that the company would “continue to invest” in fossil fuels despite their competitors’ apparent reluctance to do so. Indeed, Exxon and Chevron just disclosed their plans to pour billions of dollars more into oil projects next year.
While posturing as partners in climate solutions, behind the scenes, the companies were conspiring to block climate action and buy time.
In an email unearthed by the committee, one BP employee noted the company’s tendency to oppose climate regulations: “we wait for the rules to come out, we don’t like what we see, and then try to resist and block.” In another email discussing the company’s emissions plans for one of its gas projects off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, a BP executive wrote that the company has “no obligation to minimize GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions” and that BP should only “minimize [GHG emissions] where it makes commercial sense.”
Another BP executive also privately admitted that divesting oil and gas projects, or selling them to other companies, is “an important part of our strategy” even though “these divestments may not directly lead to a reduction in absolute global emissions.”
“What exactly are we supposed to do instead of divesting … pour concrete over the oil sands and burn the deed to the land so no one can buy them?” one executive from Shell responded to another’s admission that “we transfer CO2 liability when we divest.” [The answer is yes, that’s exactly what they should do.]
The “Slippery Six” hid documents from the committee and attempted to hinder the investigation.
While the committee did discover plentiful evidence of Big Oil’s deception, the “slippery six” subjects of the investigation defied their subpoenas and refused to cooperate with the committee, according to the latest report.
Some companies blacked out multiple phrases from their documents without explanation; the American Petroleum Institute, for example, failed to redact just one of its references to maintaining “the industry’s license to operate” in copies of a proposal it sent to the committee. Exxon redacted entire pages. The Chamber of Commerce, a key player in the history of climate denial and foe of corporate accountability, refused to turn over “almost all” internal documents requested by the committee.
The report also documents other times the companies tried to hinder investigations into their lies, including instances of bullying and attempting to invalidate the work of journalists who sought to expose the truth.
The committee’s investigation unveiled the truth, but the work to hold Big Oil accountable isn’t done.
Here’s just some of what the House Oversight Committee has accomplished through its investigation:
In a historic hearing, the committee forced Big Oil executives to testify, for the very first time, about their climate commitments under oath. Chair Carolyn Maloney asked the executives to pledge to stop funding climate disinformation — and all of them refused.
In a second hearing, the committee debunked the oil majors’ phony “net-zero” pledges — and called in a witness who put ExxonKnews in the Congressional record :)
The committee unearthed thousands of pages of internal company documents that provide ample evidence of Big Oil’s ongoing deception and fraud — evidence that is sure to fuel accountability efforts in court and beyond.
As Representative Khanna himself told NBC, “the only way we’re going to have accountability” is if others take up the reins on this work when the Democrats lose control of the House next year.
It will fall to the Senate, to communities taking Big Oil companies to court, and hopefully the U.S. Department of Justice, to carry the torch from here.
As always, we’ll be following closely and bringing you the latest.
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