House Committee Report Shows How Big Oil Has Been Gaslighting us all Along 

The latest batch of internal documents reveals the lengths oil companies have been going to protect their reputations and greenwash their actions, argues Jamie Henn of Fossil Free Media.
Opinion
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Green branded fueling station for cars that reads 'clean energy' and 'natural gas for vehicles'
A 'Clean Energy' natural gas fueling station in Bloomfield, Connecticut in 2014. Credit: Mike Mozart of TheToyChannel and JeepersMedia, CC BY 2.0

On Friday, the House Oversight Committee released the final report from its year-long investigation into fossil fuel industry disinformation. The result is the most damning indictment yet of the industry’s attempts to “greenwash” its public image while continuing to expand fossil fuel production and lobby against climate action. 

According to the findings of the committee, major fossil fuel companies like Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Shell have no intention of seriously reducing their emission by moving away from oil and gas production. Instead, they’re using false “net zero” commitments and other marketing tactics to mislead and distract the public while they double down on fossil fuel production. 

The documents released by the committee show the lengths that the industry has gone to defend its public image. In an internal memo published by the committee, the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, Mike Sommers, writes that publicizing the industry’s paltry efforts to reduce emissions from natural gas production presents “an opportunity to further secure the industry’s license to operate.” In another email, the President of Shell Oil, Gretchen Watkins, tells her staff that she doesn’t want Shell to join an Exxon carbon capture project in Houston because, “Their reputation is severely damaged here, and we will only do harm to the strength of Shell’s reputation.” 

The fossil fuel industry’s attempts at image control extend beyond its own brands to its products, especially methane, or as the industry likes to call it, natural gas. For years, oil companies, politicians, and even some environmental groups, touted gas as a “bridge fuel” to a clean energy future. But documents released by the committee show that the industry never saw gas as merely a bridge: they saw it as a “destination.” 

An internal BP document from 2017 includes a slide prepared for the company by the Brunswick Group, a public relations firm, that lays out a major PR effort to “advance and protect the role of gas – and BP – in the future of energy conservation.” Another BP document, titled the “Role of Gas,” describes BP America’s goal as to, “Prevent further erosion of near-term support for gas vs. other fuels, protect role of gas as a bridge in a low-carbon transition, and position gas as a destination fuel for the long term.”

In other words, the only “bridge” that Big Oil was building was a bridge to more fossil fuels. Marketing methane as “natural gas” and then natural gas as a “bridge” was all just a delay tactic, a chance to take some heat off the industry while they built thousands more miles of pipelines and hooked up millions more homes to their poisonous product. 

Now, the industry is using “net zero” as another way to try and delay the transition to clean energy. As the House Oversight Committee writes in its report, “The industry’s inadequate climate pledges and actions are intended to provide cover to continue selling fossil fuels for decades to come.” Document after document shows that despite their public statements, every major oil and gas company is continuing to invest in new fossil fuel production. 

Not only that, but one of the companies’ favorite tactics to reduce their own carbon footprints will do nothing to actually help the climate. As the committee report explains, in order to lower their own emissions, Big Oil companies are now selling off some of their most polluting assets – often to other companies who plan to keep those wells or mines in production. In internal emails, the companies privately admit that this won’t actually reduce total emissions, but it can help them look good to investors and the public. 

“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,” wrote one BP executive. “True, we transfer CO2 liability when we divest. And now we’ve been called on it,” wrote a media manager at Shell. To which a colleague responded, “I fully understand the logic behind their argument, but in the same breath, 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?” 

The picture painted by the thousands of pages of documents released by the committee is of an industry with no intention of changing its ways, while making every effort to obstruct efforts by politicians, the press, and the public to hold them accountable. As the committee report shows, Exxon, Chevron, BP, Shell, API, and the US Chamber of Commerce did everything they could to obstruct the committee’s investigation, ignoring subpoenas, refusing to testify, swamping the committee with millions of pages of irrelevant material, redacting entire documents with no explanation, and in the case of the Chamber, producing zero internal documents for the committee to review. 

In the meantime, Big Oil had its most profitable year in history, taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to drive up prices, gouge consumers at the pump, and rake in over $300 billion in profits. With control of the House Oversight Committee about to be transferred to Republicans, who have zero intention of investigating their favorite political donors, Big Oil CEOs may be feeling like they’ve gotten off scot-free. 

They’d be wise not to celebrate too soon. While this round of hearings is over, the House Oversight Committee has compiled more than enough evidence for the Department of Justice to launch its own investigation into the industry’s lies to Congress, their investors, and the public. Cases are also being brought against Big Oil by a growing number of cities, states, and other plaintiffs who are seeking damages caused by the industry’s role in fueling the climate crisis and blocking action to address it. Over in the Democratically controlled Senate, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and others have pledged to keep up investigations into the industry’s lies and lobbying. 

Perhaps the most important place Big Oil is being held accountable is in the court of public opinion. More than 60 percent of Americans (and 89 percent of Democrats) say that oil companies are “completely or mostly” responsible for global warming. And the industry driving up prices at the pump hasn’t helped their reputation: earlier this year, a poll showed that 89 percent of American voters wanted Congress to crack down on Big Oil price gouging. As it becomes increasingly clear that oil companies are also lying to the public about their commitment to act on climate, public outrage and political pressure will only continue to grow. 

As the House Oversight Committee report shows us, the fossil fuel industry has done everything it can to gaslight the public into believing that we are all equally responsible for causing the climate crisis and that the industry was working hard to solve it. Now the truth is coming out. The question is: what will we do with it? 

Jamie Henn is the founder and director of Fossil Free Media, Stop The Oil Profiteering, and a co-founder of 350.org

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