DeSmog

BP Was Warned Gas-Driven Climate Change Could Cause ‘Unprecedented Famine’

Yet the oil and gas major led a campaign to present gas as a climate solution, new ‘confidential’ documents released by a U.S. Congressional investigation reveal.
Geoff Dembicki
Geoff Dembicki
on
Democrat Jamie Raskin
Democrat Jamie Raskin appeared before a Senate hearing examining Big Oil's efforts to avoid climate accountability. Credit: US Senate

BP was warned by Princeton University researchers in 2016 that climate change accelerated in part by new global supplies of shale gas could lead to catastrophic events such as “mass extinctions and unprecedented famine.” 

Yet despite acknowledging internally the concern that “gas doesn’t support climate goals,” the UK-headquartered oil and gas major embarked on a marketing campaign to “advance and protect the role of gas—and BP—in the energy transition.” 

That’s been accompanied by large new investments in gas, including a recent agreement to take nearly two million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas shipments from a $5.1 billion export facility called Woodfibre LNG proposed for the west coast of British Columbia. 

Revelations concerning BP’s private knowledge about the dangers of gas expansion were contained in a trove of documents—some labelled “confidential”—released by Democrats in early May as part of a joint House and Senate investigation into the oil and gas industry’s climate obstruction. 

“The fossil fuel industry evolved from denying climate science to spreading disinformation and perpetuating doublespeak about the safety of natural gas and its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” the Joint Staff Report argues.  

BP didn’t respond to questions from DeSmog related to the report. 

Documents contained in the report, which were obtained via federal subpoenas, suggest that the highest levels of BP leadership have been privately made aware of potential climate disruption caused by natural gas. Comments on a draft outline for a 2017 speech by BP’s then-CEO Robert Dudley articulate that fear explicitly.

“You don’t say anything about concerns about so-called lock-in, the idea that, once built, gas locks in future emissions above a level consistent with 2 degrees, at least without CCUS,” the comments read, referring to expensive and frequently underperforming carbon capture utilization and storage technologies. 

A confidential 2018 presentation from BP notes that while gas may release less emissions when burned than coal, those climate gains can be erased by leakages of the “potent” greenhouse gas methane. “Methane (CH₄) accounts for 20% of GHGs [greenhouse gas emissions],” a slide from the presentation notes. “Oil and gas accounts for nearly a quarter of this 20%.”

The presentation acknowledges the concern, widely reported in the media by that point, that “gas doesn’t support climate goals when you take methane emissions into account.” BP appears to have seen such worries as an “opportunity” for the company, however. 

The company intended to launch a communications campaign that could “position BP as [a] strong gas player” in part by “demonstrating leadership on methane challenge,” the slide reads.

Yet the oil and gas producer had been warned that a failure to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees could be catastrophic for humankind and the planet. During a 2016 town hall event for BP in Houston, Princeton researchers noted “innovation in the energy sector has been dramatically affected by the arrival of shale gas and oil and low energy prices.” 

One result, they noted, is that “fossil fuels are so abundant that, for even a weak climate target, attractive fossil fuel will be left in the ground.” But if the world fails to limit warming below 2 degrees, “the climate monsters begin to come into the room,” they noted. 

As warming approaches 3 degrees, their presentation explained, “we expect a rogue’s gallery, from the loss of all of our coastal cities because of >10 m of sea level rise, to cessation of the ocean’s circulation.”

Yet the company continues to publicly portray the fossil fuel as a climate solution. “As the world seeks secure, affordable and lower carbon energy, global demand for LNG is expected to continue to grow,” a BP executive said last year upon the company signing its latest off-take agreement with Woodfibre LNG in Canada. 

This is part of a years-long global campaign to spread “disinformation” about the role of gas “as a bridge fuel to a fossil-free future,” the Congressional report argues. “It is long past time to hold Big Oil accountable for its deception campaign and to take action to undo the harms it has perpetrated.”

Geoff Dembicki
Geoff Dembicki is an investigative climate journalist based in New York City. He is author of The Petroleum Papers and Are We Screwed?

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