Big Oil has engaged in a long-running climate disinformation campaign while raking in record profits, lawmakers find

By René Marsh, CNN

Big Oil companies have engaged in a “long-running greenwashing campaign” while raking in “record profits at the expense of American consumers,” the Democratic-led House Oversight Committee has found after a year-long investigation into climate disinformation from the fossil fuel industry.

The committee found the fossil fuel industry is “posturing on climate issues while avoiding real commitments” to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Lawmakers said it has sought to portray itself as part of the climate solution, even as internal industry documents reveal how companies have avoided making real commitments.

“Today’s documents reveal that the industry has no real plans to clean up its act and is barreling ahead with plans to pump more dirty fuels for decades to come,” House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney told CNN in a statement.

For example, BP announced in 2020 it intends to “be a net zero company by 2050 or sooner,” but the committee found internal BP documents that show the company’s recent plans do not align with the company’s public comments.

In a July 2017 email between several of the company’s high-level officials about whether to invest in curbing emissions from one of its gas projects off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, BP’s vice president of engineering stated that BP had “no obligation to minimize GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions” and that the company should only “minimize GHG emissions where it makes commercial sense,” as required by code or if it fits into a regional strategy.

BP declined CNN’s request for comment on the committee’s report.

The committee said documents uncovered also showed the fossil fuel industry has presented natural gas as a so-called “bridge fuel” to transition to cleaner sources of energy, all while doubling down on its long-term reliance on fossil fuels with no clear plan of action to full transition to clean energy.

A strategy slide presented to the Chevron Board of Directors from CEO Mike Wirth and obtained by the committee states that while Chevron sees “traditional energy business competitors retreating” from oil and gas, “Chevron’s strategy” is to “continue to invest” in fossil fuels to take advantage of consolidation in the industry.

In a 2016 email from a BP executive to John Mingé, then-Chairman and President of BP America, and others, about climate and emissions, an employee assessed that the company often adopted an obstructionist strategy with regulators, noting, “we wait for the rules to come out, we don’t like what we see, and then try to resist and block.”

“The fossil fuel industry has of late been involved in extensive “greenwashing”—misleading claims in advertisements, particularly on social media, claiming or suggesting that they are “Paris aligned,” and that they are committed to meaningful solutions,” Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor who has studied the fossil fuel industry’s rebuke of climate science and consulted for law firms that have brought suits against the fossil fuel industry, told CNN. “Numerous analyses shows that these claims are untrue.”

BP, Chevron, Exxon, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were the focus of Democratic lawmakers’ investigation. The companies have denied engaging in a disinformation campaign surrounding climate change and the role the industry has played in fueling it for decades. CNN has reached out to the companies and organizations for comment on the committee’s findings.

Todd Spitler, a spokesperson for Exxon, said in a statement the committee took internal company communications out of context.

“The House Oversight Committee report has sought to misrepresent ExxonMobil’s position on climate science, and its support for effective policy solutions, by recasting well intended, internal policy debates as an attempted company disinformation campaign,” Spitler said. “If specific members of the committee are so certain they’re right, why did they have to take so many things out of context to prove their point?”

Megan Bloomgren, the senior vice president for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement the industry has focused on producing “affordable, reliable energy while tackling the climate challenge,” and that “any allegations to the contrary are false.”

“The U.S. natural gas and oil industry has contributed to the significant progress the U.S. has made in reducing America’s CO2 emissions to near generational lows with the increased use of natural gas,” Bloomgren said. “We are poised to be a leader in the next generation of low carbon technologies, including CCUS and Hydrogen—technologies widely recognized to be critical to meet the world’s emissions reduction targets.”

Democratic lawmakers had hoped the committee’s hearings would be the fossil fuel industry’s “Big Tobacco” moment — a nod to the famous 1994 hearings when tobacco CEOs insisted that cigarettes were not addictive, triggering accusations of perjury and federal investigations.

The impact of House Oversight’s investigation into Big Oil will not be as immediate, but Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat and the chair of Oversight’s environmental subcommittee, said the findings have added to the historical record for the industry and its role in global warming.

“These hearings and reports have been historic because we succeeded in bringing in the heads of Exxon, Chevron, Shell, BP, API, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to testify under oath for the first time ever about efforts to mislead the public on climate and forced them to provide explosive internal documents” Khanna told CNN in a statement. “I have no doubt that this work will be analyzed for years to come and help deepen our understanding about the entire industry’s role in funding and facilitating climate disinformation.”

Democratic lawmakers said the oil and gas industry obstructed their investigation throughout the more than year-long process. Many of their requests for internal documents were heavily redacted by the companies, which did not specify reasons for withholding the information.

In other cases, documents were heavily redacted because companies like Exxon said the information was “proprietary and confidential,” though the lawmakers noted that is not a valid reason to withhold information in a committee subpoena.

“These companies know their climate pledges are inadequate but are prioritizing Big Oil’s record profits over the human costs of climate change,” Maloney said. “It’s time for the fossil fuel industry to stop lying to the American people and finally take serious steps to reduce emissions and address the global climate crisis they helped create.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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