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Internal Documents Reveal Big Oil’s Plan for Profiting Amid Climate Pressures

The largest oil and gas companies are leveraging the climate crisis to further entrench their domination of energy markets.

A protester holds a sign reading "REMEMBER HURRICANE SANDY" during an outdoor demonstration in New York City, on October 29, 2021.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee recently released internal fuel company documents providing an insider’s view of what they say is a multi-year effort by four leading fossil fuel firms to greenwash their public image. The documents show employees and executives discussing climate policies and pledges they knew would do more to protect their business model than secure a meaningful reduction in pollution.

At first glance, the committee’s accompanying report on the climate disinformation is a partisan project and somewhat unsurprising given the fossil fuel industry’s history of misleading the public. However, a closer look reveals that the largest oil and gas companies are leveraging the climate crisis to further entrench their domination of energy markets across the world. The documents raise thorny questions for climate-minded Democrats, who found that industry groups will support liberal climate priorities such as methane regulation if that keeps oil and gas relevant and protects profits in the long run. Oil companies also “resist and block” environmental rules for pollution control they don’t like, as one employee of BP America observed in a 2016 email to executives obtained by the committee.

Democrats say Shell, BP, Chevron and Exxon sell a climate-friendly image that obscures their failure to make meaningful investments in the transition to cleaner energy despite blockbuster profits. Their report is the result of a months-long investigation and bitter wrangling over subpoenas seeking internal company documents.

Fossil fuel executives say one thing in public and another behind closed doors, according to House Democrats, who accused the companies of withholding information from the committee. While energy firms make public commitments to reduce emissions and divest from fossil fuels, the industry’s major players are moving aggressively to build new infrastructure and influence public policy in order to lock in oil and gas production for decades.

“The cynicism was breathtaking, and unfortunately, it was quite successful,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive Democrat from California, on NBC News. “It’s been a successful PR strategy.”

For Democrats, the report and release of internal company communications was one last chance to hold Big Oil accountable before the Republican majority takes over next month. Not a single Republican signed onto the report, which GOP lawmakers dismissed as partisan theatrics. Democrats called it “explosive.”

Among the revelations: Executives at Shell and BP admitted privately that plans to divest oil and gas assets might lower an individual company’s emissions but would not reduce emissions globally, because smaller companies are likely to buy them and continue extracting fossil fuels. In one email, a BP executive said divesting is an “important part of our strategy” for meeting climate commitments but cautioned that “these divestments may not directly lead to a reduction in absolute global emissions.”

“What exactly are we supposed to do instead of divesting,” wrote a Shell executive in an internal company email. “Pour concrete over the oil sands and burn the deed to the land so no one can buy them?”

“For the oil and gas industry, delay and distraction are the new denial,” said Anusha Narayanan, climate campaign director at Greenpeace USA, in a statement Monday. “The House Oversight Committee report shows that Exxon, Chevron, Shell, and BP continue their decades-long campaign of roadblocking true, science-based climate solutions that address the damage they are doing to our health and the destruction of the planet.”

The oil and gas industry disagrees. Megan Bloomgren, senior vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, said her industry is focused on both providing affordable energy and “tackling” climate change, and “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 told Truthout in an email.

However, methane emissions from the industry’s fracking boom are now a major greenhouse gas concern. API represents around 600 U.S. companies that extract and process oil and gas, and appears multiple times in the oversight committee’s report. In a March 2021 memorandum to API’s board, CEO Mike Sommers explained that API strategically supports limited regulations to reduce methane pollution from fracking, which provides “an opportunity to further secure the industry’s license to operate.” Democrats seized on “license to operate,” arguing that API’s support for mitigating methane from oil and gas wells, which is regularly “flared” or burned into the open air, is “intended to secure social acceptance for the continued production of fossil fuels.”

According to Democrats, this amounts to doing the right thing for the wrong reason, and that’s misleading to the public. API included methane regulations in a “climate action framework” now published on the group’s website, part of a broader push by the industry to keep a seat at the climate policy table. The Environmental Protection Agency has been developing regulations to reduce methane and other pollution since the Biden administration took over, and the industry likely sees the writing on the wall. Fracking for natural gas has helped lower carbon dioxide emissions by replacing coal, but methane in the Earth’s atmosphere has spiked to alarming levels at a result. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its impacts do not take centuries to appear. Environmentalists argue this essentially cancels the progress made on carbon.

“Big Oil doesn’t want the public to know that efforts to reduce emissions without phasing out oil and gas production are not enough to keep our planet livable,” Narayanan said.

Still, a major industry group has come out in support of sweeping pollution regulations that Democrats and environmentalists championed for years. House Democrats argue API’s support of certain regulations is politically convenient, but there are reasons to rally the industry behind the rules besides public relations. Like API, a certain sector of the industry — particularly large companies such as Shell and BP — also support the rules, which require investments in new infrastructure to trap and process methane instead of venting into the air. Wealthy companies can absorb the costs much more easily than smaller competitors, who are much more likely to oppose the rules. An internal presentation for Chevron’s Board of Directors from July 2021 noted that “traditional energy business competitors are retreating” and the company should take advantage of market “consolidation,” according to the report.

Despite public assurances that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables, Democrats say the big four fossil fuel companies have privately doubled down on long-term reliance on fossil fuels. The United States and other wealthy countries have pledged to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which requires a steep decline in fossil fuel use, but the largest companies will not stop drilling for oil and gas on their own.

“Even though Big Oil CEOs admitted to my committee that their products are causing a climate emergency, 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,” said Oversight Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney in a statement.

Bloomgren, on the other hand, said the American Petroleum Institute will continue to work with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reduce climate-warming pollution.

The oil and gas industry, of course, is a dominant source of that pollution. Behind closed doors, executives wagered that agreeing to reduce at least some emissions will secure the social and political “license” to keep drilling.