America’s oil companies are trying to rebrand themselves as part of the solution to the climate crisis, launching a campaign to counter top Democrats’ proposals to rapidly cut pollution from the power plants and cars that run on the industry’s petroleum and natural gas.
They say natural gas – a fossil fuel that emits heat-trapping carbon dioxide – is helping to slow climate disruption by providing an alternative to coal.
“We’re taking our message of energy progress to every corner of the country to show just what’s at stake in Washington and in state capitols around the country,” said Mike Sommers, CEO of the oil trade group the American Petroleum Institute (API), on a press call announcing the plan.
The campaign is part of a strategy in which the oil industry has funneled billions of dollars into its defense, threatening to outpace climate action advocates, say frustrated environmental activists who are increasingly calling on Democrats in Congress to take a tougher line on the sector.
But Sommers depicted a dark future if a presidential candidate who wants to ban fracking for natural gas wins the 2020 election: millions of jobs lost, hundreds of billions of dollars more for household energy costs and a global recession.
However, opponents of the industry say the only path to significant US climate action is through legislation and that lawmakers won’t be able to legislate unless they reveal how the industry has controlled the public dialogue around climate change and put a stop to its misdeeds.
Geoffrey Supran, a research associate who studies global warming politics at Harvard University, is urging House committees to demand more information from oil companies about their influence over public policy. Supran said obtaining corporate documents is “one of the most important actions Congress could take to address the climate crisis”.
“The reality is that as much as we know about fossil fuel interests’ denial and delay, we’ve really found those skeletons in the closet just by looking through a tiny keyhole – everything we know is based on just a few hundred documents scrounged from various sources,” Supran said. “From my perspective every indication of this evidence is once that closet door gets blown open, the skeletons are going to come tumbling out.”
Walking through Washington’s national airport this holiday season, travelers saw a type of advertisement that is becoming more mainstream – it pops up on social media, in commercial breaks for streaming video services, in newspapers and on the radio. A friendly-looking older woman in a hard hat beams at the camera. “Thanks to natural gas, the US is leading the way in reducing emissions,” the sign reads.
The ad campaign, called We’re On It, is sponsored by API – which represents the oil companies that have contributed significantly to the climate crisis.
While it’s true that US climate pollution is declining in large part because of the switch from coal to natural gas, scientists say far more drastic action is needed to slow climate change. And forecasts show natural gas threatening continued progress.
As the American public has become more aware of the climate crisis, oil companies have fought back.
Over roughly the last three decades, five major US oil companies have spent a total of at least $3.6bn on advertisements – not counting their investments in public relations programs like sponsored beach clean-ups, or their influence through trade associations, dark money groups and campaign donations.
Advertising spending has increased as politicians have paid more attention to climate change and API’s campaign comes as progressive candidates bidding for the White House, such as the US senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, propose to ban fracking – a drilling method that has unlocked huge supplies of natural gas and driven down the cost of the fuel.
Any renewed investigation from Congress could reveal more about how the industry has tried to sway public opinion.
Over roughly the last three decades, five major US oil companies have spent a total of at least $3.6 billion on advertisements
Annual promotional spending of major oil companies (1986 – 2015)
Investigative reporting has already shown that Exxon has known since at least the 1960s that its products were causing global warming. But Exxon has fought back, saying it is the victim of “a coordinated campaign perpetuated by activist groups with the aim of stigmatizing ExxonMobil”.
Exxon touts itself instead as an answer to the climate crisis. The top advertisement on Exxon’s YouTube page touts research on making biofuels from algae in order to cut climate pollution, but the technique is currently prohibitively expensive, and the research represents a tiny portion of Exxon’s budget.
In response to questions from the Guardian, an Exxon spokesman, Casey Norton, said Exxon is “committed to doing our part”.
“The world faces a dual challenge: meeting growing demand for energy while also reducing environmental impacts, including the risks of climate change,” Norton said.
Norton maintains that “all forms of energy are needed”, including natural gas and renewables, although scientists have concluded humans will have to stop using fossil fuels entirely to stem the crisis.
In the call with reporters, API’s CEO took a similar stance. He acknowledged the industry has a responsibility to help slow emissions that are causing rising temperatures, but he said the demand for affordable energy is growing and American fossil fuel companies will meet it.
Pressed to commit to any significant goal to curb emissions, Sommers said API could back some bipartisan legislation to incentivize technology that would capture carbon dioxide so that it cannot enter the atmosphere.
“That’s legislation that’s supported by far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats, but it’s some place in the middle where we think we can meet and we can work together on this key priority,” Sommers said.
Critics of the oil industry say the Democrat-led House should be aggressive in seeking to counter the industry’s narrative. Some want Democrats to call executives into hearings and subpoena internal records about their influence campaigns – one of the most powerful tools available to Congress.
But that hasn’t happened. Instead of going directly for the oil companies, House committees have instead been holding dozens of hearings and introducing legislation about ways to cut pollution and help people affected by the climate crisis.
“Our oversight staff decided that OK, rather than kind of punching an industry that’s already pretty down in the public image, there are plenty of other things they also needed and wanted to pursue, so subpoenaing big oil just didn’t really rise to the top of the heap,” the staffer said.
Supran, who works with Harvard climate politics expert Naomi Oreskes, says they have a collection of information that could help Democrats determine which questions to ask and which documents to demand.
“Historical record points to a number of individuals, documents, and questions that could help Congress get to the bottom of how the fossil fuel regime misled America,” Supran said.
The other route – which Democrats are already pursuing – is state lawsuits against companies. But those challenges could take much longer and aren’t guaranteed to succeed.
Robert Brulle, a visiting professor of environmental sociology at Brown University who co-authored the research tallying oil spending on ads, said the findings are just the tip of the iceberg. Brulle has previously found that more than $2bn was spent lobbying Congress on climate legislation between 2000 and 2016.
He says lawmakers should investigate the oil industry the way the former congressman Henry Waxman took on tobacco companies in the 1990s.
“I think what we’ll find is that the fossil fuel campaigns are going to dwarf what the tobacco industry did. It’s an order of magnitude larger,” Brulle said.
Some accuse Democrats of fearing a backlash from the oil industry – which still donates to Democratic campaigns. They say moderate Democrats might be trying to stay civil with major companies because it will be easier to pass climate legislation with their support.
But it’s hard to imagine the industry backing substantial action that would limit oil production and use – which scientists say is required to avoid catastrophe.
I think what we’ll find is that the fossil fuel campaigns are going to dwarf what the tobacco industry did
So far, congressional efforts have only scratched the surface of the sector’s influence. In October, the oversight committee reviewed evidence of how much Exxon has known about the climate crisis and for how long. The Democrat-only climate committee in the Senate also held a hearing on dark money and climate change. The Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse urged his colleagues in the House to use their majority to get tougher with oil companies – subpoenaing their records if necessary.
“When we catch the fossil fuel industry spending money in these campaigns, we’re only seeing a sliver of the total operation,” Whitehouse said in a more recent interview with the Guardian. “I think it’s hard to counter their message effectively because remember – they have a $600bn annual subsidy that they’re defending, according to the [International Monetary Fund].
“The idea that some other entity, particularly some struggling charitable organization, is going to be able to go toe-to-toe in spending and outspend them is not really feasible.”
Despite fossil fuel companies massive spending, they have continued to lose public support. Elected officials just haven’t followed the shift.
A majority – 60% of Americans – want to “dramatically reduce” fossil fuel use in 10 or 20 years, according to Gallup. And between 2013 and 2019, the percentage of people who wanted to emphasize oil production has dropped from 46% to 28%.
“If you take climate change seriously, then you have to think about what your path is to getting a serious climate bill,” Whitehouse said. “And the path to a serious climate bill requires disabling the fossil fuel industry’s obstruction apparatus that has been the thing that has prevented that from happening.”