Subpoenaed Fossil Fuel Documents Reveal an Industry Stuck in the Past

The industry is still running the same five-step plan, to the same end: preserving power, subsidies, and social license.

The BP-Husky Toledo Refinery stands at sunset in Oregon, Ohio, June 13, 2017.

The BP-Husky Toledo Refinery at sunset in Oregon, Ohio, on June 13, 2017.

Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s remarkable how little some industries’ strategies change over the decades. How little they need to change, given how effective they are. That holds especially true for the fossil fuel industry, which has revealed itself via documents submitted to Congress to be hopelessly, permanently trapped in the 1990s.

As part of its investigation into climate disinformation, the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed documents in November 2021 from four of the world’s largest oil companies; their U.S. trade association, the American Petroleum Institute; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber did not comply with the subpoena, but the rest submitted a variety of responsive documents, the most salient of which have been published by the Oversight Committee in two batches. The more than 1,500 pages include internal communications about media relations, advertising, and marketing campaigns from 2015 to 2021.

Taken together, they reveal that the industry’s approach on climate really hasn’t changed since scientists first started warning that the burning of fossil fuels was becoming a problem: push “solutions” that keep fossil fuels profitable, downplay climate impacts, overstate the industry’s commitments, and bully the media if they don’t stay on message. It’s the same five-step plan, deployed to the same end: preserving power, subsidies, and social license.

Step One: Set the Terms

The fossil fuel industry is exceedingly good at seizing the narrative before anyone else even thinks about it. It was doing polling, market research, and focus groups before most industries knew what those things were. So when it sets up the idea of gas as a “bridge fuel” to cleaner sources of energy, it knows how to make it so fundamental that it can come back to it again and again. The “low-carbon” (another winner!) strategies laid out in these documents could have been from the 1990s or even the 1980s when oil companies described “natural gas” (another one!) as an “alternative fuel.”

They’re once again pushing the idea that methane gas — a fossil fuel that emits a greenhouse gas some 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide — is somehow an alternative to fossil fuels. The plan for extending the life of the industry as long as possible appears to lean on “low-carbon solutions”: gas, a reduction in operational emissions and what they call “carbon intensity” — the CO2 emissions associated with each barrel of oil — and carbon capture and storage, or CSS, which they’re banking on as a way to sell business-as-usual as “low carbon.”

And despite the industry’s frequent assertions that it’s not subsidized by the federal government, various internal emails from the oil majors tell a different story.

In 2021 emails in which Shell is mulling whether to join a major carbon capture project with Exxon Mobil, one executive states that the project moving forward is entirely dependent on dramatically expanding 45Q — the tax credit for carbon capture — from what the government has proposed ($35 to $50 per ton of carbon sequestered) to $100 per ton of carbon sequestered. That price tag — $100 per ton of carbon — is one the industry fought against for decades when the shoe was on the other foot, and folks were talking about taxing carbon as opposed to storing it. Now, being able to store carbon and get the right price for it is critical to the industry, as is the government’s support of that paradigm. “If the government funding and regulations don’t happen, Exxon’s management team will not move forward,” the Shell executive writes.

The industry wants to see so much government funding for carbon capture locked in that there’s no choice but to continue down that path.

Throughout the documents, there’s a real sense of urgency around securing a future for gas and scaling up carbon capture (because it magically turns oil into “low-carbon” fuel). Exxon, for example, seems positively jubilant that “IPCC models predict need for CCS as part of future energy mix to reach 2C!”

The documents also make clear that the industry is intent on maximizing a small window of opportunity for CCS — getting the government to invest heavily in this “solution” before everyone figures out it’s not a solution so much as an enabler of the status quo. In a 2017 document outlining the potential for CCS on the Gulf Coast, Shell notes that “the window for CCS to remain relevant with governments and society is closing quickly and action needs to occur within the next decade.”

The industry wants to see so much government funding for CCS locked in that there’s no choice but to continue down that path. And the purpose is clear: enabling the continued burning of fossil fuels. “The value of CCS to Shell is the ability to decarbonize our products,” the document explains. CCS will also help Shell to “retain a larger market share for our products in the energy transition, in addition to reputational value.”

Step Two: Move the Goalposts

That 2 C thing is another persistent trend. While the rest of the world has only just begun to acknowledge that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is unlikely to happen, it turns out that the oil companies — all of which supposedly support the Paris climate agreement and its 1.5 C limit — were always shooting for 2. BP was talking about 2 C warming as the goal as early as 2017.

Chevron had officially skipped past 1.5 C as of 2020. The company also seems pretty cynical about the viability of the industry reaching net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, a commitment the United Nations sees as fundamental to keeping warming to 1.5 degrees or less. Fossil fuel companies, the aviation industry, utilities, and the U.S. government have signed onto this commitment.

Chevron has hedged a bit more, committing to net zero by 2050 only in its operations, which leaves out the emissions associated with the use of its oil and gas. And now we know why. A 2020 presentation to the company’s board of directors titled “Chevron’s Approach to Net Zero” points out that a 2050 goal will be much more expensive than, say, 2070. In a 2019 document put out by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative — a project that brings the global oil majors together to collaborate on climate solutions — Chevron suggests changing “net zero emissions” as a goal to “reduced emissions.”

Step Three: Social License

For all the eye-rolling and snark about their critics and how they just don’t understand the industry, oil executives remain deeply concerned about maintaining a social license to operate: tacit approval from the public to keep on keeping on, an acknowledgement that the benefits they deliver still outweigh the costs, even as the risks are increasing. Shell, the company that seems to be putting the most effort into actually transitioning — although still not what experts say is needed; none of the oil majors invest more than 5 percent of their capital in anything that’s not oil or gas — seems particularly concerned about this.

In a note to Shell’s executive committee, the company’s U.S. president, Gretchen Watkins, and VP of U.S. energy strategy, Jason Klein, explain that in the absence of federal policy on climate, states and cities have filled the void with policies that are often more aggressive than federal policy would be. “While this patchwork of policies and markets creates challenges for a coordinated U.S. energy transition,” they write, “it also creates opportunities for an integrated, respected and credible energy company like Shell to take on an increased leadership role to shape effective policy at multiple levels in the transition, while maintaining a strong societal license to operate.”

In a 2019 energy transition plan, Shell directors also lay out a U.S. reputation strategy, noting that while Shell is a leader among its U.S. peers, “our industry continues to have low credibility and trust with specific stakeholder groups (energy engaged audiences), amidst rising societal expectations on climate action.”

To address this problem, according to the directors, Shell must “secure partnerships with credible external influencers and commercial entities that support and strengthen societal license to operate and grow at country and asset level.”

Step Four: Campus Control

Standard Oil of New Jersey (Exxon Mobil today) was one of the first companies to invest heavily in university research. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, when U.S. companies were just starting to increase campus donations because they came with some appealing tax write-offs, Standard Oil Chair Frank Abrams saw the real value: shaping the minds of tomorrow’s leaders. He encouraged his fellow executives to focus on the “indirect value” of university donations, for example, reducing the number of people who think every problem can be solved by the government. Since Abrams’s day, corporate investing in universities has exploded. Fossil fuel companies fund not only science and technology research, but also public policy, economics, and law centers at campuses across the country, the more prestigious the better.

When students organized through Fossil-Free Research last year to demand that their universities stop taking these research funds, campus spokespeople lined up to defend the practice, saying that it didn’t influence the research. The first peer-reviewed study on the topic, which came out in Nature, told a different story. Researchers Douglas Almond, Xinming Du, and Anna Papp at Columbia University found that the funding sources of various university energy centers played a major role in those centers’ positions on fossil gas.

Fossil-funded centers “are more favorable in their reports towards natural gas than towards renewable energy,” the study found. Meanwhile, centers less dependent on fossil funding “show a reversed pattern with more neutral sentiment towards gas, and favor solar and hydro power.”

Documents BP submitted to Congress back this up. In a 2019 email exchange about the company’s partnership with Princeton, Bob Stout, BP’s former vice president and head of regulatory advocacy and policy, wrote: “These relationships (along with those we have with Harvard, Tufts and Columbia) are key parts of our long-term relationship-building and outreach to policy makers and influencers in the U.S. and globally. … We do not always agree on matters of policy, but we do get valuable intel on the evolving perspectives and priorities of the environmental community and are able to tell the story of what we are doing and why in a more personal and compelling way.”

Step Five: Creative Confrontation

Back in the 1970s, legendary Mobil VP Herb Schmertz pioneered the art of bullying journalists or, as he called it, “creative confrontation.” If journalists weren’t covering Mobil’s point of view, or he thought they were being too critical of Mobil, he called them up and let them know. And he let their bosses and their bosses’ bosses know too. Sometimes he threatened to pull advertising. Once, he cut off the Wall Street Journal from any information whatsoever: press releases, comments from executives, even quarterly earnings reports.

It’s similar to what the American Petroleum Institute and Shell tried to do to Hiroko Tabuchi, the New York Times’s climate accountability reporter. Publicists for the two entities followed Schmertz’s playbook in response to a tweet (now deleted) in which Tabuchi referenced the shared history of the fossil fuel industry and white supremacy, and again in response to a story about the American Chemistry Council, which counts several oil majors as members, lobbying against regulations that would limit the ability to sell single-use disposable plastic. Accusing Tabuchi of bias, inaccuracy, and misunderstanding the industry, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute reached out to her bosses, asking them to “do the right thing.”

If it were only a group of smug flaks congratulating themselves for sending “nastygrams” and saying things like “Let’s work on taking away their birthdays next,” it would be easy to dismiss as clownish theatrics. But there’s quite a bit of evidence that it works. Not just in the ’70s and ’80s, but also today.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who co-chairs the Oversight Committee and helped spearhead the investigation, says he thinks it worked to pull Tabuchi off certain types of climate stories. The Times did not respond to a request for comment on this assertion, and Tabuchi declined to comment. But after covering the committee’s hearings on climate disinformation for a year, Khanna said, “Hiroko’s not covering it anymore. She’s been taken off. So, you know, unfortunately Big Oil succeeds sometimes when they engage in this kind of bullying.”

The House Oversight Committee seems to be susceptible to pressure of some kind itself. Khanna previously told The Intercept that before Republicans take control of the House, the committee would release all the subpoenaed documents to the Senate to continue the investigation or at least finish reviewing them for pertinent information — a task the committee has not had the time or staff resources to complete. But the decision to release the documents has since been reversed, according to Khanna’s press secretary. The committee also decided not to send letters to the Department of Justice or the White House requesting that the investigation continue, Khanna staffers said.

Asked what might stop the fossil fuel industry from continuing to run this same strategy on repeat for the foreseeable future, Khanna said “accountability.” If the House Oversight Committee takes no action by January 2 to either release the documents to the Senate or recommend that the Biden administration pick up the inquiry, that goal will die alongside the unfinished investigation.

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