For the first time ever, the executives from four major oil companies and two of the industry’s most powerful front groups testified before Congress about their decades-long effort to spread climate disinformation and block legislation that would reduce US dependence on fossil fuels.
Republicans vehemently opposed the premise of Thursday’s House oversight hearing. Yet within the first round of GOP questioning, led by one of the industry’s staunchest defenders, ranking committee member James Comer of Kentucky, the executives inadvertently proved why they were summoned to testify under oath in the first place.
Comer asked each oil executive if they had “ever approved a disinformation campaign”. Then, one after another, the heads of Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP all repeated that no, they had never approved any such effort.
Here’s the problem: that’s a lie.
There can be no doubt that Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP have all engaged in false advertising, aka disinformation campaigns, during the tenure of their current CEOs. In fact, one could argue that the vast majority of the industry’s advertising fits this definition.
Take Exxon. For years, Exxon has been spending millions of dollars to run ads about its investments in algae fuel, even though it has spent very little on the actual research and has no plan to bring the product to market. The company hopes to create a “net impression” among consumers that Exxon is in the business of climate solutions, when it’s really still in the business of climate destruction. It’s textbook false advertising – which is one reason Exxon is being taken to court for this disinformation.
Or look at Chevron. In the 2020 ad “Butterfly,” Chevron highlighted its commitment to carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a climate solution. According to the New York Times, however, Chevron is only spending “pocket change” on these technologies as it “doubles down” on oil and gas production. Worse yet: the technology Chevron is touting doesn’t actually work. Chevron’s largest CCS project in Australia has been “a disaster from the beginning” and is now just venting CO2 into the atmosphere.
Shell provides a company-wide example. Over the last year, Shell has touted its new net zero commitment as evidence that the company is committed to climate action. Company documents, however, say, “Shell’s operating plans and budgets do not reflect Shell’s Net-Zero Emissions target.” Translation: our advertising is false.
Finally, BP. The company that once tried to rebrand itself “Beyond Petroleum”, faced legal complaints in 2019 about running false advertising in the UK that misled the public about the company’s commitment to renewable energy.
Those are just a few of the more recent examples from decades’ worth of disinformation that big oil companies and their front groups have been pumping into our information ecosystem. As the journalists Molly Taft and Emily Atkin wrote recently, this disinformation campaign played out around the hearing itself: in the days leading up to the event, the top energy and climate newsletters in DC were all inundated with big oil advertisements touting the companies’ supposed climate commitments.
Americans can assume these CEOs are lying about their company’s practices, but in order to really hold them accountable, we need documents that show that lie in clear, black ink.
That’s why it’s so important that at the end of Thursday’s hearing, committee chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said that she would issue subpoenas to get more documents out of the oil companies and their front groups. Whether we get the evidence via subpoenas or leaks from an industry insider, the truth is likely to come out eventually: big oil has been lying to the public about the damage fossil fuels are doing to the climate, just like big tobacco lied about the damage cigarettes were doing to our health.
At Thursday’s hearing, each oil executive said they had never approved a disinformation campaign, even though we can see those campaigns with our very own eyes. Whether that moment becomes as iconic as when the tobacco executives lied about cigarettes is all up to what happens next. Stay tuned.
Jamie Henn is the founder and director of Fossil Free Media, home of the Clean Creatives campaign, which is pressuring advertising and PR firms to stop working with the fossil fuel industry.