Oil and gas companies are spending millions of dollars on campaigns to fight climate regulations at the same time as touting their dedication to a low-carbon future, according to a joint analysis by the Guardian and InfluenceMap.

Their global PR campaigns on social media promote a commitment to a green, low-carbon future, but across the US in particular, specific local campaigns are obstructing tighter regulations on fossil fuel extraction.

In many cases, oil and gas companies are using direct advertising but some targeted lobbying appears to be more opaque. It is channelled through so called “community” groups – which are being funded by fossil fuel companies.

The Guardian has collaborated with leading scientists and NGOs to expose, with exclusive data, investigations and analysis, the fossil fuel companies that are perpetuating the climate crisis – some of which have accelerated their extraction of coal, oil and gas even as the devastating impact on the planet and humanity was becoming clear.

The investigation has involved more than 20 Guardian journalists working across the world for the past six months.

The project focuses on what the companies have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions they are responsible for, since 1965. The analysis, undertaken by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, calculates how much carbon is emitted throughout the supply chain, from extraction to use by consumers. Heede said: "The fact that consumers combust the fuels to carbon dioxide, water, heat and pollutants does not absolve the fossil fuel companies from responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the carbon era and accelerating the climate crisis toward the existential threat it has now become."

One aim of the project is to move the focus of debate from individual responsibilities to power structures – so our reporters also examined the financial and lobbying structures that let fossil fuel firms keep growing, and discovered which elected politicians were voting for change. 

Another aim of the project is to press governments and corporations to close the gap between ambitious long-term promises and lacklustre short-term action. The UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating. Reining in our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerating the transition to renewable energy has never been more urgent.

A new study of Facebook’s advertising disclosure platform by InfluenceMap suggests oil companies and their trade groups have spent $17m directly on political social media advertisements since May 2018.

ExxonMobil spent $9.6m – by far the biggest sum – ConocoPhillips $910,000 and BP $790,000.

These ads include PR highlighting low carbon alternatives and at the same time involve direct lobbying against climate initiatives and the promotion of continued fossil fuel extraction in the energy mix.

BP’s “possibilities everywhere” ad campaign on Facebook was launched just weeks after it joined big oil companies to use a “community” group to fight against a bill restricting fracking in Colorado, known as Proposition 112.

BP’s Facebook ad

Prop 112 aimed to increase the distance fracking wells are set back from houses, schools and hospitals from 500ft (about 150 metres) to 2,500ft (760 metres).

It was designed to protect communities and the environment, and promote the transition from fossil fuels, according to those behind the bill.

But the campaign by a “grassroots” group Protect Colorado helped to defeat the bill by a margin of 200,000 votes last November. Protect Colorado’s Facebook page and website list it as a community organisation.

They make no mention that the organisation was given $41 million by the oil and gas industry and its trade groups between January and December 2018, according to campaign declarations to the Colorado Secretary of State.

BP gave Protect Colorado $300,000 in October 2018, a month after relocating its US onshore headquarters from Houston to Denver. The move was to help it tap the state’s estimated reserves of 1.3bn barrels of oil and exploit increased production, which has made Colorado the country’s fifth largest oil producer.

Guardian analysis of Facebook’s ad disclosure platform reveals Protect Colorado had an influence reach of up to 3.3 million impressions in the weeks before the vote, in a state with a population of about 5 million people.

The out-of-state fracking firms Noble Energy and Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, based in Houston, Texas, put $6m each into Protect Colorado.

The oil and gas firm ConocoPhillips gave the group $1m, Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services provided $749,000 and the Colorado Petroleum Council gave $4.5m to Protect Colorado.

A sign in Denver last year urges voters to reject Proposition 112.
A sign in Denver last year urges voters to reject Proposition 112. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP

Anne Lee Foster, the communications director at Colorado Rising, which raised $1.2m for its campaign promoting Prop 112, said: “It felt like an attack on our democracy, where you have these corporations spending millions and millions of dollars, often out-of-state interests, fighting citizens who are simply trying to protect their families.

“We lost by 200,000 votes, so yes, 100% we believe the vote was swayed by the social media push they financed. They created doubt. They exploited people’s fears that the setback would mean big job losses.”

The Guardian contacted Protect Colorado but it failed to respond. The Guardian also contacted all the oil and gas companies involved in the campaigning.

BP confirmed it had opposed Prop 112. “BP is open to, and will continue to engage in, substantive discussions about regulatory efforts to address the impacts of oil and gas development.

“We also remain committed to safe and reliable operations in Colorado – and everywhere we operate – as we work to meet society’s demand for cleaner, better energy.”

At the time of going to press there were no other comments provided.

The use of groups that term themselves grassroots community organisations but are funded by major companies is known as “astroturfing”.

In 2014, a leaked document from the Western States Petroleum Association – the oil and gas trade body in states including Washington, Oregon and California – detailed the use of such community groups to push back against climate campaigners and the anti-oil agenda – something WSPA described as “the worst of times”.

Research for The Guardian by InfluenceMap has uncovered various examples of so called astro turfing. Within the Facebook adverts, the funders tend to be disclosed as the named group behind the adverts with no information on who ultimately controls these groups. Only through further research does oil company support become more clear.

In Texas a campaign opposing new regulations on oil pipelines in Senate bill 421 is led by Texans for Natural Gas, which is listed as a community group on Facebook.

It describes itself as a “grassroots organisation” that gives a voice to those who support Texas oil and natural gas production.

The Facebook ads against SB 421 are listed as being funded directly by Texans for Natural Gas. The small print at the bottom of the group’s website states: “We are supported by five of the state’s leading energy companies – Apache Corp, EnerVest, EOG Resources, Kinder Morgan and XTO Energy” (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil).

Measure G, a bill to ban new fracking and conventional oil and gas wells in the California county of San Luis Obispo, but allow existing facilities to continue, was defeated last year after an extensive industry-funded campaign against the proposed law, which spent more than $160,000 on more than 500 Facebook adverts, according to the ad library.

Major oil industry corporations donated about $8m to the No on Measure G campaign, according to local campaign finance filings. Chevron donated half that sum, while Aera Energy, a joint venture between Shell and ExxonMobil, contributed $900,000.

The campaign in support of the measure raised only $243,000 in the same period.

Shell said it opposed Measure G because “it would have shut down a century-old industry in the county, costing hundreds of local legacy jobs, millions in taxes to local coffers and cut off critical energy to an area of the country that has long struggled to keep up with growing demand.

“While we share the view that a low-carbon economy will only be possible through a combination of more renewables and biofuels, efficiency standards, CCS [carbon capture and storage] and a carbon tax, cleaner and more convenient hydrocarbons are still needed to provide a full suite of energy products for the growing global population – especially in areas of industry and transportation that are proving difficult to abate,” a Shell spokesperson said.

Between September and November 2018, the No on Measure G campaign published several hundred Facebook adverts encouraging residents of San Luis Obispo to oppose the law, according to a Guardian analysis.

A No on Measure G ad.
A No on Measure G ad. Photograph: Courtesy of No on Measure G

Most of the adverts suggested the measure would cause economic damage, such as job losses, or an increased reliance on foreign oil, and suggested continued fossil fuel use was part of a “transition to a clean energy economy”.

Last year BP donated $13m to a campaign, also supported by Chevron, that successfully stopped a carbon tax in Washington state – $1m of which was spent on social media ads, research shows.


Sandra Laville and David Pegg, with analytics from Michael Barton , Sam Cutler and team

The GuardianTramp

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