Activists in Puget Sound, Washington, demonstrate against Shell’s drilling plans in the Arctic in 2015. The company acknowledged divesting from places like Washington, where it saw political pressure to do so, in favor of business as usual in places like Louisiana, where it felt less resistance. David Ryder/Getty Images
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It is well documented that major oil and gas companies have known about the dangers of the climate crisis since the late 1970s, but decided to double down on their existing business models and fund climate denial.
Now, new internal documents subpoenaed as part of an inquiry by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform show how the fossil fuel industry has updated its misinformation playbook for the 21st century by publicly calling for net-zero plans and renewables Promotes technologies that it rejects behind closed doors.
“As we face increasingly deadly extreme weather events around the world, fossil fuel companies are making record profits and ramping up their misleading public relations tactics to distract from their central role in fueling the climate crisis,” said committee chair Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY ) according to a press release. “My committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘pressuring’ the public. These companies claim they are part of the solution to climate change, but internal documents show they are carrying on as usual.”
The documents were subpoenaed as part of a year-long House of Representatives investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to mislead the public about the risks of its business model in a warming world and were disclosed to the public in a memo released Sept. 14. They include internal communications from oil majors BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron that show the companies are unwilling to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to cutting emissions and moving away from fossil fuels .
“The committee’s investigation showed that instead of outright denying global warming, the fossil fuel industry has ‘greenwashed’ its footprint through misleading advertising and climate promises — without significantly reducing emissions,” the memo said.
For example, Shell has promoted its “sky scenario” to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but internal emails confirm that it “has nothing to do with our business plans”.
In addition, Shell’s communications policy tells employees to make it clear that achieving net-zero emissions is a global goal, not a Shell-specific one.
“Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon emissions to levels that are not economically viable,” the guidelines read.
Fossil fuel companies also spend a lot of effort promoting alternative technologies that they trust less internally. Exxon launched a $68 million publicity campaign for its research into making biofuels from algae, but privately admitted the technology is “decades away from the scale we need.”
DeSmog pointed out that oil companies have expressed similar skepticism about carbon capture and storage. In October 2019, a Shell official urged another to “be cautious about project specifics” ahead of an event in Washington, DC regarding the technology.
Finally, despite the renaming to Beyond Petroleum, BP said carbon capture would “enable full utilization of fossil fuels during the energy transition and beyond.”
“What these documents are is a glimpse of how these technologies are viewed within the corporations,” Kathy Mulvey, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate and energy accountability campaign leader, told DeSmog.
The documents also revealed a lack of respect for local communities and climate activists. Shell said it is divesting greenhouse gas-intensive assets in areas where there is political pressure to do so, such as California and Washington. However, it would keep them in places where there were fewer pullbacks, including “China, Singapore, Malaysia, Louisiana…”.
That statement raised the hackles of Gulf Coast community activists who have long fought to keep their homes from being a victim of the industry.
“If the industry doesn’t see the efforts of frontline fighters in these communities, it’s because they don’t want to. That’s because they’re in the pockets of our elected officials and don’t care about the communities they invade,” Roishetta Ozane, Healthy Gulf’s organizing director, told DeSmog.
Internal memos also complained about writer and activist Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, and the Sunrise movement. One Shell employee even wished members of the latter would experience “bugs” on a travel campaign.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they wish you bed bugs, then you win,” replied Sunrise chief executive Varshini Prakash, as reported by The Guardian.
Prakash’s response underscores that the documents show how climate activism is affecting businesses, leading to surprisingly honest reflections in some cases. When Shell sent out a tweet asking the public what they were doing to reduce emissions, it received a massive outpouring of internet backlash, which a communications executive admitted was “not entirely unfounded,” reported The Guardian. The executive even agreed that the tweet could be interpreted as “gaslighting.”
However, in response to the release of the documents, the companies bolstered their greener public image and criticized the committee for picking out the most inflammatory comments.
“[The] The selective publication of dated emails without context is a deliberate attempt to create a narrative that does not reflect the commitment of ExxonMobil and its employees to address climate change and to play a leadership role in the transition to a net-zero future.” a said a company spokesman, as reported by The Guardian.
A Shell spokesman similarly said the released announcements were pulled from nearly half a million pages about the company’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels.
“As part of this pursuit, there are challenging internal and external discussions that signal Shell’s intent to partner and share pathways that we believe are critical to becoming a net-zero energy company,” the spokesperson said.
BP, meanwhile, reiterated to DeSmog its commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050.
“We have provided the committee with hundreds of thousands of pages of documents. Some of the referenced emails contain clumsy attempts at humor that do not reflect bp’s values and should not distract from our actions,” the spokesperson said.
However, the congressmen behind the investigation pointed out that the companies’ internal statements fit their longstanding pattern of behavior on climate issues.
“It is well known that for decades these companies have actively misled the American public about the risks of climate change,” co-lead investigator and chair of the subcommittee on the environment, Ro Khanna (D-CA), told the New York Times reported . “The problem is that they continue to mislead.”