Now, new internal documents subpoenaed as part of a House Committee on Oversight and Reform investigation reveal how the fossil fuel industry has updated its misinformation playbook for the 21st century by publicly touting net-zero plans and renewable technologies it dismisses behind closed doors.
“As we face more deadly, extreme weather around the globe, fossil fuel companies are reaping record profits and ramping up their misleading PR tactics to distract from their central role in fueling the climate crisis,” committee chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) said in a press release. “My Committee’s investigation leaves no doubt that, in the words of one company official, Big Oil is ‘gaslighting’ the public. These companies claim they are part of the solution to climate change, but internal documents reveal that they are continuing with business as usual.”
The documents were subpoenaed as part of a year-long House investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to mislead the public about the risks of their business model in a warming world and announced to the public in a memo published September 14. They feature internal communications from major oil companies BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron that reveal the companies are not willing to put their money where their mouths are when it comes to reducing emissions and shifting away from fossil fuels.
“The Committee’s investigation has shown that, rather than outright deny global warming, the fossil fuel industry has ‘greenwashed’ its record through deceptive advertising and climate pledges — without meaningfully reducing emissions,” the memo said.
For example, Shell has promoted its “Sky scenario” to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, but internal emails affirm that it has “nothing to do with our business plans.”
Further, Shell communications guidelines tell employees they should make clear that reaching net-zero emissions is a worldwide goal, not a Shell-specific one.
“Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense,” the guidelines said.
Fossil fuel companies also spend a lot of effort advertising alternative technologies that they have less confidence in internally. Exxon launched a $68-million ad campaign on its research into making biofuels from algae but admitted in private that the technology was “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 told another to “be cagey about project specifics” regarding the technology before a Washington, DC event.
Finally, BP — despite rebranding itself Beyond Petroleum — said that carbon capture would “enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond.”
“What these documents are is an insight into how these technologies are viewed inside the companies,” Union of Concerned Scientists accountability campaign director for climate and energy Kathy Mulvey told DeSmog.
The documents also revealed a lack of respect for local communities and climate activists. Shell said it was divesting of greenhouse-gas intensive assets in areas where there was political pressure to do so, such as California or Washington. However, it would keep them in places where there was less pushback, including “China, Singapore, Malaysia, Louisiana…”
This statement raised the hackles of community activists on the Gulf Coast, who have long fought to keep their homes from remaining a sacrifice zone to the industry.
“If industry doesn’t see the efforts of frontline fighters in these communities it’s because they don’t want to. It’s because they are in the pockets of our elected officials and they don’t care about the communities they invade,” Healthy Gulf organizing director Roishetta Ozane told DeSmog.
Internal memos also complained about writer and activist Bill McKibben, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign and the Sunrise Movement. A Shell staffer even wished that members of the latter would experience “bedbugs” on a traveling campaign.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they wish bedbugs on you, then you win,” Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash said in response, as The Guardian reported.
Prakash’s response underscores that the documents show how climate activism is having an impact on the companies, in some cases prompting some surprisingly honest reflection. When Shell sent a tweet asking the public what they were doing to reduce emissions, it received a massive wave of internet backlash that a communications executive admitted was “not totally without merit,” The Guardian reported. The executive even agreed that the tweet could be interpreted as “gaslighting.”
In response to the release of the documents, however, the companies doubled-down on their greener public image and criticized the committee for cherry-picking the most inflammatory comments.
“[The] selective publication of dated emails, without context, is a deliberate attempt to generate a narrative that does not reflect the commitment of ExxonMobil and its employees, to address climate change and play a leading role in the transition to a net-zero future,” a company spokesperson said, as The Guardian reported.
A Shell spokesperson similarly said that the communications published were taken from almost half a million pages about the company’s efforts to move away from fossil fuels.
“Within that pursuit are challenging internal and external discussions that signal Shell’s intent to form partnerships and share pathways we deem critical to becoming a net-zero energy business,” the spokesperson said.
BP, meanwhile, reaffirmed its commitment to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 to DeSmog.
“We provided hundreds of thousands of pages of documents to the committee. Some of the emails referenced contain inartful attempts at humor that do not reflect the values of bp and should not distract from our actions,” the spokesperson said.
But the congresspeople behind the investigation pointed out that the companies’ internal statements fit with their long-standing pattern of behavior when it comes to the climate.
“It’s well established that these companies actively misled the American public for decades about the risks of climate change,” investigation co-lead and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) said, as The New York Times reported. “The problem is that they continue to mislead.”