It's Getting Harder for Oil Companies to Keep Up This Lie

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Photo credit: ADRIAN DENNIS - Getty Images
Photo credit: ADRIAN DENNIS - Getty Images

On Thursday, the CEOs of several oil companies met a House oversight committee that wanted to know when they knew they were helping the planet burn and what they were planning to do about it. Some members of the committee were, shall we say, skeptical about what they were hearing. Rep. Katie Porter, for example, brought visual aids. From the Washington Post:


Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) held up two jars of M&M candies to demonstrate the sizable difference between Shell Oil’s planned investments in fossil fuels and in renewable energy. “Does this look like a huge undertaking to you?” Porter asked Shell Oil president Gretchen Watkins, pointing to a nearly empty jar of M&Ms that she said symbolized Shell’s plan to spend $2 billion to $3 billion on renewable energy this year.


Porter then gestured at a second, overflowing jar of M&Ms that she said represented Shell’s plan to spend $19 billion to $22 billion in the near term on new fossil fuel exploration, as detailed in its 2020 annual report. Watkins responded that “there needs to be both a demand and a supply of clean energy, which is why we’re working very closely with our customers so that that demand increases over time.”


Porter shot back: “To me, this does not look like an adequate response to one of the defining challenges of our time. This is green-washing. Shell is trying to fool people into thinking it’s addressing the climate crisis when what it’s actually doing is to continue to put money into fossil fuels.”


M&M’s? Somebody knows the true spirit of Halloween.

As it happens, over at theconversation.com, we find that a researcher from Stanford named Benjamin Franta had been working on the same problem. What he discovered at archives all over the world is stunning. As long ago as 1959, physicist Edward Teller, who developed the hydrogen bomb, warned a petroleum council meeting of the dangers of excess carbon dioxide.

“Whenever you burn conventional fuel,” Teller explained, “you create carbon dioxide. … Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect.” If the world kept using fossil fuels, the ice caps would begin to melt, raising sea levels. Eventually, “all the coastal cities would be covered,” he warned.


I mean, really, 1959?

Franka has piled one bit of evidence after another that America’s oil companies knew full well what damage they were doing. In fact, they knew better than just about anyone else. He cites an American Petroleum Institute meeting from 1965, where the effects were discussed in detail in a report that stated that there still was time,

“…to save the world’s peoples from the catastrophic consequences of pollution, but time is running out. One of the most important predictions of the report is that carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas at such a rate that by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate.”


Franka also found a secret API task force that studied the effects of carbon dioxide on the climate in the late 1970s, a 1980 report from the same task force warning of a desolate future if the climate continued to be damaged, and an internal Exxon report predicting almost exactly the state of the climate that we are seeing today. This report was circulated in 1981. And Exxon wasn’t the only corporation that was keeping secret that it knew to be true.

Other oil companies knew the effects their products were having on the planet too. In 1986, the Dutch oil company Shell finished an internal report nearly 100 pages long, predicting that global warming from fossil fuels would cause changes that would be “the greatest in recorded history,” including “destructive floods,” abandonment of entire countries and even forced migration around the world. That report was stamped “CONFIDENTIAL” and only brought to light in 2018 by Jelmer Mommers, a Dutch journalist. In October 2021, I and two French colleagues published another study showing through company documents and interviews how the Paris-based oil major Total was also aware of global warming’s catastrophic potential as early as the 1970s. Despite this awareness, we found that Total then worked with Exxon to spread doubt about climate change.


It was clear that the Democratic members of the committee had been waiting to grill these witnesses for a while. Rep. Jamie Raskin, for example, asked the panel of CEOs if they accepted the fact that “the First Amendment does not protect fraudulent commercial speech.” In response, he got a puppet show. From the Post:


All four executives gave variations of the same answer. BP CEO David Lawler said he is not “an expert on that particular topic,” while Chevron CEO Michael Wirth said he is “not a constitutional scholar and would trust those who are.” Raskin, a former constitutional law professor, saved his sharpest questioning for Exxon CEO Darren Woods. He noted that after Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) sued Exxon for allegedly deceiving consumers about climate change, the oil company countersued in a federal court in Texas, alleging that Healey was punishing Exxon for exercising its First Amendment rights.


In all, the House committee drew clear and careful parallels between what the oil company executives were saying, and what the oil companies had done, and the decades-long effort by the tobacco companies to bury what they knew about the health-effects of smoking. Of course, the cover-ups by the tobacco companies only hurt those people who started smoking in the first place. What the oil companies have done one day may arraign them for negligent homicide of an entire planet.

I mean, 1959? C’mon, people.

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