Big Oil is spending more money now than ever before on elaborate, deceptive public relations strategies to thwart climate policy, a PR expert told a United States congressional hearing, as freshly released internal emails revealed how fossil executives watered down the language of their climate commitments, mocked activists, and derided Americans in general.
“The U.S. oil and gas sector has always pushed for policies that allow for new fossil fuel expansion, and against policies that would reduce demand,” expert witness Christine Arena, former vice president at Edelman, told a U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing, held September 14 to investigate how PR firms help spread climate disinformation.
“But what has changed recently is the intensity of the industry’s pursuits, and the vast resources it deploys through public relations and lobbying efforts meant to crush potential regulatory obstacles in its path.”
None of the PR firms invited to the hearing showed up, reports DeSmog Blog, but Arena—who now researches and exposes fossil industry obfuscation—offered some insight into their activities, which she said have expanded beyond traditional marketing practices.
Arena said PR firms use a three-pronged strategy to advance the interests of their fossil clients: they burnish the corporate image, mobilize “astroturf” groups that promote themselves as “grassroots,” and delegitimize the opposition.
Under the heading of image polishing, she said the fossil sector promoted its products as the gateway to America’s energy independence during the first six months of Russia’s war in Ukraine, while misleading the public by blaming climate policy for higher energy prices.
Arena also described how DC-based Story Partners—one of the PR firms that failed to attend the hearing—heavily deployed “astroturf” campaigns in Colorado in 2018, ahead of a vote seeking to impose greater limits on how close a fracking drill site could get to schools and homes.
“The industry poured money into that election, outspending community and environmental groups by a factor of more than 30 to one,” DeSmog reports. Story Partners ran two astroturf campaigns for fracking firm Noble Energy, based on their research finding that setback distances declined when voters heard about the “devastating consequences” it would have for the economy. Story Partners still displays its campaign to defeat the ballot initiative on its website as a successful case study of how it protected its client’s assets, DeSmog says.
A day before the fossil malfeasance hearing—the third of its kind—the Committee on Oversight and Reform released a memo saying the fossil industry is misleading the public about its commitment to emissions reductions. It includes the committee’s preliminary findings from a year of studying internal documents—unwillingly supplied by some of America’s biggest fossil companies.
In this vast pile of paper and electronic files, reports the Guardian, is an August 2019 memo to Exxon CEO Darren Woods from an unnamed subordinate, urging that a “reference to Paris agreement” be removed from an announcement lest it “create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris agreement goals.”
Other nuggets include an internal Shell email discussion in which an executive warned: “We want to be careful to not talk about carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) as prolonging the life of oil, gas or fossil fuels writ large.” In another, Chevron provides talking points to an executive, asserting that oil and gas are the “lower carbon solutions that ensure a just transition.”
Particularly eyebrow-raising, notes the Guardian, are several email exchanges between Shell executives parsing the public backlash generated by a November 2020 Twitter poll, which asked followers “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?”
The congressional committee memo notes that Stephen Lesher, Shell’s manager of communications and sustainable development, appeared to agree with critics who called the tweet gaslighting. After explaining to another Shell executive that the term means “manipulating a person’s emotions, causing them to question themselves instead of you,” Lesher acknowledges that “it is, frankly, a criticism not totally without merit in this case though I would never say that in mixed company. We are, after all, in a tweet like this implying others need to sacrifice without focusing on ourselves.”
Other exchanges are entirely free of such self-awareness. One internal email discussion focused on an op-ed by American environmentalist Bill McKibben, published in 2016 in the Los Angeles Times. “I’m sorry, I live on earth so I don’t get what planet this guy lives on,” wrote Tom Wolf, BP’s director of communications and external affairs. “Americans are fighting pipelines, but they are also fighting transmission lines that would bring wind energy and solar energy to market.… Simply put, Americans have a Dire Straits mentality. They want their money for nothin’ and their chicks for free.”