This article is part of Covering Climate Now, a global network of news outlets that focuses on the climate story.
Despite the fact that there are many, investigations, lawsuits, social shamingThe oil and gas industry is still formidable despite decades of regulations. It has made it seem like a human necessity to eat its products. It has confused the public about climate science, bought the eternal gratitude of one of America’s two main political parties, and repeatedly out-maneuvered regulatory efforts. It did this by anticipating the future and then acting ruthlessly. While the rest of us were playing checkers with our friends, our executives were playing three dimensional chess.
Take this brief tour of the industry’s history, and then ask yourself: Is there any doubt that these companies are now plotting to keep the profits rolling in, even as mega-hurricanes and roaring wildfires scream the dangersAre you aware of the climate emergency
Ida Tarbell is a well-known investigative journalist in American history. Long before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal, Tarbell’s reporting broke up the Standard Oil monopoly. The 19 articles became a popular book. History of the Standard Oil Company,She exposed Standard Oil’s unsavory practices in a 1904 publication. In 1911, federal regulators used Tarbell’s findings to break Standard Oil into 33 much smaller companies.
David had slain Goliath. The U.S. government had established a monopoly-busting standard that would be followed by future generations. John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil’s owner, lost. The good guys won — or so it seemed.
In fact Rockefeller saw what was coming and ended up profiting — massively — from the breakup of his company. Rockefeller made sure to retain significant stock holdings in each of Standard Oil’s 33 offspring and position them in different parts of the U.S. where they wouldn’t compete against one another. Rockefeller was made very, very rich by the 33 offspring. It was indeed the BreakupStandard Oil, which tripled his fortune and made him the richest man on the planet. In 1916, five years after Standard Oil was broken up, Rockefeller became the world’s first billionaire.
Esso, which is spelled out as S-O, was one of the offsprings of Standard Oil. It launched one of history’s most successful advertising campaigns. It did this by relying upon the talents of a young cartoonist, who millions would later love under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. It was decades before the pro-environment parable was published. The Lorax, Theodore Geisel helped Esso market “Flit,” a household spray gun that killed mosquitoes. What Americans weren’t told was that the pesticide DDT made up 5% of each blast of Flit.
Esso spent considerable creative resources on the Flit campaign. They were looking forward to a time when oil-based products would also be successfully marketed. The campaign ran for 17 years in the 1940s and 1950s, at the time an unheard length of time for an ad campaign. It taught Esso and other Standard Oil businesses how to sell derivative products (like pesticides). This made the company and brand a household name. In its day, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was as ubiquitous as “Got Milk?” is today.
“Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was Dr. Seuss’s first famous catchphrase. Before he published his books, he created 17 ad campaigns! pic.twitter.com/O9gAdZfoob
— The Art of Dr. Seuss (@DrSeussArtIndy) October 14, 2017
At the time, the public (and even many scientists) didn’t appreciate the deadly nature of DDT. That didn’t come until the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. But accepting that DDT was deadly was hard, in part because of the genius of Geisel, whose wacky characters — strikingly similar to the figures who would later populate Dr. Seuss books — energetically extolled Flit’s alleged benefits.
Geisel later said the experience “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.” The Flit ad campaign was incredibly smart and clever marketing. It taught the industry how they could sell a dangerous and unneeded product as if it was something useful, and even fun.
ExxonMobil would continue to display that same cleverness in its ads years later. They weren’t about clever characters. They were incredibly clever and contained few outright lies. However, they did contain a lot of half-truths. It was clever enough that it convinced the New York TimesThey were allowed to be run without being labeled as advertisements. Their climate “advertorials” appeared in the op-ed page of the New York TimesThey were part of what scholars have called “the longest, regular (weekly) use of media to influence public and elite opinion in contemporary America.”
Big Oil saw climate change coming. As extensive investigative reporting and academic studies have documented, the companies’ own scientists were telling their executives in the 1970s that burning more oil and other fossil fuels would overheat the planet. (Other scientists have been saying this since the 1960s. The companies responded by lying about their products’ danger, reducing public awareness and lobbying against government actions. The result is today’s climate emergency.
Less well known is how oil and gas companies didn’t just lie about their own research. They also ran a covert campaign to influence and monitor the opinions of the rest of scientists about climate change.
The companies placed scientists in universities and ensured they attended important conferences. They nominated them for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the U.N. body that established the consensus view of climate science among policymakers, press, and public). While the IPCC reports, which rely on consensus science, were sound, Big Oil’s scientific participation gave them an insider’s view of the road ahead. They introduced the art of questioning consensus science in forums where every word has been parsed.
The industry was using a strategy first employed by tobacco companies but with a twist. The tobacco industry established a network of scientists at dozens of American universities and medical schools that funded its research. This was in the 1950s. Some of these scientists were active in research to discredit the notion that smoking cigarettes is a health danger. But, the majority of their work was more subtle. The industry funded research on other causes of cancer and heart disease, such as radon and asbestos. It was a form if misdirection to divert attention away from the dangers of smoking and onto other issues. It worked for a while but it was exposed in the 1990s through lawsuits. The bad publicity almost ended the scheme. How could a self-respecting scientist take the money of the tobacco industry?
The oil and gas industry realized this and decided to work openly, rather than working secretly. It would not only work with scientists whose work might be useful, but it would also try to influence the direction the scientific community in general. The industry’s internal scientists continued to do research and publish peer-reviewed articles, but the industry also openly funded university collaborations and other researchers. Exxon was well-known as a climate pioneer and generous patron of university science. It supported student research and fellowships in many universities from the late 1970s to the 1980s. Its scientists collaborated with NASA, the Department of Energy, and other key institutions and funded breakfasts and luncheons at scientific meetings. These efforts had the net result of building goodwill and loyalties. It’s been effective.
The industry’s scientists may have been operating in good faith, but their work helped delay public recognition of the scientific consensus that climate change was unequivocally man-made, happening now, and very dangerous. The industry’s extensive presence in the field also gave it early access to cutting edge research it used to its advantage. Exxon, in particular, designed oil platforms that could accommodate faster sea-level rising, even though the company denied that climate change was taking place.
Although methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide it has received far less attention. One reason is that the oil and gas industry has positioned methane — which marketing experts cleverly labeled “natural gas” — as the future of the energy economy. The industry promotes methane gas as a “clean” fuel that’s needed to bridge the transition from today’s carbon economy to tomorrow’s renewable energy era. Some go further and see gas as a permanent part of the energy landscape: BP’s plan is renewables plus gas for the foreseeable future, and the company and other oil majors frequently invoke “low carbon” instead of “no carbon.”
Except that methane gas isn’t clean. It’s about 80 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is.
As recently as a decade ago, many scientists and environmentalists viewed “natural gas” as a climate hero. The oil and gas industry’s ad guys encouraged this view by portraying gas as a coal killer. The American Petroleum Institute paid millions for this ad. run its first-ever Super Bowl ad in 2017, portraying gas as an engine of innovation that powers the American way of life. API spent more $750 million in public relations, advertising, communications and marketing between 2008-2019 (for both oil- and gas interests). an analysis by the Climate Investigations Center found. Today, gas is viewed as clean by most Americans, even though it is not. science shows that we can’t meet our climate goals without quickly transitioning awayIt is. The bottom line is that we can’t solve a problem caused by fossil fuels with more fossil fuels. The industry has a problem. made a lot of usThink differently.
There’s little chance the oil and gas industry can defeat renewable energy in the long term. Renewable energy will eventually be the dominant force in the market for energy. GridLab, Energy Innovation, and the University of California, Berkeley have all found this. the U.S. can achieve 90% clean electricity by the year 2035With no new gasAll at no additional cost to consumers
But the oil and gas industry doesn’t need to win the fight in the long term. It only needs to win Right now So it can continue to develop oil and gas fields that will be used for many decades. It just needs to continue doing what it has done over the past 25 years: Win today and fight again tomorrow.
Here’s a final example of how the oil and gas industry plans for the next war even as its adversaries are still fighting the last one. The truth is that almost everyone, except for a few trade groups and law firms, doesn’t know what the next war will be. Federal Energy Regulatory CommissionIs or does. But the oil and natural gas industry knows this and has moved quickly to prepare for decades of fossil fuel dependence.
The FERC is a stamp of approval for oil and gas industries for a long period. The industry proposes gas pipes, and FERC approves. A pipeline is approved by FERC when it is in the public domain. This makes it almost impossible to stop.
Eminent domain gives a company the legal right to build a pipeline through landowners’ properties, and there is nothing they or state or county officials can do about it. A few states have been able to temporarily block pipelines by invoking federal statutes, such as the Clean Water Act. But if those state cases reach the current Supreme Court, the three justices Trump appointed — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney-Barrett — are almost certain to rule in the industry’s favor.
Oil and gas industry executives seized upon Trump’s arrival in the White House. In the opening days of his administration, independent researchers listened in on public trade gatherings of the executives, who talked about “flooding the zone” at FERC. The industry planned to submit not just one or two but nearly a dozen interstate gas pipeline requests. Plotted on a map, the projected pipelines covered so much of the U.S. that they resembled a spider’s web.
Once pipelines are in the system, companies can start to build them, and utility commissioners in every corner of America see this gas “infrastructure” as a fait accompli. Pipelines are built to last for decades. Pipelines can last for decades, provided they are maintained properly. This strategy could help the oil and gas industry lock in fossil fuel dependence for the remainder of the century.
In hindsight, it’s clear that oil and gas industry leaders used outright climate denial when it suited their corporate and political interests throughout the 1990s. But now that outright denial is no longer credible, they’ve pivoted from denial to delay. The industry PR and marketing efforts have focused huge resources on a central message that climate change is real. However, the changes required will require more research, decades, and more fossil fuels. Climate delayThe new climate denial.
Nearly every major oil company claims they now accept the science and support sensible climate policy. Their actions speak louder then their words. It’s clear that the future they want is one that still uses fossil fuels abundantly — regardless of what the science says. They will do whatever it takes to keep their products in the marketplace, regardless of whether they are selling deadly pesticides and deadly fossil fuels. Now that we’re in a race to a clean energy future, it’s time to recognize that they simply can’t be trusted as partners in that race. We’ve been fooled too many times.