Big Oil Companies Are Bullies Who ‘Want to Be Seen as Good Guys’

Source: By David Wallace-Wells, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2022

An illustration of a chain-link fence on a red background with a stylized green hedge in front.
Ibrahim Rayintakath

Last week, a House investigation into Big Oil profiteering and greenwashing released its latest report — the result of more than a year of research, subpoenas and hearings. Among other things, the latest report makes unmistakably clearthat whatever Chevron, BP, Shell, Exxon and other members of the American Petroleum Institute may say about their climate policies, their investments show that they intend to continue producing and selling oil and gas deep into the future — and well beyond the carbon budgets implied by any of the world’s climate goals.

The report also helps mark a new phase in the global fight against climate change. Five years ago, greenwashing was a subject for activists, not Congress. But one result of the world making so many more climate pledges in the wake of the Paris agreement has been that many more people started looking at just how realistic those pledges were — and how many corporations and indeed nations were offering promises held aloft by hypocrisy and hot air.

But what can be done about that? On Dec. 12, I spoke to the subcommittee chair Rep. Ro Khanna of California about the continuing intransigence of Big Oil, what tools could be used to bring those companies to account and the landscape for climate action after the Inflation Reduction Act.

You’ve been looking at the bad behavior of Big Oil for more than a year. What have you learned?

The first thing that surprised me is how the culture of big oil companies has not really changed. Yes, they now acknowledge that burning fossil fuels causes climate change — they had not done that for decades. But they still are insistent on defending every past statement that their company officials made. I was really struck by the lack of introspection, the lack of even a willingness to say sorry for past mistakes.

I was also struck by the bullying, the vitriol against climate activists and climate reporters — most strikingly against the Sunrise Movement kids. You have documents in which they are wishing the activists get bedbugs as they’re traveling and against Hiroko Tabuchi, the Times reporter, because of her coverage. You have these executives reaching out to The Times to try to intimidate her and going after tweets of hers. These are just two examples where you see this pervasive bunker mentality — hunker down and fight the external world that cares about climate.

It’s not just Big Oil; it seems to me there’s so much hostility toward the climate left from the center right and the center left these days. It almost feels like the Inflation Reduction Act has initiated a golden age of hippie punching.

And just how effective, honestly, the Big Oil strategy has been. Most people in this country, even when then Rep. Henry Waxman of California did the big tobacco hearings, had a sense that nicotine is bad. Most people in this country don’t know that Big Oil has lied for decades about climate change. That’s just not on their radar.

Now these companies are positioning themselves as clean companies, they’re doing it in a very shrewd way, saying: “We’re going to do things about our operations.” But the documents show that they basically have a plan that this is going to give them, as they put it, a license to operate.

In other words, they clean up emissions from the production of oil without accounting for emissions from the consumption of oil and use that as a sort of cover.

They basically say, “if we chip around at some things that make us clean, we can actually increase production of the stuff that really matters and increase carbon.” It’s a hard story to pierce.

I do think that what our committee did — in getting testimony under oath and all of these documents — will set a historic foundation, and we plan to be referring them to other parts of the government very soon so that the investigation work will continue. But I wouldn’t say we’ve broken through the public sentiment on it yet.

What would it mean for that story to become more mainstream, in the way that the bad behavior of big tobacco did a generation ago?

I think if you ask a person filling up their car, “do you know that these big oil companies have lied for decades to the American public?,” my guess is nine out of 10 people wouldn’t know that.

Now, why does awareness matter? Because there is so much spending and advertising and mobilization by these big oil companies to stop climate legislation. And you still have many people holding these companies up on a pedestal.

Let’s talk about the hypocrisy gap. In your memo you wrote that, despite their rhetorical commitments to the Paris agreement, the companies were operating much more in line with a business-as-usual trajectory that leads us to about 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming. That is a terrible future, but it’s also perfectly in line with the world as a whole: Most independent projections of emissions for all the world’s countries and corporations also yield estimates of about 2.5 degrees of warming this century.

Fossil fuels are of course a huge part of that story, and so if these companies were doing much better we’d all be doing much better. But I wonder just how exceptional this hypocrisy is, given that the same gaps govern the world’s climate action as a whole.

When I started these hearings and said we wanted to get Big Oil in there to testify, I didn’t want to do a gotcha hearing. My honest hope was that you would have these executives come in and say, “Look, we made mistakes in the past, here is what we’re doing now, and we’re open to ideas about what that will look like going forward.” And you could imagine a visionary C.E.O. of one of these companies saying, “Look, we have to diversify our energy sources. We’ve got to really make investments in clean technology. We really have to take the Paris accord seriously.”

But that’s not what you have in the culture of these companies.

Now, you have that in some places, in other areas of the economy, where people are talking about clean industry on steel and on aluminum production, in transportation and in technology.

It’s also the case that for some of those industries — like tech, where electricity is a very big part of the carbon footprint, which can be decarbonized quickly — the transition is much cheaper. In some others, like clean steel and aluminum, nobody is expecting a rapid transition, which means the rubber hasn’t yet really hit the road.

I’m not saying that they’re all perfect. But what I would say about Big Oil is that they have not made in any way substantively a transition in diversifying. But at the same time, they’re telling the public that they are. That’s the most jarring part of this — they want to be seen as good guys.

And I still would much rather that they become part of the solution than that, because my interest is in solving climate change. If we could get them to shift — that’s really the goal. But I’ve got to tell you, after more than a year and millions of pages of documents and six or seven hours of testimony, I am not hopeful of that in the short term.

I don’t know that I even see many places where an oil or gas company would have a business advantage, given the size and relative maturity of the renewable companies.

Well, there’s certainly work they could do, right? To close up wells leaking oil and methane, for instance.

I don’t think necessarily they’re going to become the leading solar or wind companies, but they could take steps at diversification. And they could certainly stop funding the third-party groups that are killing climate legislation and are engaged in climate disinformation today.

How significant would that be?

At the very least, it would mean they were stopping being part of the problem. But none of them would commit to that when pushed on it.

One question that raises to me is about the Inflation Reduction Act and the theory of change it embodies. That theory is basically: We subsidize clean energy, we get some of the policy roadblocks out of the way and the market’s going to do its magic, so that in the next 10, 15, 20 years, renewables are expanding so much more rapidly and are so much more affordable, they will just quickly crowd out and effectively retire dirty energy.

But does that work, given the approach of Big Oil? Is an all-carrots, no-sticks approach capable of bringing about this transition, given the strategies of the fossil fuel companies?

No.

Let me give you a concrete example. I was up in New Hampshire campaigning for Rep. Chris Pappas — they have restrictions in the state on the site placement of wind and solar facilities. So there are regulatory restrictions that we have to overcome state by state.

But second, the town up there, Berlin, wanted to upgrade its transmission line to allow for solar and wind to go to the market grid. And the decision rests with the utility company there. And they don’t want to do it, because they don’t think it’s in their interest to have more solar and wind. So I think there has to be far more requirements put on the utilities, both in terms of penalties and incentives.

And permitting?

There’s got to be a reframing of how we build transmission for clean energy projects. Yes, part of it is permitting, but it’s so much broader than permitting. How do you get the capital expenditure? How do you get the utility buy-in?

Are more punitive measures necessary too, to make sure we’re replacing dirty energy with clean as opposed to subsidizing it?

I think having methane emissions regulations makes a lot of sense. I think ultimately, on industrial processes, having some regulatory price on carbon emissions is something that we need to do. The challenge has been that that’s harder to do politically. But that’s different, in my view, than a price that’s going to hurt people at the pump and lead to the yellow vest syndrome.

Given the political landscape, do you think there is an opportunity for major federal legislation on climate? Or are we going to be dealing only with regulatory rule-making, state-level policy and resource allocation for the time being?

Senator Marco Rubio and I have a bill coming out calling for an economic development council that has the different agencies with the private sector reporting for the president. It’s not focused just on clean tech, it’s focused on building new industry, period, in this country. And the fact that you have bipartisan support for this idea — that we need coordination when it comes to new factories, new industries — suggests that there is the political will that could emerge. That was, of course, the Hamilton and Roosevelt model of building the American industry and American economy.

Personally, I’m relatively bullish about future bipartisan work — the CHIPS Act and infrastructure bill both suggest to me the possibility of some limited Republican cooperation on climate, at least. And I think a growing green economy may reduce some of the culture war dynamics at play.

I agree.

But I also wanted to ask you about the political dynamics on the left. In the aftermath of the I.R.A., there’s an increasingly public conflict between activists and the technocratic center. Activists took a harder line on permitting than they did on the big bill, and from their critics there’s been a fair amount of commentary in the spirit of, we’ll take it from here, kids, or “Give Senator Joe Manchin his pipeline.” Is that how it seems to you? If so, how do we go about rebuilding that coalition?

Look, I got significantly criticized as being the only House progressive who was in talks with Senator Manchin during the I.R.A. But to the credit of the environmental movement, virtually every group supported it — from Sunrise to Sierra [Club] to N.R.D.C [the Natural Resources Defense Council]. That was a moment where the climate community really came together. And I don’t think we would have had that achievement but for the climate movement.

And the reason is: How did we decide that of all the things that Build Back Better promised, that what was nonnegotiable, was climate? That’s not because politicians thought that up. That’s because these activists were out there in the 2020 primary and at the president’s side, and senators and congress people saw that they were out there for two years. So I give them enormous credit.

Then the permitting fight happened. And there I think that the challenge was that we didn’t have an alternative perspective from the environmental movement, saying, we want to expedite permitting for renewables. We just don’t want to expedite a pipeline.

Right, I agree that was a missed opportunity. When I asked you about it a few months ago, it didn’t seem that such a proposal was very close. Is it closer now?

I think you can see that emerging in the next few months at the environmental groups I’ve talked to. They want to get behind a permitting reform proposal for clean energy. And you’re going to have, of course, healthy debate between those who say, “We need the renewables,” and those who say, “Well, we need to protect endangered species and biodiversity and frontline communities.” Let’s have that debate. Because I think that can be worked out in the environmental community. The coalescing around the I.R.A. showed that the community is capable of being pragmatic. It was far from what the climate activists wanted. And yet when push came to shove, they coalesced support, supported it, and we passed it, through very narrow majorities.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”

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