Oil Executives Privately Contradicted Public Statements on Climate, Files Show

Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2022

The documents, subpoenaed in a House investigation of climate disinformation, show company leaders contravening industry commitments.

A man at a gas station, silhouetted by the sun and casting a long shadow, returns a pump to its holder while standing next to a large pickup truck.
A Shell station in Houston. An internal email in 2020 said the company’s announcement of a pathway to net zero emissions had “nothing to do with” its business plans.Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Documents obtained by congressional investigators show that oil industry executives privately downplayed their companies’ own public messages about efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and weakened industry-wide commitments to push for climate policies.

Internal Exxon documents show that the oil giant pressed an industry group, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, to remove language from a 2019 policy statement that “could create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris Agreement goals.” The Paris Agreement is the landmark 2015 pact among nations of the world to avert catastrophic global warming. The statement’s final version didn’t mention Paris.

At Royal Dutch Shell, an October 2020 email sent by an employee, discussing talking points for Shell’s president for the United States, said that the company’s announcement of a pathway to “net zero” emissions — the point at which the world would no longer be pumping planet-warming gases into the atmosphere — “has nothing to do with our business plans.”

These and other documents, reviewed by The New York Times, come from a cache of hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate emails, memos and other files obtained under subpoena as part of an examination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform into the fossil fuel industry’s efforts over the decades to mislead the public about its role in climate change, dismissing evidence that the burning of fossil fuels was driving an increase in global temperatures even as their own scientists warned of a clear link.

On Thursday, the House committee is expected to discuss some of its early findings. “It’s well established that these companies actively misled the American public for decades about the risks of climate change,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California who spearheaded the investigation with Carolyn B. Maloney, the New York Democrat who leads the House committee. “The problem is that they continue to mislead,” Mr. Khanna said.

At a hearing last year, oil industry executives stressed their support for a transition to clean energy and denied that they have misled the public. They acknowledged that the burning of their products was driving climate change, although none pledged to end their financial support for efforts to block action on climate change, and they said that fossil fuels were here to stay.

The committee’s subpoena has sought documents related to companies’ role in contributing to climate change, their marketing and lobbying efforts on climate, and the funding of third parties accused of spreading climate disinformation. Several of the companies and organizations subpoenaed — which include Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have yet to produce some of the key documents that have been requested, according to committee staff members.

According to the staff, a significant part of the material submitted so far includes news clippings and other materials that were already public. Still, the documents gathered so far show that the companies’ internal discussions in recent years haven’t always matched up with their public statements and marketing campaigns, and that some of the companies’ leading climate strategies rely on unproven technologies.

In the Exxon memo describing the edits it sought in the oil industry policy statement, which was drawn up ahead of the 2019 United Nations global climate talks, Peter Trelenberg, Exxon’s manager of environmental policy and planning, wrote: “Need to remove reference to Paris Agreement” from the statement because “Creating a tie between our advocacy/engagements and the Paris Agreement could create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris Agreement goals.”

The memo, addressed to Exxon chief executive, Darren Woods, and other top executives, went on to indicate that Chevron had “expressed that they are generally aligned with these edits.”

Exxon and Chevron did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative did not comment on the advocacy document but said that “advocacy for Paris goals underpins everything that O.G.C.I. does.”

Separate files from Exxon show the company grappling with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign promoting the potential for fuels made from algae. The campaign focused on the promise of the technology and featured images of vast pools of algae, along with a scientist looking forward to calling herself an “energy farmer.” (Versions of the ads have appeared in The New York Times.)

A set of presentation notes that had been prepared for a September 2018 engineering talk by one of its executives stated that the technology is “still decades away from the scale we need.” And in a November 2016 email, an Exxon employee said that an early draft for the ad, prepared by the advertising agency BBDO Worldwide, needed to “replace any lines that imply the technology is live today.”

BBDO did not respond to a request for comment.

The Shell internal documents discussing the company’s “net zero” pathway also included guidelines for employees that stated, “Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense.”

Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell, said in a statement that the company had provided nearly a half-million pages of documents to the committee and that “the small handful they chose to highlight are evidence of Shell’s extensive efforts to set aggressive targets.” Included in those documents are “challenging internal and external discussions,” he said.

He added that it was widely understood that Shell’s net zero scenarios “are not prescriptions, predictions or meant to represent Shell’s current business plan” and instead represent “the scale of the challenge and levers policymakers might pull.”

The committee’s work comes as Democrats’ climate agenda has been re-energized by the passage of a climate and tax bill that includes nearly $370 billion in tax incentives and programs intended to speed up the nation’s transition from an economy based on oil, gas and coal to one powered by wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy.

A number of cities and states have sued oil companies, alleging that they misled the public about fossil fuels’ role in warming the planet, with detrimental effects on local communities. Last year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell must substantially accelerate its efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Shell has appealed the ruling.

The House committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on Thursday to examine recent record-breaking oil industry profits, hear from industry experts and from people affected by recent extreme weather events. It had also requested board members from the oil companies to attend. The companies declined.

At Thursday’s hearing, members also plan to highlight emails that appear to show oil executives making light of climate extreme-heat records. In an August 2017 email exchange, for example, two BP executives found humor in the news at the time that scientists had reported Earth’s warmest year on record.

“I’ll buy the first round Monday night before we say our goodbyes,” Joe Ellis, then BP vice president and head of U.S. government affairs, wrote to colleagues.

“A ‘hot toddy’ maybe?” Bob Stout, then vice president and head of regulatory affairs, wrote back.

The former BP executives didn’t respond to requests for comment.

J.P. Fielder, head of U.S. communications at BP, described the exchange as “inartful attempts at humor that do not reflect the values of BP and should not distract from our actions.” He noted that BP has committed to a net zero emissions target across its sales, operations and production by 2050 or sooner.