Internal Documents Show Big Oil PR Messages Still ‘Mislead’ Public on Climate

New documents released by a congressional committee show that major oil companies, under pressure from the worsening climate crisis, have carefully crafted public messages to convey an effort of transitioning to cleaner technologies, but that the campaigns appear aimed at obscuring the fact that they remain “devoted to a long-term fossil fuel future,” the committee report states.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform released a memo on September 14 that detailed documents and internal communications from oil companies including BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil, which show efforts to heavily promote their investments in promising technologies to address climate change, such as algae biofuels and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), while internally expressing doubt about the viability and immediacy of those investments.

“Today, our Committee is releasing new documents from our investigation that shed light on how the fossil fuel industry misled the public about their climate goals, their actions, and their investments,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said at the Committee’s hearing on September 15. “The documents show that both Exxon and Chevron fought hard to avoid making any real commitments to advocate for the policies they claim to support.”

Technologies That Are “Still Decades Away”

The oil majors routinely spend heavily on advertising climate solutions that many scientists, environmental groups, and other experts have long questioned. As DeSmog has reported over the years, many industry climate claims have been criticized as exercises in greenwashing, covering up for business as usual.

But the congressional documents also point to skepticism from within the oil companies themselves, highlighting the gap between their public and private statements.

“be cagey about project specifics”

Shell official advising a colleague on carbon capture talking points in 2019

ExxonMobil has spent $68 million in advertising on its algae-based liquid fuels. In a September 2018 draft presentation for investors, ExxonMobil struck an optimistic tone on its algae fuels, but notes accompanying the presentation, obtained by the House committee, state that the technology is “still decades away from the scale we need.”

In addition, in preparation of an advertising campaign on algae, a public affairs manager at ExxonMobil expressed concern in an April 2016 email about the phrase “abundant algae,” cautioning that “even though they are abundant, it will take a ton of them to make biofuels so that might create some angst with the research folks who knows that.” Last year, the Wall Street Journal looked at ExxonMobil’s claims on algae, and found doubts from external scientists that the technology is viable.

One of ExxonMobil’s ads featuring algae-based biofuels.

Another tranche of documents show that the oil industry privately harbors doubt about carbon capture and sequestration even as it positions the technology as a key climate solution.

For example, draft advertisements prepared by PR firm BBDO for ExxonMobil to use in New Jersey describe “carbon capture at mass scale” as one of “the technologies being developed right here in Jersey at ExxonMobil’s Research and Engineering facilities.” But private communications from BBDO show that after meeting with Exxon staff to discuss the ad, BBDO noted that it would “replace any lines that imply the technology is live today.”   

In another example from October 2019, in advance of an event held in Washington, D.C., one Shell official advised another to “be cagey about project specifics” related to carbon capture.

Many carbon capture projects to date trap very little carbon pollution and are riddled with technical and economic obstacles. A September 2022 report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that many carbon capture projects have failed, and the successful ones typically funnel captured CO2 back into oil and gas projects to boost production.

To the extent that carbon capture works, oil companies view the technology as a way to continue producing more oil and gas well into an increasingly climate-constrained future. An internal document from BP, obtained by the congressional investigation, states that carbon capture is a way to “enable the full use of fossil fuels across the energy transition and beyond.”

“What these documents are is an insight into how these technologies are viewed inside the companies,” Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told DeSmog. She pointed to the internal tension at ExxonMobil about its algae messaging, which she said shows that they are “aware of potential liabilities with these claims.”

Net Zero Scenario Has “Nothing to Do with Our Business Plans”

The documents also suggest there is little movement among the oil majors to actually transition away from fossil fuels.

The oil majors have played a double game with the Paris Climate Agreement. For example, in July 2021, ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods stated: “We understand the tremendous challenge represented by climate change and have fully supported the Paris Agreement since its inception.”

A home near the Exxon SABIC Gulf Coast Growth Ventures petrochemical plant in Portland, Texas. Credit: ©Julie Dermansky

But documents also show that ExxonMobil and Chevron attempted to water down messaging related to the international accord. In a memo to Woods from 2019, Exxon’s Manager of Environmental Policy & Planning Peter Trelenberg raised concerns about the messaging for a document to be put out by the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a voluntary industry-led group that promotes climate solutions, of which Exxon and Chevron are members.

Trelenberg wrote: “Need to remove reference to Paris Agreement as support for the Paris Agreement goals and member company advocacy are separate concepts and not directly related. Creating a tie between our advocacy/engagements and the Paris Agreement could create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris Agreement goals.”

In other words, Exxon stated clearly in public that it supported the Paris climate agreement “since its inception,” but also sought to avoid having the agreement tie its hands.

Shell executives also have parsed language carefully to avoid getting pinned down. Internal communications from October 2019 show Shell managers discussing how to talk publicly about the company’s “Sky scenario,” a scenario that mapped out how the world could reach “net zero” emissions and that received in-depth media attention when revealed in 2018. One Shell manager reminded her colleague that the company’s net-zero scenario is “not a Shell business plan, but a technically possible, although challenging scenario for how global society might meet the goals of the Paris agreement.”

In 2018, Shell did print a disclaimer noting that the Sky scenario was not its business plan, but a flurry of emails obtained by the House committee show employees repeatedly reminding each other that the net zero plan is not for the company to pursue.

“What was interesting to me was how careful they had to be in prepping their own executives and spokespeople on that. Because one could easily read those scenarios as being a business scenario,” Mulvey said, referring to Shell’s communications. “It’s almost like the people inside the company themselves could make the same mistake that they want all of us to make when we hear these claims.”

“The other pattern to notice is where we DO own high GHG intensive things, it’s in areas where they aren’t that politically sensitive about such matters: China, Singapore, Malaysia, Louisiana….”

Steve Lesher, Shell’s U.S. West Coast Manager of Government Relations

Meanwhile, Shell’s communications also show that the company aims to shed carbon-intensive assets in jurisdictions where it is feeling public pressure or new climate policies, but it has little plans to change its ways in what it views as more permissive states or countries.

“No one in the company has said this, mind you, but the pattern is pretty clear: If you’re a major greenhouse gas emitter, and particularly if you operate in a GHG-sensitive area like CA, WA, or CAN, your days in the Shell Family are probably numbered,” Steve Lesher, Shell’s U.S. West Coast Manager of Government Relations, wrote in an email in May 2021 to lobbying firm McHugh Koepke & Associates.

“The other pattern to notice is where we DO own high GHG intensive things, it’s in areas where they aren’t that politically sensitive about such matters: China, Singapore, Malaysia, Louisiana….,” he wrote.

Activists in Louisiana took exception with those statements. “If industry doesn’t see the efforts of frontline fighters in these communities it’s because they don’t want to. It’s because they are in the pockets of our elected officials and they don’t care about the communities they invade,” Roishetta Ozane, organizing director for Healthy Gulf, a New Orleans-based climate justice organization, told DeSmog in an email. Ozane testified at the congressional hearing on September 15.

Shell’s Norco refinery in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. Credit: ©Julie Dermansky

“They don’t care that folks are dying and that we are continuously impacted by devastating natural disasters caused by climate change of which they contribute to when they constantly extract fossil fuels,” she said. “Enough is enough and if industry wants to see push back tell them to come to Southwest Louisiana and find me fighting on the frontlines.”

Indeed, communities opposing polluting industries along the Gulf Coast scored a major victory on the same day as the congressional hearing. The massive Formosa petrochemical facility slated for St. James Parish was shot down by a district court, after years of opposition from local communities. “Stopping Formosa Plastics has been a fight for our lives, and today David has toppled Goliath,” Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of RISE St. James, said in a statement.

Oil Industry “Continuing to Mislead the Public”  

The documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee show that the oil industry’s attempts to mislead the public did not end with overt climate science denial several years ago.

“The recency of it definitely underlines that although this is a decades-long concerted campaign to deceive the public and to block action, it continues. And it continues to evolve,” Mulvey said.

In addition, the documents still don’t tell the entire story. The committee said that the oil companies refused to testify, failed to meet a subpoena deadline, and “continued to withhold documents at the heart of this investigation.” They also turned over hundreds of thousands of pages of “news clippings and other ancillary materials” in an apparent attempt to drown congressional staff in piles of unrelated documents to stymy the investigation.  

The stonewalling, combined with the snippets of apparent deception that are contained within the documents, “makes it seem like they have a lot to hide. And they’re afraid of the truth coming out. And that they’re afraid of the public and policymakers being able to see through the PR smoke screen that they’re trying to create,” Mulvey said. “It points to ongoing justifiable scrutiny on their social license. These are companies that can’t and shouldn’t be trusted to reform themselves.”

As the oil companies themselves have revealed in their own internal communications, cultivating positive public opinion of their business practices remains a top concern. In January 2020, a Shell government relations employee sent a company slide deck intended to help those “just learning our narrative” that identified “maintaining a strong societal licence to operate” as one of the company’s three strategic ambitions. It also cautioned that its communications about the energy transition could open up the oil major to additional climate litigation: “what we are saying has the potential to either expose or insulate Shell to/from the legitimacy of further claims—from greenwashing to misleading investors.” 

In a statement to DeSmog, a BP spokesperson said: “bp’s commitment to the energy transition is clear.  We have set near term targets that are consistent with our ambition to become a net zero company by 2050 or sooner, and to help the world get to net zero. We provided hundreds of thousands of pages of documents to the committee.  Some of the emails referenced contain inartful attempts at humor that do not reflect the values of bp and should not distract from our actions.”

ExxonMobil, Shell, and the PR firm BBDO did not respond to questions from DeSmog.

It’s not clear what happens next. If the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives after the midterm elections, they will presumably quash the investigation. But having the documents out in the public domain is nevertheless useful.

“This evidence is highly relevant to ongoing litigation to hold the Big Oil companies accountable for climate damages and deception. So, whatever evidence can get into the public domain, seems to me, could inform existing and potential future litigation,” Mulvey said.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, offered the industry a warning.

“Let me tell these companies something. The American people are not dumb,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) said at the hearing. “They are walking a very fine line by continuing to mislead the public.”

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