Profit Today so They Can Fight Again Tomorrow

Despite the many investigations, lawsuits, social shamingDespite regulations that date back decades, the oil-and-gas industry remains formidable. It has made the consumption of its products seem like a human necessity. 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 dangersClimate emergency?

The John D. Rockefeller Myth

Ida Tarbell is an American investigative journalist who is widely known. Long before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal, Tarbell’s reporting broke up the Standard Oil monopoly. This book was a collection of 19 articles. 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 tripled his wealth, making him the richest man in the world. In 1916, five years after Standard Oil was broken up, Rockefeller became the world’s first billionaire.

Say It Ain’t So, Dr. Seuss!

Esso (pronounced S-O) was one of the offspring from Standard Oil. It later launched one the most successful advertising campaigns ever. It did this by relying upon the talents of a young cartoonist, who millions would later love under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The pro-environment parable was written decades before. 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 had a vision years ahead of when they would be able to successfully market oil-based products. The campaign ran for 17 yearsIn the 1940s and 1950s, this was a rare time period for an ad campaign. It taught Esso, and other Standard Oil companies, how to sell derivative products (like plastics and pesticides). This helped make the company and the brand a household word. In its day, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was as ubiquitous as “Got Milk?” is today.

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 sell a dangerous, unnecessary product as if they were something useful and even enjoyable.

ExxonMobil would continue to display that same cleverness in its ads years later. They weren’t about clever characters. They were extremely clever, with few outright lies and a lot of half truths and misrepresentations. 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 TimesAnd were part of what scholars have called “the longest, regular (weekly) use of media to influence public and elite opinion in contemporary America.”

Climate Science for Control

Big Oil saw climate change coming. There is a lot of investigative reporting. 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 scientific community about climate change.

Companies placed scientists in universities and made sure that they were present at important conferences. They nominated them as contributors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This U.N. body’s assessments since 1990 shaped the opinions of policymakers, the press, and the 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. Even more concerning, they introduced the art and practice of questioning the consensus science at forums where every word is analyzed.

The industry used a strategy that was first used by tobacco companies, but with an added twist. In the 1950s, the tobacco company established a sotto-voce network of scientists from scores of American medical schools and universities, whose work it supported. While some of these scientists were involved in research to discredit claims that smoking cigarettes was a health risk for smokers, most of the work was more subtle. The industry also supported research into other causes of heart disease and cancer, such as asbestos, radon, and diet. It was a form misdirection that was designed to divert our attention from the harmful effects of tobacco and focus on other things. It worked for a while but it was exposed in the 1990s through lawsuits. The bad publicity almost ended the scheme. Who would trust a scientist to take money from the tobacco industry after that?

The oil and natural gas industry learned from this mistake and decided to work openly instead of working undercover. Instead of working with individual scientists whose work may be of value, the industry would try to influence the direction and policies of the scientific community. 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 worked with senior colleagues at NASA and the Department of Energy, and funded breakfasts, luncheons, and other activities at scientific conferences. They were able to build trust and goodwill through their efforts. 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 to accommodate faster sea-level rising, even though the company denied that climate change was taking place.

Don’t Call It Methane, It’s “Natural Gas”

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 ad2017 was a year when gas was portrayed as an innovation engine that powers the American way to live. API spent over $750 million on communications, public relations, advertising and communications between 2008 and 2019. This includes both oil and gas interests. an analysisClimate Investigations Center. 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 awayFrom it. 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 gasConsumers are not charged any additional fees.

But the oil and gas industry doesn’t need to win the fight in the long term. It is enough 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.

A Spider’s Web of Pipelines

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. Except for a few law firms and trade groups, almost no one knows the truth. Federal Energy Regulatory CommissionIs or does. The oil and gas industry is aware of this and moved quickly after Donald Trump was elected to lay the foundation for future fossil fuel dependence.

The FERC has been a stamp of approval for the oil-and-gas industry for a long time. The industry proposes pipelines and FERC approves them. 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. Some 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 intended to submit not one or two, but nearly a dozen interstate requests for gas pipelines. 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 forever if they are properly maintained. This strategy could help oil and gas companies secure fossil fuel dependency for the next 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, whether it’s selling deadly pesticides to 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.