Big oil privately acknowledged efforts to downplay climate crisis, joint committee investigation finds

10 05 2024 | 07:52Dharna Noor

Big oil has privately acknowledged its efforts to downplay the dangers of burning fossil fuels, US Democrats have found.

Major fossil-fuel firms have also pledged support for international climate efforts, but internally admit these efforts are incompatible with their own climate plans. And they have lobbied against climate laws and regulations they have publicly claimed to support, documents newly revealed by the committee show.

The tranche of subpoenaed communications were unveiled on Tuesday morning by Democrats on the House oversight committee before a Wednesday hearing.

“For decades, the fossil-fuel industry has known about the economic and climate harms of its products but has deceived the American public to keep collecting more than $600bn each year in subsidies while raking in record-breaking profits,” said Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who chairs the committee.

The documents are part of an investigation launched in 2021 by the House committee on oversight and accountability, which disbanded when Republicans took control of the chamber in 2022.

“The evidence uncovered by oversight committee Democrats shows that big oil has run campaigns to confuse and mislead the public,” said Maryland Democrat Jamie Raskin, ranking member on the committee. “Today’s joint report demonstrates that big oil continues to conceal the facts about their business model and obscure the actual dangers of fossil fuels.”

The documents, summarized in a committee report, come from big oil firms Exxon, Shell, BP and Chevron, as well the lobbying organizations the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the US Chamber of Commerce. They date back to 30 November 2015 – just weeks before the signing of the Paris climate accord.

Most previous public documents illustrating big oil’s climate deception are from the 1960s and 1970s, said Geoffrey Supran, a University of Miami associate professor who studies fossil-fuel industry messaging and will testify at Wednesday’s hearing.

“This is our best post-Paris agreement look at these companies’ ongoing duplicity,” he said.

The new revelations build on 2015 reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, which found that Exxon was for decades aware of the dangers of the climate crisis, yet hid that from the public.

At the time, Exxon publicly rejected the journalists’ findings outright, calling them “inaccurate and deliberately misleading.” And when questioned by the House oversight committee in 2021, Exxon chief executive Darren Woods said he did “not agree that there was an inconsistency” between what Exxon told the public and what Exxon scientists were warning privately.

But in internal communications, Exxon confirmed the validity of the reporting. In a December 2015 email about a potential public response to the investigative reporting, Exxon communications advisor Pamela Kevelson admitted the company did not “dispute much of what these stories report”.

Discussing a draft opinion piece the following year, Exxon again confirmed the reporters’ findings. “It’s true that Inside Climate News originally accused us of working against science but ultimately modified their accusation to working against policies meant to stop climate change,” Alan Jeffers, then a spokesperson for Exxon, wrote in a 2016 email to Kevelson. “I’m OK either way, since they were both true at one time or another.”


In recent years, big oil has largely stopped explicitly denying that climate change is real and human-caused, instead shifting to a more sophisticated strategy of “deception, disinformation, and doublespeak”, the report says.

“What’s the Shakespeare line about a ‘rose by any other name?’ This is climate denial by any other name,” said Supran. “It’s more subtle, and it’s more insidious, but it’s the same thing actually.”

Though big oil firms have made showy climate pledges and voiced support for the Paris climate agreement, their internal communications call the validity of those statements into question, the report says.

In a 2019 memo to the CEO, for instance, an Exxon official suggested removing reference to the Paris accord from a document because referencing it “could create a potential commitment to advocate on the Paris agreement goals”.

And in February 2020, BP announced plans to become a net zero emissions company by 2050 or sooner and to “help the world get to net zero”. Private emails sent months before, however, indicate that company top brass may have doubted that goal was achievable.

Personally, I think it goes a bit too far to state or imply support for net zero by 2050, because that would require policy likely to put some existing assets at risk, and we haven’t discussed that internally,” BP’s global sustainability and climate policy lead said in a June 2019 email discussing how to respond to a Guardian request for comment.

In the same email, the policy lead said it was important for BP to “stand by our public support for the Paris goals and the achievement of net zero” – something it has done consistently. But other internal communications sent the same year demonstrate a lack of support among BP leadership for emissions cuts aligned with the Paris agreement’s targets.

“Just wanted you to be aware as reducing emissions by half in 2035 sounds pretty out there!” BP’s vice-president of strategic planning said in email to colleagues. Such a reduction would be consistent with Paris agreement targets.

In an emailed comment, BP head of communications JP Fielder said the company “committed to transitioning from an international oil company to an integrated energy company”.

Shell, meanwhile, pledged in 2016 to reach net zero emissions by 2050. But in 2018, a the company’s external relations manager expressed doubt that the goal was achievable, suggesting it might take until 2060 or 2070, the report says. And in a 2020 internal presentation about approved messaging on net zero emissions, Shell instructed lobbyists and employees not to “suggest” that net zero is a “Shell target”.

To preserve their business models, fossil-fuel companies have also sought to portray gas as a climate-friendly fuel. But they have internally acknowledged that its use is not compatible with international climate goals.

A March 2018 draft presentation from BP that is marked “Confidential”, for instance, focuses on the “challenge” facing the company as journalists increasingly report that natural gas is a planet-heating fossil fuel, the report says. The presentation describes a forthcoming BP communications campaign to “advance and protect the role of gas – and BP – in the energy transition”.

A key aspect of the company’s campaign strategy, the presentation says, is to “harness excitement” about renewable energy by saying gas provides a good backup for wind and solar power, despite the climate risks associated with the fuel.

The document recommends the company fund white papers from Princeton University and Imperial College which spotlight the “role of gas as a friend to renewables”. It’s one of several emails showing that oil companies “establish funded partnerships with academic institutions to enhance their credibility”, the report says.

The company also privately acknowledged the climate risks of gas usage, as shown in in comments on a draft outline for a 2017 speech by BP’s then chief executive Robert Dudley. “You don’t say anything about concerns about … the idea that, once built, gas locks in future emissions above a level consistent with 2 degrees, at least without [carbon capture],” a comment reads.

Companies also claimed to support certain climate policies while lobbying against them behind the scenes, the report says.

When the Trump administration said in 2019 it would roll back an Obama-era regulation on methane emissions, for instance, BP and other oil companies publicly opposed the move, yet API, the biggest US oil lobbying group, backed the proposal. And in a 2019 email regarding the EPA’s legal plan to enact the rollback, a BP executive said the proposal was “aligned with our thinking”.

Shell, meanwhile, has long publicly supported a carbon tax, but documents show it fought such a policy in Washington state. In a 2018 email about the proposal, a company media manager explained that the company wished to maintain its “status as a global champion for a carbon price” and appear “neutral” on the policy, but said that “was made complicated” when the Seattle Times asked Shell about its membership in the Western States Petroleum Association, which lobbied against the bill.

The newly revealed documents also show that the companies refused to comply with the congressional investigation. “Several thousand documents that the companies produced were substantially redacted to obscure clearly relevant and potentially critical information, or they were just withheld outright,” Raskin said in a video detailing the findings.

The new documents come as big oil faces an increasing number of lawsuits for allegedly lying about the dangers of using fossil fuels. Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, which has supported the litigation, said the revelations could “provide new material evidence for the cases” and “push them along”.

Lawsuits filed by Chicago, Pennsylvania’s Bucks county, Puerto Rico and the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe have cited the House oversight committee’s previous subpoenaed documents as evidence of their claims.

“This is the most important thing that Congress is doing right now on climate change,” Wiles said.

In an emailed statement about the report, API spokesperson Andrea Woods said: “At a time of persistent inflation and geopolitical instability, our nation needs more American energy – including more oil and natural gas – and less unfounded election-year rhetoric.”