May 26, 2024

A congressional hearing over the fossil fuel industry’s “evolving efforts to avoid accountability for climate change” turned into a spectacle Wednesday morning when lawmakers in Washington, DC, grilled a panel of experts on wide-ranging — and often irrelevant — topics. However, the thousands of internal oil company documents released before the trial contain some bombshell findings.

One of the biggest revelations is that BP executives understood that natural gas, which the company promoted as a “bridge” or “destination” fuel to a cleaner future as coal declined, was incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement signed in 2015. “[O]Gas already built includes future emissions above a level consistent with 2 degrees,” at least without widespread carbon capture technology, according to a commentary on a concept outline for a speech by BP’s CEO in 2017.

“This is the first evidence I’ve seen of them admitting internally, at the highest levels, that they know this – natural gas is a climate disaster – and yet they’re still promoting it,” said Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmental advocacy organization.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, invited expert witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing to speak about the industry’s efforts to shape media coverage and academic research and allegations that they have misled the public through misleading advertising. But Republican lawmakers have gone off the script and asked questions about boreal forest fires, claiming that reducing fossil fuel production would cause Americans to “sell blood to pay their electricity bill.” Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana at one point read a list of old Twitter posts in an attempt to discredit Geoffrey Supran, a climate researcher who testified at the event, apparently not realizing that the posts in question had been retweeted which was not written by Supran.

The hearing was the outcome of a three-year congressional investigation that sought to uncover new information about fossil fuel companies’ history of spreading disinformation about climate change. The first trialin October 2021, focused on an early chapter of that history, the 1970s, and drew testimony from executives from BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Shell, as well as two industry lobby groups – the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce .

Now lawmakers have turned their attention to recent history. Ahead of the trial, they released about 4,500 subpoenaed documents dating back to 2015 that show how oil companies’ internal discussions about the Paris Agreement, methane emissions, and investigations into their own climate denial deviated from their public statements. The new evidence, summarized in a 60 page reportcould be critical to lawsuits alleging that oil companies lied to the public about climate change, as they provide evidence of ongoing deception.

Photo taken from behind of a man gesturing while speaking to a congressional committee
U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, testifies during the Senate hearing on Capitol Hill on May 1.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Internal documents show that BP recognized the risks associated with producing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that leaking regularly from old oil and gas wells. The company tried to respond to bad press surrounding methane with a $1.1 million communications campaign, according to a draft presentation marked “confidential” as of 2018. One of the pillars was to “harness excitement around renewable energy by positioning gas as the perfect partner,” including plans to fund research from Imperial College London “highlighted. [the] role of gas as a friend to renewable energy.” The following year, when a study found that methane leaks could outweigh the fuel’s emissions efficiency benefits, a BP executive wrote in an email that the findings were “quite troubling to us as another blow against natural gas.”

The documents also suggest that oil companies’ support for the Paris agreement was superficial. Executives from Exxon and BP have privately doubted that limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the goal of the international climate agreement, is achievable, even though they have publicly expressed support for it.

Other sections of the report describe the fossil fuel industry’s resistance to US policies to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions, as well as their extensive promotion of low-carbon technologies they did not think had much of a future. Exxon Mobil, for example, has strongly promoted its investments in carbon sequestration despite admitting internally that it has no intention of deploying the technology on the scale needed to prevent dangerous levels of global warming. The company also spent $175 million advertising its research algae biofuel despite employees admitting that the possibility of actually using the technology in large-scale practice remained “decades away” and that the advertising may have been misleading.

The documents also shed more light on the $700 million BP, Chevron, Exxon and Shell spent between 2010 and 2020 on academic research programs at universities including Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The funding was part of a philanthropic effort to “gain access to policymakers and influential thought leaders,” according to the report. Additional documents indicate that the companies tracked down critics in “weekly activist reports” and tried to destroy news stories about them.

During the hearing, Representative Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Maryland, lamented the fossil fuel companies’ efforts to mislead the public rather than warn them about the consequences of their products. “They could have been the neighborhood Paul Revere,” he said. “But they were more like Rip Van Winkle and wanted everyone to go to sleep for a century.”

In response to Grist’s request for comment, BP and the American Petroleum Institute did not address the Democratic lawmakers’ report, but reaffirmed their commitment to moving toward renewable energy. BP said it is “investing in today’s energy system while helping to build tomorrow’s.”

An Exxon Mobil spokesman said the report’s “tired allegations … have already been publicly addressed” in previous congressional hearings and in court and pointed to the company’s efforts to reduce emissions. A Shell spokesman said documents highlighted in the report “are evidence of Shell’s efforts to set realistic targets … and participate meaningfully in the energy transition.” Chevron and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not respond to Grist’s requests for comment.

The results of the investigation could ultimately support attorneys general who have sued the fossil fuel industry. Oil companies currently face about 30 lawsuits for misleading the public about the consequences of burning fossil fuels. Those cases, filed by state and local governments and Native American tribes, are moving closer to trial after years of delay. Some of them drew on subpoenaed documents released by the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability in 2022. The new evidence released this week, focusing on the last decade, “really adds to the existing evidence base in the critical phase that’s going to be needed as a point of proof in these cases,” Wiles said.

There is probably much more to uncover. During the hearing, Raskin said companies used a “paper blizzard tactic,” overwhelming investigators with hundreds of thousands of emails, newsletters and other “fluff documents.” He claimed that thousands of documents were withheld or heavily redacted by oil companies to hide relevant information.

“If the companies really complied in good faith,” Raskin said, “who knows what else we might have discovered.”

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