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Big Oil talks ‘transition’ but perpetuates petroleum, House documents say

A House committee, accusing oil companies of deception, releases a trove of internal documents revealing how these firms view the ‘energy transition’

Emissions waft from ExxonMobil’s refinery in Baytown, Tex., in December 2021. (Mark Mulligan/Houston Chronicle/AP)
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Some of the world’s major oil companies remain internally skeptical about the “energy transition” to a low-carbon economy, even as they publicly portray their firms as partners in the cause, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post that a House committee released Friday.

The documents are part of a trove obtained by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform during a year-long investigation. They reveal oil company executives dismissing the potential for renewable energy to quickly replace fossil fuels, while working to secure a future for natural gas. They also detail industry efforts to secure government tax credits for carbon capture projects that might relieve them of the need to drastically alter their business models.

The documents — many of them copies of internal emails between oil company officials — describe ExxonMobil’s efforts in 2021 to persuade big industrial firms and oil giants to co-sponsor a mammoth carbon capture project in Texas. Elsewhere, in one email string, officials at Shell discuss whether BP, Shell and TotalEnergies — a French oil firm — increased their carbon footprints by selling Canadian oil sands interests to more eager investors.

Big petroleum companies have come under fire for selling off oil sands properties to smaller businesses, effectively reshuffling the carbon dioxide liability. In response to that criticism, one spokesperson said: “What exactly are we supposed to do instead of divesting … pour concrete over the oil sands and burn the deed to the land so no one can buy them?”

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Scientists say the world must rapidly transition from fossil fuels to prevent the worst expected effects of climate change, a position shared by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee.

For more than a year, the committee has been investigating a handful of major oil companies, along with two of the biggest trade groups in Washington, the American Petroleum Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The investigation has sought documents about the industry’s campaigns to influence public opinion and policy on climate change.

The committee says the industry is misleading the public by advertising a commitment to cleaner energy even as it disproportionately invests in fossil fuels. The committee has accused oil companies of continued deception, following previous revelations about oil companies working to undermine the credibility of climate science.

“These documents demonstrate how the fossil fuel industry ‘greenwashed’ its public image with promises and actions that oil and gas executives knew would not meaningfully reduce emissions, even as the industry moved aggressively to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades to come,” Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), chair of the environment subcommittee, said in a Friday memo outlining their findings to the rest of the committee.

With Democrats losing control of the House in last month’s midterms, this is likely to mark the end of their investigation. Republicans are promising a different day.

“The Democrats’ report is the grand finale of a partisan show designed to demonize America’s energy producers,” said House Committee on Oversight and Reform ranking Republican James Comer (Ky.). He said the committee had issued “unnecessary subpoenas” and vowed that “instead of political stunts, Republicans will return the Oversight Committee to its primary mission” in a new Congress.

Oil company officials rejected claims they are misleading the public. Todd Spitler, ExxonMobil’s senior adviser for media relations and government affairs, said the committee “has sought to misrepresent ExxonMobil’s position on climate science, and its support for effective policy solutions, by recasting well intended, internal policy debates as an attempted company disinformation campaign.”

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the 14-month investigation “failed on all fronts to uncover evidence of a climate disinformation campaign.”

The committee asked each company in the report — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, in addition to the American Petroleum Institute — to provide approximately 15 to 30 documents, running at more than a million pages.

Among the biggest issues was the ExxonMobil effort to rally support for what it said would be a $100 billion carbon capture project south of Houston. ExxonMobil was told by potential partners that they would join only with other companies “with reputable climate credentials and name recognition.”

“Chevron deems Exxon’s numbers related to tons stored, jobs saved, jobs created to be inflated — but harmless inflation,” a Shell email said, assessing the ExxonMobil proposal. “Chevron internally divided about the Houston-centric theme — but considers that a small-stakes concern. Some minor unease in some Chevron quarters about Exxon reputational concerns.”

Many companies hesitated on the Houston project, though more than a dozen back the proposal. ExxonMobil is still looking toward the federal government as a potential source of tax credits to cut costs. The tax credits have been expanded sharply under the recent Inflation Reduction Act.

In another email exchange, this one in 2016, a Shell executive voiced the need to burnish his company’s image in the face of criticism from climate activists, including Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard University scholar and author of a book on the oil industry’s public relations campaigns.

Such activists “are painting people like us as ‘climate deniers’ because we don’t believe that renewable energy will solve the entire transition or that it can be done in a couple of decades,” wrote David Hone, Shell International’s chief climate change adviser.

While many of the committee’s findings were already widely known — often highlighting decisions oil companies have for years made publicly to keep oil production a fundamental part of their business plans — the report details their determination to keep natural gas as a key part of the world’s energy mix. It shows how these companies, especially Europe-based BP and Shell, have made a coordinated effort to shape public opinion around the idea that gas burns cleaner than oil and coal, and still merits investment despite the fact it is still a fossil fuel that produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Gas has often been marketed as a “bridge fuel” to be used temporarily in a transition from coal and oil to wind and solar. But one email includes a BP executive saying the company should avoid that description because it might undermine efforts to keep gas a popular fuel for potentially decades to come.

“For sure the bridge is very long in any event, but it is conceivable that gas could serve as a destination fuel to back up intermittent renewables (possibly with CCS) in the much longer term,” Bob Stout, the company’s former U.S. vice president and head of regulatory affairs said in a 2017 email to other BP executives, using an abbreviation for carbon capture and storage. “We would not want to spell all this out, but also not implicitly concede the point by referring to it mainly as a ‘bridge.’”

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The documents describe BP hiring the public relations firm Brunswick Group to mount an advocacy campaign to support natural gas. And they reveal friction between leaders at Shell and the Environmental Defense Fund over reducing methane emissions from gas wells.

In 2017, Shell’s outgoing chief executive, Ben van Beurden, was frustrated with how Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy organization, described the environmental risks around natural gas, according to the documents. Krupp had said that methane releases all along the natural gas supply chain made it just as bad an energy source as coal from a greenhouse gas perspective.

“I was mightily disappointed in his disservice to the good efforts we in principle should stand shoulder to shoulder on,” van Beurden said of Krupp, canceling a meeting between the two. He said the EDF president’s comments “went one step too far for me.”

Krupp said in an email Friday that he has talked with van Beurden as well as other top executives since then. “The industry continues to release massive amounts of methane, and EDF keeps pressing them, publicly and privately to take actions to close those leaks,” he said.

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