What Fossil Fuel Industry Deception Tells Us About How to Survive the Climate Emergency

Karen Sokol

July 22, 2021

On the last day of June, an entire village in Canada was engulfed in a wildfire after the country recorded its highest temperature ever. That same day, Greenpeace UK's investigative team published a striking tape of two Exxon senior employees' candid accounts of the fossil fuel industry's surreptitious lobbying efforts to undermine climate action.

ExxonMobil and other major oil and gas companies have long been deceiving the public about the catastrophic dangers of their products in order to undermine international and national climate policy and maintain their social license. This latest tape is a significant contribution to mounting evidence of the industry's ongoing disinformation campaign in the service of protecting its highly lucrative and planet-destroying business, particularly at this pivotal moment.

On the tape, the lobbyists detail how the industry is currently applying its deceptive tactics to wipe climate initiatives out of President Joe Biden's original $2 trillion infrastructure proposal. Although many suspected such interference, we now have first-hand confirmation from an industry insider who is apparently playing a leading role in the effort. (In response to the interviews, ExxonMobil posted a statement on its website denying that the lobbyists' comments represented the company's "position on a variety of issues, including climate policy.")

The lobbyists' accounts deconstruct the industry's deceptive tactics to pollute public discourse with disinformation about the climate emergency and the appropriate response. They can — and must — inform and empower our response going forward.

A Wrench in the Works

How so? Let's look at a recent example of the industry's purported climate initiatives in light of the insight into its disinformation tactics provided by Keith McCoy, a senior lobbyist for Exxon, and Dan Easley, the company's chief White House lobbyist during the Obama and Trump administrations. (Easley left Exxon in January.)

At the end of June, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the largest U.S. oil and gas trade association — and the mouthpiece for oil and gas companies — announced what it characterized as "the next step in its efforts to accelerate climate solutions."

In the interview, McCoy pointed to another one of the industry's purported climate initiatives: recent support for a carbon tax. "Nobody is going to propose a tax on all Americans," he said, "and the cynical side of me says, 'Yeah, we kind of know that,' but it gives us a talking point that we can say, 'Well, what is ExxonMobil for? Well, we're for a carbon tax.' "

API's latest "climate solution" is similarly fossil fuel industry code for: "Real climate solutions might be in the works, so let's throw a wrench into the process by claiming we're doing something about it." What's the wrench this time? A "voluntary" template for oil and gas companies to report their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

API's template leaves out "Scope 3" emissions, which result from combustion of a company's fossil fuel products (by, for example, using air conditioners in life-threatening heat waves of a climate-disrupted world). Instead, API's template holds oil and gas companies responsible only for emissions caused by fossil fuel emissions resulting from their operations. In this misleading frame, the industry is just one of many consumers of fossil fuel products — not the supplier of them that it in fact is. Notably, the World Resources Institute offers a template designed to "help companies prepare a GHG inventory that represents a true and fair account of their emissions," and it includes Scope 3 emissions.

A False Account

It's no surprise that Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies would want to provide a false account of their emissions, as it allows them to obscure their role in fueling the climate crisis. Their Scope 3 emissions account for 85 to 95 percent of their total emissions. As Richard Heede, director of the Climate Accountability Institute, found in his groundbreaking report on the issue, the top four investor-owned firms — Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Shell — are responsible for 11 percent of total global emissions from 1965 to 2018. Exxon — the second-ranking investor-owned company on Heede's list — is alone responsible for 3 percent of global emissions.

"These companies and their products are substantially responsible for the climate emergency, have collectively delayed national and global action for decades, and can no longer hide behind the smokescreen that consumers are the responsible parties," Heede concluded.

What would laws that hold fossil fuel companies responsible for "a true and fair account of their emissions" as the fossil fuel suppliers that they are look like? They would impose strong supply-side measures to accelerate the transition to clean energy, including prohibiting new fossil fuel projects and abolishing government subsidies to the industry. In other words, precisely the sort of legislative measures that, as McCoy indicated, the industry has long sought to derail using shadow groups and associations like the API. After all, strong supply-side measures, as former Exxon lobbyist Easley said, "will be difficult for oil and gas" companies because they would "accelerate the transition to the extent that, I think, four years from now it's going to be difficult to unwind that."

Strong supply-side measures are, of course, exactly what we need if we're going to have any hope of living in our new climate reality.

Unlike the law, we can't unwind a disrupted climate. We may be able to mitigate the disruption to improve our chance of adapting to a new climate reality, but only if we act now to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels. As horrifying heatwaves and wildfires make painfully clear, attempts by the industry and its political backers to prevent these life-saving measures with ongoing dissemination of disinformation is nothing short of cruel.

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