Oil industry set agenda during climate summit meeting with big greens

The meeting was condemned by grassroots environmental activists.

Image credit: Bartolomej Tomic, CC BY 2.0

Last week, as climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit, invited leaders from major environmental groups spent their day listening to the leaders of fossil fuel companies discuss how they want to respond to the climate crisis.

Depending on which room you were in, you would have heard two very different messages.

Thunberg’s widely watched speech evoked the urgency of acting on climate change.

“People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing,” Thunberg told the UN summit. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

Just blocks away, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), whose members include oil giants like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, Saudi Aramco, and BP, was meeting with representatives from large environmental organizations, talking about ways to moderately reduce greenhouse gas pollution while continuing business as usual.

The OGCI had planned a busy schedule for organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, according to a draft planning document from the event obtained by DeSmog.

The draft, dated August 21, shows that a “breakfast and portfolio review” would start the day, hosted by the CEO of oil giant BP, Bob Dudley, and Pratima Rangarajan, CEO of the OGCI Climate Investments.

The full day of sessions, preceded by an invitation-only forum the night before, would include CEOs of global oil majors speaking alongside Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF); Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy; and Collin O’Mara, head of the National Wildlife “Foundation,” the draft agenda said (O’Mara heads the National Wildlife Federation).DOCUMENTNOTESTEXTZoom

The meeting was condemned by grassroots environmental activists.

“This is how lobbying and greenwash works: private meetings, on the sidelines, back door stuff, handpicked attendees,” environmental group Extinction Rebellion told The Guardian. “But it’s a fool’s errand to find industry-led, voluntary initiatives resulting in the changes needed because it is manifestly against the financial interests of oil companies to stop extracting the Earth’s resources.”

Dining for dollars

As Thunberg spoke, OGCI’s schedule called for attendees to be in the midst of a three-hour session co-hosted by BP’s Dudley and featuring representatives from green groups. 

The subject of that conversation: investments made by OGCI member companies, as part of their response to a changing climate that has already begun bringing deadly weather, rising sea levels, and other catastrophes.

members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative
Members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative include national and multinational oil and gas companies.

Thirteen firms, which combined received financial backing of “more than $100 m[illion] in investment” from OGCI, presented at the forum’s portfolio. That included companies offering methane leak technologies, carbon capture plans, and “technologies including machine-learning thermostats and cylindrical sails for ships,” according to the Financial Times.

Those investments are part of OGCI’s heavily marketed $1 billion investment fund, formed in 2015, which calls carbon capture “recycling carbon dioxide.” OGCI’s website says the organization represents companies that produce 30 percent of the world’s oil and gas and operate in 130 of the world’s roughly 200 countries.

To put the size of their investment fund into perspective, in 2018, the top dozen publicly traded oil companies reported combined revenues of $1.69 trillion, up from $1.42 trillion in 2017 — meaning that the $1 billion fund is dwarfed by the oil industry’s $270 billion in revenue growth from continued fossil fuel production in just one year. (It’s not a perfect comparison — OGCI counts many national oil companies in its ranks, including the China National Petroleum Company, Pemex, Petrobras, and Saudi Aramco, while the dozen firms reporting revenues are all publicly traded firms. Plus, those revenues are figures for just one year while the OGCI’s billion dollar plans are spread across a decade, but it offers a rough sense of the scale of the oil industry’s “investment” response.)

The initiative’s big announcement at the UN Climate Action Summit: a “Kickstarter” to “double the amount of CO2 emissions stored around the world by the end of the next decade,” according to E&E News.

Pumping the brakes

The National Wildlife Federation’s Collin O’Mara spoke in support of carbon capture investments at the forum, according to the Financial Times.

“Mr. O’Mara said there was no way to reach net-zero emissions without the technology, which is opposed by some as enabling the continued combustion of fossil fuels,” the Financial Times reported. “‘The time for purity is over,’ he said. ‘We need it all. We need every technology.’”

Other environmental groups, however, have warned that instead of speeding up the world’s response to climate change, carbon capture projects may actually slow things down. In February, the Center for International Environmental Law published a report warning that pursuing carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects could hinder climate action — in part because many schemes don’t call for “captured” carbon to be simply stored indefinitely, but instead used to produce more fossil fuels.

Carbon capture project in Alberta, Canada.
A carbon capture project in Alberta, Canada. Credit: Ramsey Martin, Pexels

“Most large-scale CCS projects use captured carbon for enhanced oil recovery or enhanced coal bed methane,” the report found. “Proponents of carbon capture and storage estimate that its use for [enhanced oil recovery] could spur consumption of 40 percent more coal and up to 923 million additional barrels of oil in the U.S. alone by 2040.”

“CCUS [carbon capture, use, and storage] is valuable to the fossil fuel industry in three key ways: it expands oil production, provides a lifeline to a declining coal industry, and further entrenches the overall fossil fuel economy,” the report continued. “Incentivizing CCUS through policy and relying on it in planning will likely slow the transition away from fossil fuel investments and undermine broader efforts to mitigate climate change.”

That’s not great news — and not just from OGCI’s perspective — given that UN scenarios for limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) of warming all rely on the development of “negative emissions technology” projects. Though the UN’s scenarios keeping warming to 2 degrees include options that don’t rely on negative emissions technology, according to a 2018 scientific literature review published in Environmental Research Letters, the differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees C are stark.

Setting the agenda

Thunberg’s speech had predicted the difficulties many would face in acknowledging the scale of the climate crisis.

“There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable,” she said. “And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

EDF’s Mark Brownstein had earlier defended his choice to attend the oil industry event.

“Their New York gathering, part of something called the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), could reveal important signs as to how serious they are about picking up the pace,” Brownstein wrote in a September 22 blog published by Forbes, adding that companies could show they were serious by demonstrating investment in carbon capture technologies and by cutting methane emissions.

“You make progress by talking to people that you don’t always agree with as well as people that you do agree with,” Brownstein told The Guardian. “Climate change is a global challenge and we cannot afford to marginalize anyone.”

That said, talking to oil company CEOs and allowing them to set the agenda are two different things. And the OGCI has previously come under fire from critics who charge it with saying one thing and doing another.

“These companies funded the earliest climate science. They were among the first to figure out that extracting and burning fossil fuels significantly impacts the presence of [greenhouse gases] in our atmosphere and has serious environmental impacts,” added Lena Greenberg of SustainUS. “What did they do with this knowledge? They led a dangerously effective disinformation campaign.”

“The OGCI regularly makes statements of intent in the weeks leading up to the annual UN international climate talks,” DeSmog reports in a profile of the organization last updated in January. “These announcements have been criticized as ‘greenwashing’ exercises, with many of the same companies often involved in obstructing efforts to take action on climate change through lobbying activities.”

As of press time, the OGCI had not responded to a request for comment from DeSmog.

Industry funding, industry talking points

The Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), one of the other organizations named in the draft schedule, has previously come under fire for its funding by the fossil fuel industry. 

As DeSmog previously reported, the center took funding from ExxonMobil in 2014 and 2015, and had a history of financial ties to other oil and gas giants.

“Run and founded by Jason Bordoff, President Obama’s former Senior Director for Energy and Climate Change on the Staff of the National Security Council, CGEP also features other big names: Carlos Pascual, former head of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Bureau of Energy Resources and Global Shale Gas Initiative; Keith Benes, former Obama Administration State Department attorney-adviser; Jim Rogers, former CEO of coal giant Duke Energy and many others,” Steve Horn wrote in July 2016. Bordoff was scheduled to speak at the OGCI event.

“Bordoff and CGEP are known for pushing industry talking points,” DeSmog’s Justin Mikulka wrote in July 2018. “Both played a leading role in pushing to lift the U.S. crude oil export ban, using arguments that in hindsight have proven to be deeply flawed. Still, they were consistent with the oil and gas industry message at the time — and in 2015 the export ban was lifted.”

Outside, climate activists partially surrounded the building where the OGCI’s meeting took place, holding a banner reading, “ExxonKnew: Make Them Pay.”

They sought to focus attention not on what was said inside the forum, but on what OGCI member companies do outside of the meeting room every day.

“The companies in OGCI pretend to care about the climate crisis,” said Collin Rees of Oil Change International, “yet are actively building out enough fossil fuel infrastructure to shatter the world’s carbon budgets and make a mockery of the Paris Agreement.”


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Sharon Kelly is an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Prior to beginning freelance writing, she worked as a law clerk for the ACLU of Delaware.