House Committee wraps up historic investigation into oil industry

The latest tranche of documents caps off a nearly two-year investigation that appears set to come to an end with Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in January.

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Image Credit: Kevin Wolf/AP

Congressional investigators released a new set of documents that underscored the oil and gas industry’s ongoing attempts to block climate policies and confuse the public about their long-term investments in fossil fuels. The latest tranche of documents caps off a nearly two-year investigation that appears set to come to an end with Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in January.

On December 9, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee published its latest set of documents as part of its ongoing investigation into the oil industry’s history of climate denial and obfuscation. The documents offer more evidence showing that the industry’s “greenwashing” continues up to the present day.

“They’re basically saying, ‘we’re going to increase production, we’re going to increase emissions, but we’re also going to be able to claim being this clean tech company, this green company, because we can take some symbolic actions that make it look like we’re in the climate fight,’” Rep. Ro Khanna, (D-CA), a member of the committee, told NBC News.

“The cynicism was breathtaking, and unfortunately, it was quite successful,” he said, “It’s been a successful PR strategy.”

The framing over the role of methane gas offers one glaring example. For years, the industry and its supporters have claimed that methane gas serves as a “bridge fuel” due to its perceived climate benefit over burning coal. That claim has not been backed up by the science, which increasingly shows that methane leaks can erase the upside of gas compared to coal. 

But even if true, internal communications show that despite their external claims, oil executives view gas not as a temporary “bridge,” but as something more permanent. 

“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, a former BP vice president said in a 2017 email. “We would not want to spell all this out, but also not implicitly concede the point by referring to it mainly as a ‘bridge.’” 

Another revelation points to the oil industry’s efforts to cultivate influence through its financial support for Ivy League universities. In another 2019 email from Stout, in which he discusses BP’s efforts at “nurturing” its relationship with Princeton University, he admits that ties with major American universities is part of a strategy of burnishing the industry’s image and also enhancing its influence.

“I would only add that in addition to the value in informing our understanding of climate science and policy, these relationships (along with those we have with Harvard, Tufts and Columbia) are key parts of our long-term relationship-building and outreach to policy makers and influencers in the US and globally,” Stout wrote. He added that BP gets “valuable intel” from its ties to the handful of prestigious universities, and that the company is able to “tell the story of what we are doing and why in a more personal and compelling way,” adding that “[i]n return they are able to give us valuable input on our strategies and messaging.”

DeSmog has previously reported on the oil industry’s attempts to push its agenda through Ivy League universities. And a podcast collaboration between Drilled and Earther explored how oil companies have long been influencing American education for corporate benefit, from elementary schools to universities like Harvard. The latest release adds even more explicit evidence of an intentional strategy.

BP and Princeton University did not respond to a request for comment.

These are just a few examples in the latest batch of revelations.

“New evidence released today further confirms what we know to be true—the companies and trade associations under investigation have followed a well-established playbook that includes greenwashing with misleading or outright false claims about their climate-related actions,” Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Such tactics aim to undermine the urgent need to sharply reduce heat-trapping emissions and to stall and obstruct oversight and accountability.”

Quest for accountability continues

In the latest document dump, executives at Shell discuss how they do not want to be associated with ExxonMobil, a company Shell apparently views as too toxic.

“I do not support Shell publicly participating in any announcements, press releases or other public engagement of any kind at this time with XOM,” Gretchen Watkins, the president of Shell Oil Co., said in a 2021 email, using Exxon’s stock symbol.

“Their reputation is severely damaged here, and we will only do harm to the strength of Shell’s US reputation,” she added.

The conflict within the industry is noteworthy, and points to more vulnerability than the public-facing messaging suggests, says Kert Davies, founder and director of Climate Investigations Center.

“Strategically, what we’ve learned is that they are more often on their backfoot than what we know. They pretend to have a unified front, one voice, and they are often doubting themselves and backbiting on each other, or trying to outdo each other, or worried about how others think about them in the industry,” Davies told DeSmog. “The them vs. them stuff is interesting.”

Shell did not respond to a request for comment.

Davies cited that as an example of one of the overarching themes that the House committee investigation has successfully demonstrated — that the oil industry says one thing in private and another thing in public. It also shows that the industry is very concerned about its future.

Republicans captured control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections and will begin a new term in January. That means they will assume the majority on the Oversight Committee and presumably put an end to the investigation.

Even though the committee’s work in this realm will stop, the congressional investigation into the oil industry’s history of deception and its ongoing attempts to foil climate action notched some substantial achievements.

In 2021, the House Oversight and Reform Committee grilled oil executives on their roles in spreading disinformation in a historic public hearing. The investigation has also succeeded in obtaining a vast trove of documents and internal communications that illustrate in detail how oil companies continue to spread a public message about its good-faith efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions while privately admitting that those efforts are misleading.  

“[The committee] did more than anybody has to take this on. They issued pretty strong subpoenas, were rebuffed by and large, but stuck with it. They didn’t take no for an answer. They actually pressured enough to get some documents,” Davies said. “I think Ro Khanna and team deserved to be applauded for pushing a very tough play. Something that many would have never taken on. And the potential for it to go not well and to look bad was high.”

He added that the scope of the committee’s investigation was ambitious, perhaps overly so, and it didn’t have enough time to complete its work. “I wish they had gotten more because it was probably the last time we get a bite at this unless the Senate picks it up,” he said.

Representative Khanna said that millions of documents the committee obtained will be turned over to those that can carry the work forward. “That’s the only way we’re going to have accountability,” he told NBC News. “You can’t expect a House subcommittee to go up against oil companies that have been misleading the American public for 40 years and all of a sudden have accountability.”

It’s not clear what form this will take. The Democrats have a majority in the Senate, which means that Senate committees could conceivably take up the investigation in some form or another.

In a parallel investigation this year, another House committee, the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, shined a spotlight on FTI Consulting, and other PR firms, that have spent years helping its oil and gas clients mislead the public. That effort is also expected to end with the transition in power next month.

Even as the House probes have run their course, advocates praised the House Oversight Committee’s work over the past two years and the insights that have come out of it.

“This investigation is a critical step forward in holding Big Oil accountable for its decades of deception and harm,” Mulvey of the Union of Concerned Scientists said. “With clear evidence in hand, the path toward justice for communities harmed by oil and gas company misconduct is within reach.”

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