How ‘Big Oil’ Works the System and Keeps Winning

Yves here. Among other things, this article gives some of the high points of how the oil industry has used highly honed PR skills to burnish its image and minimize government intervention.

By Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University, and the author of several books, including Merchants of Doubt and Why Trust Science? who has extensively researched the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to deny the reality of manmade climate change and its links to the tobacco industry and Jeff Nesbit is the author of Poison Tea, which exposed for the first time the close ties between the tobacco industry and Koch donor network front groups. Originally published at Yale Climate Connections

Despite countless investigations, lawsuits, social shaming, and regulations dating back decades, the oil and gas industry remains formidable. After all, it has made consuming its products seem like a human necessity. It has confused the public about climate science, bought the eternal gratitude of one of America’s two main political parties, and repeatedly out-maneuvered regulatory efforts. And it has done all this in part by thinking ahead and then acting ruthlessly. While the rest of us were playing checkers, its executives were playing three-dimensional chess.

Take this brief tour of the industry’s history, and then ask yourself: Is there any doubt that these companies are now working to keep the profits rolling in, even as mega-hurricanes and roaring wildfires scream the dangers of the climate emergency?

The John D. Rockefeller Myth

Ida Tarbell is one of the most celebrated investigative journalists in American history. Long before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal, Tarbell’s reporting broke up the Standard Oil monopoly. In 19 articles that became a widely read book, History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, she exposed its unsavory practices. In 1911, federal regulators used Tarbell’s findings to break Standard Oil into 33 much smaller companies.

David had slayed Goliath. The U.S. government had set a monopoly-busting standard for future generations. John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil’s owner, lost. The good guys won – or so it seemed.

In fact, Rockefeller saw what was coming and ended up profiting – massively – from the breakup of his company. Rockefeller made sure to retain significant stock holdings in each of Standard Oil’s 33 offspring and position them in different parts of the U.S. where they wouldn’t compete against one another. Collectively, the 33 offspring went on to make Rockefeller very, very rich. Indeed, it was the breakup of Standard Oil that tripled his wealth and made him the wealthiest man in the world. In 1916, five years after Standard Oil was broken up, Rockefeller became the world’s first billionaire.

Say It Ain’t So, Dr. Seuss!

One of the offspring of Standard Oil was Esso (S-O, spelled out), which later launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. It did so by relying on the talents of a young cartoonist who millions would later adore under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. Decades before authoring the pro-environment parable The Lorax, Theodore Geisel helped Esso market “Flit,” a household spray gun that killed mosquitoes. What Americans weren’t told was that the pesticide DDT made up 5% of each blast of Flit.

When Esso put considerable creative resources behind the Flit campaign, it was looking years ahead to a time when it would also successfully market oil-based products. The campaign ran for 17 years in the 1940s and 1950s, at the time an unheard of run for an ad campaign. It taught Esso and other Standard Oil companies how to sell derivative products (like plastic and pesticides) that made the company and the brand a household name in the minds of the public. In its day, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was as ubiquitous as “Got Milk?” is today.

At the time, the public (and even many scientists) didn’t appreciate the deadly nature of DDT. That didn’t come until the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. But accepting that DDT was deadly was hard, in part because of the genius of Geisel, whose wacky characters – strikingly similar to the figures who would later populate Dr. Seuss books – energetically extolled Flit’s alleged benefits.

Geisel later said the experience “taught me conciseness and how to marry pictures with words.” The Flit ad campaign was incredibly smart and clever marketing. It taught the industry how to sell a dangerous and unnecessary product as if it were something useful and even fun. Years later, ExxonMobil would take that cleverness to new heights in its advertorials. They weren’t about clever characters. But they were awfully clever, containing few, if any, outright lies, but a whole lot of half-truths and misrepresentations. It was clever enough to convince the New York Times to run them without labeling them as the advertisements that they, in fact, were. Their climate “advertorials” appeared in the op-ed page of the New York Times and were part of what scholars have called “the longest, regular (weekly) use of media to influence public and elite opinion in contemporary America.”

Controlling Climate Science

Big Oil also saw climate change coming. As abundant investigative reporting and academic studies have documented, the companies’ own scientists were telling their executives in the 1970s that burning more oil and other fossil fuels would overheat the planet. (Other scientists had been saying so since the 1960s.) The companies responded by lying about the danger of their products, blunting public awareness, and lobbying against government action. The result is today’s climate emergency.

Less well-known is how oil and gas companies didn’t just lie about their own research. They also mounted a stealth campaign to monitor and influence what the rest of the scientific community learned and said about climate change.

The companies worked with scientists in universities and made sure they were present at important conferences. They nominated them to be contributors to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body whose assessments from 1990 onward defined what the press, public, and policymakers thought was true about climate science. While the IPCC reports, which rely on consensus science, were sound, Big Oil’s scientific participation gave them an insider’s view of the road ahead. More ominously, they introduced the art of questioning the consensus science in forums where every word is parsed.

The industry was employing a strategy pioneered by tobacco companies, but with a twist. Beginning in the 1950s, the tobacco industry cultivated a sotto voce network of scientists at scores of American universities and medical schools, whose work it funded. Some of these scientists were actively engaged in research to discredit the idea that cigarette smoking was a health risk, but most of it was more subtle; the industry supported research on causes of cancer and heart disease other than tobacco, such as radon, asbestos, and diet. It was a form of misdirection, designed to deflect our attention away from the harms of tobacco and onto other things. The scheme worked for a while, but when it was exposed in the 1990s, in part through lawsuits, the bad publicity largely killed it. What self-respecting scientist would take tobacco industry money after that?

The oil and gas industry learned from that mistake and decided that, instead of working surreptitiously, it would work in the open. And rather than work primarily with individual scientists whose work might be of use, it would seek to influence the direction of the scientific community as a whole. The industry’s internal scientists continued to do research and publish peer-reviewed articles, but the industry also openly funded university collaborations and other researchers. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, Exxon was known both as a climate research pioneer, and as a generous patron of university science, supporting student research and fellowships at many major universities. Its scientists also worked alongside senior colleagues at NASA, the Department of Energy, and other key institutions, and funded breakfasts, luncheons, and other activities at scientific meetings. Those efforts had the net effect of creating goodwill and bonds of loyalty. It’s been effective.

The industry’s scientists may have been operating in good faith, but their work helped delay public recognition of the scientific consensus that climate change was unequivocally man-made, happening now, and very dangerous. The industry’s extensive presence in the field also gave it early access to cutting edge research it used to its advantage. Exxon, for example, designed oil platforms to accommodate more rapid sea level rise, even as the company publicly denied that climate change was occurring.

Don’t Call It Methane, It’s ‘Natural’ Gas

Methane is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, yet it has received far less attention. One reason is that the oil and gas industry has positioned methane – which marketing experts cleverly labeled “natural gas” – as the future of the energy economy. The industry promotes methane gas as a “clean” fuel that’s needed to bridge the transition from today’s carbon economy to tomorrow’s renewable energy era. Some go further and see gas as a permanent part of the energy landscape: BP’s plan is renewables plus gas for the foreseeable future, and the company and other oil majors frequently invoke “low carbon” instead of “no carbon.”

Except that methane gas isn’t clean. It’s about 80 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is.

As recently as a decade ago, many scientists and environmentalists viewed “natural gas” as a climate hero. The oil and gas industry’s ad guys encouraged this view by portraying gas as a coal killer. The American Petroleum Institute paid millions to run its first-ever Super Bowl ad in 2017, portraying gas as an engine of innovation that powers the American way of life. Between 2008 and 2019, API spent more than $750 million on public relations, advertising, and communications (for both oil and gas interests), an analysis by the Climate Investigations Center found. Today, most Americans view gas as clean, even though science shows that we can’t meet our climate goals without quickly transitioning away from it. The bottom line is that we can’t solve a problem caused by fossil fuels with more fossil fuels. But the industry has made a lot of us think otherwise.

There’s little chance the oil and gas industry can defeat renewable energy in the long term. Wind, solar, and geothermal, which are clean and cost-competitive, will eventually dominate energy markets. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, GridLab, and Energy Innovation have found that the U.S. can achieve 90% clean electricity by the year 2035 with no new gas and at no additional cost to consumers. But the oil and gas industry doesn’t need to win the fight in the long term. It just needs to win right now so it can keep developing oil and gas fields that will be in use for decades to come. To do that, it just has to keep doing what it has done for the past 25 years: win today, fight again tomorrow.

A Spider’s Web of Pipelines

Here’s a final example of how the oil and gas industry plans for the next war even as its adversaries are still fighting the last one. Almost no one outside of a few law firms, trade groups, and congressional staff in Washington, DC, knows what the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is or does. But the oil and gas industry knows, and it moved quickly after Donald Trump became president to lay the groundwork for decades of future fossil fuel dependency.

FERC has long been seen as a rubber stamp for the oil and gas industry: The industry proposes gas pipelines, and FERC approves them. When FERC approves a pipeline, that approval grants the pipeline eminent domain, which in effect makes the pipeline all but impossible to stop.

Oil and gas industry executives seized upon Donald Trump’s arrival in the White House. In the opening days of his administration, independent researchers listened in on public trade gatherings of the executives, who talked about “flooding the zone” at FERC. The industry planned to submit not just one or two but nearly a dozen interstate gas pipeline requests. Plotted on a map, the projected pipelines covered so much of the U.S. that they resembled a spider’s web.

Once pipelines are in the system, companies can start to build them, and utility commissioners in every corner of America see this gas “infrastructure” as a fait accompli. And pipelines are built to last decades. In fact, if properly maintained, a pipeline can last forever in principle. This strategy could allow the oil and gas industry to lock in fossil fuel dependency for the rest of the century.

In hindsight, it’s clear that oil and gas industry leaders used outright climate denial when it suited their corporate and political interests throughout the 1990s. But now that outright denial is no longer credible, they’ve pivoted from denial to delay. Industry PR and marketing efforts have shifted massive resources to a central message that, yes, climate change is real, but that the necessary changes will require more research and decades to implement, and above all, more fossil fuels. Climate delay is the new climate denial.

Nearly every major oil and gas company now claims that it accepts the science and supports sensible climate policies. But their actions speak louder than words. It’s clear that the future they want is one that still uses fossil fuels abundantly—regardless of what the science says. Whether it is selling deadly pesticides or deadly fossil fuels, they will do what it takes to keep their products on the market. Now that we’re in a race to a clean energy future, it’s time to recognize that they simply can’t be trusted as partners in that race. We’ve been fooled too many times.

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  1. Rod

    Between 2008 and 2019, API spent more than $750 million on public relations, advertising, and communications (for both oil and gas interests), an analysis by the Climate Investigations Center found.

    The Big Burn (for me) is that consumers, in reality, funded this.
    and this

    What does the CEO of Exxon make?
    Compensation by Company
    Name And Title Total Compensation

    D. W. Woods Chairman and CEO Total Compensation $16,424,332 View details
    N. W. Duffin President, ExxonMobil Global Projects Company Total Compensation $7,309,481 View details
    N. A. Chapman Senior Vice President Total Compensation $8,924,231 View details

  2. Carolinian

    So if not for all that clever marketing and propaganda we would have no oil and gas industry? Of course that’s not true and while their methods may resemble the tobacco companies, their products are a completely different matter. It’s really capitalism in general that is the villain here but even it is in response to human needs in its own distorted way. You can’t talk about the rise of the petroleum industry without also talking about the rise of the auto industry and even the real estate industry–a big factor in American life even in George Washington’s time–and their zeal for profits.

    In the end we are all collaborators in the current mess because we need the real estate, the food, even the DDT as anyone living in the South can testify. (Although in the end the environmental and health costs of killing all those mosquitoes was shown to be too great and substitutes were found and used in a more limited way.)

    It didn’t take propaganda to get humans to overspread the Earth. We are just built that way. But now that the crisis is at hand birthrates may drop on their own. For the other sources of the crisis it’s surely time to work on our capitalism problem. Lying has become very much a part of it.

    1. Susan the other

      “…it’s surely time to work on our capitalism problem.” Our’s and the world’s. But the amount of oil drilling is too nuts to blame on mere work-a-day-numbed-out capitalist economies. And we are definitely addicted. There’s no other word – but we can quit. Profit is the problem, imo, but it goes beyond profit. Climate change is upon us, yet we are drilling at an accelerated pace. I doubt the goal is to produce a glut of oil. So what is it? It could be to get in and discover any remaining available oil/gas fields before fossil fuels are shut down. But still, why bother? Maybe oil companies are looking at final profits from cashing in their soon-to-be-stranded assets by selling to governments, nations. I’m hoping that is what is going on right now – “last chance” behavior. And in the near future when the oil industry is nationalized (I assume this will happen because it is the only way to control it) and there is no more oil exploration and clean energy takes over – then oil/gas will be strictly conserved for special uses long into the future. But back to profit: All the trickle down profits set in motion by the petroleum industrial revolution, in turn setting off the need to “invest” in even more profits, also produced by cheap oil – all these “profits” need to be replaced – maybe not with what we now see as profits (usually some form of exploitation somewhere) but the means to exist safely and comfortably. What goes around comes around. We’ll be busy creating a new system that provides well-being at least as efficiently as the last 2 centuries of trickle-down profits. I’m convinced we are well on our way toward this transition. Otherwise we are hopelessly insane.

  3. LowellHighlander

    Though my question here is one that falls outside the purview of the article, I have to ask whether funding politicians in both major parties was another tactic of their larger strategies?

  4. Telee

    Biden administration is now granting oil and gas leases at a faster rate than Trump. Obama increased oil and gas production by 175% and of course Trump did all he could to aid the fossil fuel industry. Biden has pledged that the US would be carbon neutral by 2050 but for now its drill drill drill. All presidents are on the side of big oil and other big corporate players while claiming to be combating global warming. This is a huge market failure.

    1. Oh

      Biden is a liar and follows a long list of liars who resided in the white house and took corporate money.
      Biden’s promoting electric cars and that really shifts the natural gas consumption to electric utilities. Does diddly for the reduction of global heating.
      Let’s go Brandon!

  5. rick shapiro

    Methane is not really intrinsically even close to 80 times as potent as CO2 as a greenhouse gas. The genesis of this rubric is that additional methane in the atmosphere directly increases blockage of terrestrial radiation at methane’s absorption frequencies. CO2 concentration, on the other hand is already saturated with respect to radiation into space. Additional amounts contribute to global warming only because of the adiabatic lapse rate, which causes the average temperature surrounding re-radiating CO2 to decrease (thereby decreasing radiation intensity) when CO2 is added to the atmosphere.

    1. JakSiemasz

      So this is incorrect???
      The 20-year global warming potential of methane is 84.That is, over a 20-year period, it traps 84 times more heat per mass unit than carbon dioxide (CO2) and 105 times the effect when accounting for aerosol interactions.

    2. Kris Alman

      This comment spurred me to research more on the adiabatic lapse rate. In doing so, I wondered if our troposphere (demarcated by the tropopause) is expanding with climate change. Indeed it is.

      Climate Change is Raising the Top of the Troposphere

      As a result, the researchers found that most of the tropopause height increase (about 70%) in the last 20 years could be attributed to the warming troposphere. This was a significant change from the period between 1980 and 2000, when tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling contributed roughly equally to the tropopause height increase. “I personally find that the most interesting part [of the paper],” Lin said.

      Humanity’s impact on the tropopause can have consequences for the whole climate system. For example, Lin said, the tropopause temperature affects the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere, which in turn influences Earth’s surface temperature.

      Hmmm… I have been wondering about the atmospheric rivers flooding the Pacific NW.

  6. Brian

    If oil was a US capitalist conspiracy, we would see alternative energies in use in abundance outside the US sphere of control.

    Oil (and coal) is used because it is convenient. The dishonest cover-up of climate change is by powers that want to prevent the US/West from unilateral adoption of energy sources which are less convenient to use while their traditional strategic adversaries lag in adoption. It looks like a prisoner’s dilemma to me.

    Since Russia and China are choosing to slow-walk their greenhouse gas reduction transition, the only way forward is to find a way to demonstrate that green energy has other economic benefits. Because climate change is an external cost, bad actors benefit from early adopters in GG reduction while also benefitting from the convenience of fossil fuels.

    When you get to a point of diminishing returns on reduction of GG (like Chinese coal emissions are fixed), further efforts do increasingly less to change the atmospheric temperature increase. It becomes a waste of effort if the big sources aren’t changing.

    The only solution would be technology breakthroughs that would be so attractive to Russia and China that adoption would be necessary for them to compete. Both those powers are more or less hunkering down trying to wait out the decline of US hegemony so I doubt they will change course. Their entire focus is resisting the death throes of the US monopolar world, not virtuous efforts toward GG reduction. For now it looks like the strategic world of power and militarism trumps efforts to reduce the tragic damage of climate change. It also seems unlikely to change as US policy remains directed at employing their remaining military leverage toward Taiwan and Ukraine.

  7. Dave in Austin

    The article says: “Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, GridLab, and Energy Innovation have found that the U.S. can achieve 90% clean electricity by the year 2035 with no new gas and at no additional cost to consumers.”

    When I dig past the link cited for the “90% clean electricity” claim (which is largely-handwaving) and go to the “no new gas” link, I find under it, which is a pitch for a hydrogen economy based on the electrolysis of water using solar and wind power.

    But the report makes very optimistic assumptions based on a “8-10x cost reduction by 2030” claim and also says that the Chinese are already partway there. Page 4 says “The cost of alkaline electrolyzers made in North America and Europe fell 40% between 2014 and 2019, and Chinese made systems are already up to 80% cheaper than those made in the west”. There is no cite supporting the China claim and I can find no other reference that supports it.

    My analysis is not intended to denigrate this excellent and well-researched report. However the report is a speculative projection. For at least five years Japan and Toyota have been making big bets on hydrogen as the transportation fuel of the future. But I’ve lived through a number of engineering revolutions that didn’t make it; nuclear power, the supersonic transport, fluidic control systems, the rear-engine car and power from ocean tides are examples.

    The North America and European costs cited by the report (a 40% drop between 2014-2019) indicate it will take 20-40 years to reach the “break-even” cost for competing with natural gas prices if the present trend continues. Chemical engineering is filled with examples of cost reductions caused by throwing engineers and money at problems early-on… cost reductions which hit a brick wall once the easy savings are achieved. Physical laws are tough enemies. Even this Bloomberg report says: “The signs of scale-up are not yet there.”

    Reports are cheap and easy to produce; billion-dollar chemical plants aren’t. Caveat Emptor.

  8. Cetra Ess

    Not mentioned are the hundreds of “private investigators” and “contractors” hired to do still ongoing extra-judicial investigation of environmentalists and local activists, wherever they may be, creating dossiers and scary “environmentalists are terrorists” powerpoints for local police services, inviting police services to planning meetings, “training” police on what laws they can invoke in charging activists, making “donations” of ATV’s, MRAPS, water cannon, LRADS, etc., to police services along pipelines, contributing funds and guidance to legal prosecutions.

    And someone asked above, isn’t this normal, how other industries behave? As far as I know, only the Canadian mining industry is also like this, but they also go as far as executing environmental activists especially in South America and Africa. No direct proof but kinda obvious who might have a vested interest in popping off anti-mining activists.

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