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 one company discuss whether BP, Shell and TotalEnergies — a French oil firm — increased their carbon footprints by selling Canadian oil sands interests to other 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?”
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 the 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. In a previous release of documents on Sept. 14, the committee accused oil companies of continued deception, following previous revelations about oil companies working to undermine the credibility of climate science.
“Rather than outright deny global warming, the fossil fuel industry has ‘greenwashed’ its record through deceptive advertising and climate pledges — without meaningfully reducing emissions,” the committee said in a memo.
Each company in the report — including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell in addition to the American Petroleum Institute — was asked by the committee to provide approximately 15 to 30 documents.
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,” one email said about the Exxon 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 currently 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, an oil company official voices 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.
“At the moment the likes of Naomi Oreskes (Merchants of Doubt) 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,” the official wrote.
The documents also detail a 2017 spat between Shell’s outgoing chief executive Ben van Beurden and Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy organization. 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.