Big Oil Admits to Greenwashing and Gaslighting the Public

Big Oil Admits to Greenwashing and Gaslighting the Public

The oil industry is under intense scrutiny as Congress investigates how the fossil fuel industry has worsened climate change. The inquiry has revealed that major gas and oil companies have openly and explicitly detailed their greenwashing in internal documents.

For example, Exxon publicly stated that it is “committed” to the Paris Agreement. But its CEO privately urged the company to “remove reference to the Paris Agreement” from public communications to relieve customers’ expectations for progress on cutting emissions.

Similarly, a 2020 tweet from Shell asked what the oil giant could do to reduce emissions. The post generated an outpouring of criticism and ridicule for “gaslighting” the public, to which two communications executives for the company responded in agreement, stating the response was “not totally without merit” as the tweet was “pretty tone deaf.”

Shell has also pledged to go “net zero” by 2050. Yet, internal documents from the investigation state, “Shell has no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years.” In fact, company guidance told employees: “Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense.”

Playing both sides, Shell attempted to placate climate-conscious investors and deter greenwashing suits by asking employees to adhere to specific messaging that avoided referring to net zero as a “Shell goal or target” but instead “a collective ambition for the world.”

Grantham Imperial: Dr Friederike Otto speaks to CNN's Connect the World about the extreme heat, 18 July 2022, July 19, 2022.

Our Changing Climate: Why Companies Need to Greenwash, February 11, 2022.

VICE: The Secret Ways The Oil Industry Brainwashes You | Smog + Mirrors, April 22, 2022.

Why This Matters

While it’s no secret that Big Oil has been lying about its climate commitments, it is chilling to see such explicit admissions of inaction and deception. For decades, these companies have been manipulating the public and downplaying climate change, even as more and more evidence suggests that drilling must end to avoid environmental catastrophe. Since the 1970s, the US government has known the role that fossil fuels would play in the climate crisis. And now, as oil giants are making more money than ever, the government is subsidizing them through the year’s “energy crisis.”

NYU Environmental Studies: The Long Game | How Big Oil Delayed Climate Action For Four Decades (with Ben Franta), November 11, 2021.

A 2021 UN report found that “governments plan to burn more than twice the fossil fuels by 2030 that would be consistent with a 1.5 degrees Celsius world” and that the use of all existing reserves would emit “seven times the remaining carbon budget to cap global heating at 1.5 degrees C.” The fossil fuel industry and governments must contend with the necessary reality: oil needs to be on its way out, which means making climate commitments that actually lower emissions.

Reuters: Big oil posts record profits as pump prices surge, July 28, 2022.

IISD: Cutting Emissions Through Fossil Fuel Subsidy Reform and Taxation, April 22, 2022.

DW: Time is running out | WMO warns 1.5 degree threshold could be topped by 2026, May 18, 2022.

Utilities, Too

Other industries have also been producing misleading and faulty information about climate change. A recent study found that electrical utilities have also contributed to climate denial, working alongside oil and gas companies and spending $500 million over the past 20 years to lobby Congress and state governments against renewable energy.

Meanwhile, California has been letting oil companies use fresh drinking water to drill in the face of a megadrought and using inaccurate data regarding the matter.

In a memo released before the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Rep. Ro Khanna stated:

Internal emails and messaging guidance show that Big Oil’s climate pledges rely on unproven technology, accounting gimmicks, and misleading language to hide the reality. The documents also show a culture of intense disrespect towards leading climate activists … Big Oil executives are laughing at the people trying to protect our planet while they knowingly work to destroy it.

Rep. Ro Khanna: Ro Khanna delivers opening statement in hearing on Big Oil's climate disinformation and profiteering, September 14, 2022.

NBC: Heat Wave Worsens As 75 Million Americans Are Under Alerts, July 22, 2022.

TED: Fossil fuel companies know how to stop global warming. Why don't they? | Myles Allen, December 4, 2020

Shady Green

A study funded by Greenpeace Netherlands, entitled Three Shades of Green(washing), examined social media posts by some of Europe's largest airlines and car and fossil fuel companies over the summer. Researchers found that more than 30% of posts had a “green” spin, and only 20% of “green” car ads were actually selling cars. Many also highlighted brand partnerships with fashion labels, sports, and charities.

"In principle, those kinds of activities should be applauded,” stated Harvard researcher and lead author Geoffrey Supran to AFP. “The issue becomes when corporate philanthropy slips into … greenwashing, sportswashing, and wokewashing.”

Oversight Committee: Fueling the Climate Crisis | Examining Big Oil’s Prices, Profits, and Pledges, September 15, 2022.

Oversight Committee: The Role of Fossil Fuel Subsidies in Preventing Action on the Climate Crisis, April 22, 2021.

Now This: Greenwashing and Fossil Fuel Industry, May 14, 2021.

Denial, Doubt, Delay

A new docuseries The Power of Big Oil on PBS digs into the industry and its strategy to promote denial and progress its agenda. Viewers are offered a close examination of all sides of the campaigns and intentional manipulation of oil giants. Watch Part I: Denial here, Part II: Doubt here, and Part III: Delay here.

Democracy Now: Bill McKibben | Latest IPCC Climate Report Underscores "Fossil Fuel Is at the Root of Our Problems," April 7, 2022.

MSNBC: We Must Pay Attention To ‘Urgent Crisis’ Of Extreme Heat Events, May 23, 2022.

IEA: A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use, March 18, 2022.

TED: How to Realistically Decarbonize the Oil and Gas Industry | Bjørn Sverdrup, March 3, 2022.