The tactics used by the tobacco industry to resist government regulation of its products are well known including public relations campaigns, buying scientific and other expertise to create controversy about established facts, funding political parties, hiring lobbyists to influence policy, using front groups and allied industries to oppose tobacco control measures, pre-empting strong legislation by pressing for the adoption of voluntary codes or weaker laws, and corrupting public officials. Do we for one minute imagine that exactly the same tactics are not being deployed by the fossil fuel industries?
A Few Industry Examples
Over and over, ExxonMobil has misled the public about climate change by telling the public one thing and then saying and doing the opposite behind closed doors. While their tactics have evolved from outright, blatant climate denial to more subtle forms of lobbying and propaganda, their end goal remains the same. And that’s to stop action on climate change.
Exxon has known that its products would likely cause dangerous global warming since at least the 1970s. By way of its trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry as a whole has been on notice even longer — since the 1950s
From the mid-2000s through to the 2010s, ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel companies gradually “evolved” their language, in the words of one ExxonMobil manager, from blatant climate denial to more subtle and insidious forms of delay. So while their outright denial has tapered off, their propaganda hasn’t stopped. It’s in fact shifted into a higher gear and is now operating with extraordinary sophistication. A recent study also identified systematic misuse of language to obfuscate greenwashing, fossil-fuel solutionism, technological optimism, and so on.
Summarization of article by Geoffrey Supran, Harvard Gazette, September 2021
According to a Sky News report one of the few facilities in the world that uses carbon capture and storage technology to reduce emissions from hydrogen production, has the same carbon footprint as 1.2 million gasoline cars. In a first-of-its-kind investigation into the Shell-owned and operated plant, lobbying group Global Witness claims it emitted far more greenhouse gases than it captured. While it has prevented five million tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere since 2015, it has released another 7.5 million tons, according to the group. In fairness Shell has refuted the claims. I’m sure we will discover in due course whether this is a great example of greenwashing, fossil-fuel solutionism or technological optimism, or all three!
On 26 May 2021, the District Court of the Hague rendered a judgment in the case Milieudefensie (Friends of the Earth) v Royal Dutch Shell that can rightly be called revolutionary. This is the first judgment of its kind in which a multinational corporation is held responsible, in part based on international law, for its contribution to climate change. While of course we have to await the appeal, that no doubt will be filed by Shell, the potential effects for Shell and for similar corporations are significant. The Court found that plaintiffs could bring a class action in the common interest of preventing dangerous climate change, since the interests of current and future generations of Dutch residents ‘are suitable for bundling so as to safeguard an efficient and effective legal protection of the stakeholders’.
According to the Economist, of all the oil majors, Shell’s attempts are the most intriguing. The importance of oil in its business has diminished; measured in years of production, its reserves are lower than those of its Western peers—ExxonMobil, BP, Total, and Chevron. Shell is bolder than its rivals in forecasting huge global demand for clean power over the next 30 years. And it is the only firm to link its executive’s pay to progress in reducing emissions across its operations, including sales of products such as petrol. However, despite the urgency to tackle climate change, Shell has no intention of going all in on a post-carbon future. The reason is investor support. The current business delivers over 10% returns on capital employed in exploration and refining. The returns on cleaner energy projects are less risky but with a far lower return of around 4%. Shell believes it can’t get ahead of its investors, who want returns on a par with fossil fuel based projects.
Even more worrying, Shell has a clear strategy to harvest the developing world, in just the same way that the tobacco industry did as it came under regulatory pressure. Thanks to rising populations and incomes, energy growth will be sustained for decades, and pressure to reduce carbon emissions on developing countries is much less than the developed world. This explains why Shell sets carbon footprint reduction targets per unit rather than in aggregate. So Shell is less constrained than it appears.
It’s Not Just the Fossil Fuel Industries
“There is nothing that cannot be corrupted, nothing good that cannot be transformed into something bad. And there is no clearer example than the great climate land grab.” George Monbiot, The Guardian, 26th January 2022
By now we all understand that by defending, restoring and re-establishing forests, peatlands, mangroves, salt marshes, natural seabeds and other crucial ecosystems, very large amounts of carbon can be removed from the air and stored. We might also understand that efforts to move to a more sustainable environment are woefully inadequate. Yet there is an insidious campaign to suggest we can fix this problem through “offsetting”. I am indebted to George Monbiot for drawing our attention to the Shell “Driving Carbon Neutral” service. This scheme offers fleet managers the facility to “offset their vehicle emissions through the purchase of carbon credits from a portfolio of carefully chosen nature projects”. The firms’ drivers purchase their fuel in the normal way and use a Shell card that tracks usage and enables calculation of CO2 emissions and for Shell to purchase carbon credits to the equivalent to the fleet’s emissions. Of course many companies are publicly committing to become carbon neutral, and for them this is an easy, minimal cost approach to being able to make a big dent in their company’s target. All without having to change any working practices!
However, look more closely and observe the projects are highly controversial. The concept of rewilding – is to restore living systems such as forests, salt marshes, peat bogs and the sea floor to their natural state in which they extract carbon dioxide from the air and lock it up in trees or waterlogged soil and mud. But frequently the offset projects have the objective or protecting wilderness areas that already exist, rather than establishing new carbon sinks. Or to redevelop existing areas of highly stable carbon storage making them less secure. Shell and other offset schemes promote huge forest plantings. But many areas of forest will inevitably be incinerated by the increasing wildfires. And what’s really unacceptable is that fossil fuel companies simply continue business as usual, using the offset schemes to delay as long as possible the time when fossil fuel usage must stop.
Offsetting emissions is at the core of organizations’ and countries’ commitments to achieve net zero. And early experience is revealing that offsetting projects frequently fail to deliver on objectives, and sometimes result in higher emissions than the status quo. There is a great urgency for independent governance on offsetting projects that doesn’t involve conflicts of interest observable in current offset schemes.
Reduction in absolute emissions is critical. The only way to achieve this is by taxing (specifically large) corporations. It would be appropriate to simultaneously provide financial support for provably green projects to encourage fossil fuel companies to transition.
At this stage we have to follow the money. For example, we know the US Climate effort is hugely dependent upon the Biden Build Back Better bill which is stymied by just two senators. Michael Tomasky in the New York Review of Books reports that “Manchin takes in a significant amount of corporate cash including from the oil and gas industries”. He also drives a Maserati Levante! This is just one incredibility important example, but there must be countless examples of cash led lobbying that should be regulated. We need to hold politicians in all developed countries to account for regulating lobbying and call it for what it is, fossil fuel industry bribery.