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Oil Executives Privately Contradicted Public Statements on Climate, Files Show

Documents obtained by congressional investigators show that oil industry executives toned down their companies’ own public messages about efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and toned down industry-wide commitments to pursue climate policies.

Internal Exxon documents show the oil giant pressured an industry group, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, to remove language from a 2019 policy statement that “could create a potential commitment to advocate for the goals of the Paris Agreement.” .” The Paris Agreement is the historic 2015 pact between countries of the world to avert catastrophic global warming. The statements final version did not mention Paris.

At Royal Dutch Shell, an October 2020 email from an employee, discussing the talking points for Shell’s president of the United States, stated that the company’s announcement of a route to “net zero” emissions – the point where the world stops pumping planet-warming gases into the atmosphere – “has nothing to do with our business plans.”

These and other documents, reviewed by The New York Times, come from a cache of hundreds of thousands of pages of corporate emails, memos and other files obtained under subpoena as part of a House Committee on Oversight and Reform investigation into the fossil record. fuel the industry’s efforts over the past few decades to mislead the public about its role in climate change, by rejecting evidence that fossil fuel burning led to a rise in global temperatures, even as their own scientists warned of a clear bandage.

On Thursday, the House committee is expected to discuss some of its preliminary findings. “It’s clear that these companies have actively misled the American public for decades about the risks of climate change,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat and chair of the Subcommittee on the Environment. “The problem is that they continue to mislead.”

At a hearing last year, oil industry executives emphasized their support for a clean energy transition and denied having misled the public. They acknowledged that burning their products caused climate change, though no one promised to end their financial support for efforts to block climate change measures, and they said fossil fuels would be here to stay.

The commission’s subpoena sought documents related to companies’ role in contributing to climate change, their climate marketing and lobbying activities, and the funding of third parties accused of spreading climate misinformation. Several of the companies and organizations that have been subpoenaed, including Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce, have yet to produce some of the key documents requested, committee staffers said.

According to the staff, a significant portion of the material submitted so far includes news clippings and other material that was already public. Still, the documents collected so far show that the companies’ internal discussions in recent years have not always matched their public statements and marketing campaigns, and that some of the companies’ leading climate strategies rely on unproven technologies.

In Exxon’s memo describing the edits it sought in its oil industry policy statement, which was drafted ahead of the United Nations’ global climate talks in 2019, Peter Trelenberg, Exxon’s manager of environmental policy and planning, wrote: “The reference to Paris Agreement” should be removed from the statement because “creating a link between our advocacy/commitments and the Paris Agreement could create a potential commitment to advocate for the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

The memo, addressed to Exxon’s director Darren Woods, and other top executives, went on to say that Chevron had “expressed that they are generally in agreement with these edits.”

Exxon and Chevron did not respond to requests for comment. A representative from the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative did not comment on the advocacy paper, but said that “advocating the Paris goals underpins everything OGCI does.”

Separate files from Exxon show the company grappling with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign promoting the potential of algae-based fuels. The campaign focused on the promise of the technology and featured images of huge pools of algae, along with a scientist who looked forward to calling himself an “energy farmer.”

A series of presentation notes prepared for a tech talk in September 2018 by one of his executives stated that the technology is “still decades away from the scale we need.” And in a November 2016 email, an Exxon employee said an early draft for the ad, drafted by the ad agency BBDO Worldwide, “was to replace any rules implying the technology is live today.”

BBDO did not respond to a request for comment.

Shell’s internal documents discussing the company’s “net-zero” trajectory also included guidelines for employees stating: “Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that make no business sense.” to be.”

Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesperson, said in a statement that the company had provided nearly half a million pages of documents to the committee and that “the small handful they chose to flag is evidence of Shell’s extensive efforts to target aggressive targets.” pose.” Those documents included “challenging internal and external discussions,” he said.

He added that it was widely understood that Shell’s net counterfactuals “are not prescriptions or predictions or intended to represent Shell’s current business plan” and instead “the scale of the challenge and the levers that policymakers could use represent.

The committee’s work comes as the Democrats’ climate agenda has been revived with the passage of a climate and tax bill that includes nearly $370 billion in tax incentives and programs designed to help transition the country from a economy based on oil, gas and coal to one powered by wind, solar and other renewable forms of energy.

A number of cities and states have sued oil companies for misleading the public about the role of fossil fuels in global warming, harming local communities. Last year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell must substantially step up its efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Shell has appealed the ruling.

The House Committee was scheduled to: hold a hearing on Thursday To examine recent record profits in the oil industry, hear from industry experts and people affected by recent extreme weather events. It had also asked board members of the oil companies to attend. The companies refused.

During Thursday’s hearing, members also plan to draw attention to emails that appear to show oil executives are shattering the climate’s extreme heat records. For example, in an August 2017 email exchange, two BP executives found humor in the news when scientists reported the warmest year on Earth.

“I’m buying the first round Monday night before we say goodbye,” Joe Ellis, then BP vice president and head of US government affairs, told colleagues.

“A ‘hot grog’ perhaps?” Bob Stout, vice president and chief of regulations at the time, wrote back.

The former BP executives did not respond to requests for comment.

JP Fielder, head of US communications at BP, described the exchange as “unartistic attempts at humor that do not reflect BP’s values ​​and should not distract from our actions.” He noted that BP has committed to a net zero emissions target for its sales, operations and production by 2050 or earlier.