Energy & Environment

House Dems release documents showing oil industry digging in on fossil fuel investments

Department of Energy via AP
An undated photo provided by the Department of Energy shows crude oil pipes at the Bryan Mound site near Freeport, Texas.

House Democrats, as part of their probe into Big Oil, on Friday released documents in which major oil companies detail their strategy to invest further in fossil fuel energy. 

Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee are making the case that the documents show that the industry has “greenwashed” its public image — that is, pretended to be greener than it actually is. 

They shared internal documents from the American Petroleum Institute (API), a major oil and gas lobby and trade association, in which the organization’s climate activities are described in relation to its oil and gas business. 

In one memo on flaring, the practice of burning off excess natural gas during energy production, reducing the practice is described as “an opportunity to further secure the industry’s license to operate.”

“Increased public attention to climate change has led to an intense focus on greenhouse gas emissions associated with the oil and gas industry’s operations,” the document states.

“There is an opportunity to further secure the industry’s license to operate by improving current practices to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and minimize natural resource loss from flaring of associated gas,” it continues. 

In a separate email, an API employee says that “so many of the issues that guide API’s work on climate policymaking are related to the continued promotion of natural gas.” 

Similarly, the committee released slides from the advisory firm Brunswick, which the Democrats said were prepared for BP, that describe support for reducing emissions of the planet-warming gas methane as part of a campaign to promote natural gas. 

“Secure support for gas as a natural low carbon fuel by taking a leading commitment to methane reduction,” the slide said. This was one step listed as part of an objective to “advance and protect the role of gas — and BP — in the future of energy conservation.”

Meanwhile, the committee also released strategy slides from Chevron in which the company says that it will “continue to invest” in traditional energy — that is, fossil fuels, even as competitors retreat.

The documents released by the committee also illustrate some regulatory strategies. 

In a 2016 email, then-BP executive Seymour Khalilov said that the company waits for rules to come out and then works to “resist and block” the ones it doesn’t like.

The memo, from that year’s Election Day, warned that if there is a future Democratic administration, the company may want to shift to “engage early” and “help set up a well-designed policy.”

In response to the released documents, API insisted that the industry is committed to both energy production and taking on climate change. 

“Our industry is focused on continuing to produce affordable, reliable energy while tackling the climate challenge, and any allegations to the contrary are false,” said API Senior Vice President Megan Bloomgren in a statement to The Hill.

“We are poised to be a leader in the next generation of low carbon technologies, including CCUS and Hydrogen — technologies widely recognized to be critical to meet the world’s emissions reduction targets.  API will continue to work with policymakers on both sides of the aisle for policies that support industry innovation and further the progress we’ve made on emissions reductions,” Bloomgren added. 

The committee released hundreds of pages of documents received under its subpoena from oil companies ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell, as well as API.

It argued, in a memo released alongside, that the documents show a greenwashing effort.

“These documents demonstrate how the fossil fuel industry ‘greenwashed’ its public image with promises and actions that oil and gas executives knew would not meaningfully reduce emissions, even as the industry moved aggressively to lock in continued fossil fuel production for decades to come — actions that could doom global efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change,” the memo said.

Exxon spokesperson Todd Spitler said in a statement that the committee’s report “has sought to misrepresent ExxonMobil’s position on climate science, and its support for effective policy solutions, by recasting well intended, internal policy debates as an attempted company disinformation campaign.”

The committee’s top Republican, meanwhile, blasted the report as partisan. He vowed to instead turn the microscope onto the Biden administration when the GOP takes power in the House in January. 

“The Democrats’ report is the grand finale of a partisan show designed to demonize America’s energy producers and force radical Green New Deal policies on Americans that drive up the cost of energy,” said Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) in a written statement. 

“Instead of political stunts, Republicans will return the Oversight Committee to its primary mission of conducting oversight over the Biden Administration and its disastrous energy policies that have ignited an energy crisis,” Comer added.

The Hill has reached out to the other companies involved in the documents for further comment.

The release comes after a probe that has gone on for more than a year by the Democrats into the oil and gas industry. In 2021, the industry players testified before the committee about topics including climate change. 

Democrats broadly have been critical of the industry over its contribution to climate change and over the cost of fuel — with the House passing a bill earlier this year aimed at alleged “price gouging,” though analysts have largely blamed broader market factors for energy prices.

The committee has also previously released documents in September, including an internal Shell document saying the company had “no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years.” At the time, a company spokesperson said that document was outdated. 

—Updated at 2:20 p.m.

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