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Beginning in the 1990s, oil companies spent millions upon millions of dollars on public relations campaigns to confuse the press, the public, and policymakers about the dangers posed by burning fossil fuels. (Photo: Flickr/cc)

The Sneaky Ways Big Oil Misleads the Public With Money and Power

Big Oil lied to us for decades about climate change. And they've hid behind scientists, academics, and even "grassroots" groups to do it.

Mia DiFelice

 by Food & Water Watch

Last month, the residents of Allegheny County, PA were fighting to ban fracking in their parks. It came down to a special meeting, where County Councilmembers would vote whether to override a veto by the Council Executive.

Big Oil money saturates nearly every energy institution in academia.

The special meeting was held in front of a packed house. But many of the attendants weren't interested Allegheny County residents. They were folks sent by industry groups and the fracking company that would benefit from the ban's veto. 

This strategy is representative of decades of deceit from fossil fuel corporations. 

The industry has lied to us for as long as they've had something to lie about. First, about the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change; then, about their own actions (or rather, inaction) to help mitigate the climate crisis. 

To pull off this level of deceit, fossil fuel execs know they have to be sneaky about it. They know that while they have plenty of power to wield themselves, they'll be far more effective if they can win hearts and minds. And oftentimes, that means going undercover.

Big Oil's Undercover Ops Began as Soon as They Knew About Climate Change

As early as the 1980s, Big Oil's own scientists knew that fossil fuels were a main driver of climate change, and that climate change would become a huge problem in the years to come. But Exxon executives, for instance, continued saying that climate science was "inconclusive."

To make their claims seem credible, they hired an outreach team of five scientists who could declare independence in the climate "debate." These scientists became the face of "unbiased" climate denialism, and the results of their work persisted for decades. 

For example, just five years ago, 97% of climate scientists thought global warming was likely due to human activity. Yet at the same time, more than half of our Representatives and Senators were climate deniers.

Big Oil continues to use these strategies, even as the worsening perils of our fossil fuel dependence become clearer. Big industry players are still hiring scientists to sow doubt and push their agenda. And they've added more tools to their arsenal—Ivy League universities, research institutions, PR firms and even fake "grassroots" campaigns.

Big Oil Goes "Grassroots" in New York And California

Astroturf groups, or front groups, look like grassroots groups at first glance. They talk about dangers and benefits to the consumer. They call for reasonable things like "affordable energy" and "energy solutions." But under the hood, they're funded and directed by dirty energy companies that have a vested interest in passing policy. 

These front groups work from the local to the national level. Take the example of SoCalGas in 2019. That year, California's Public Utilities Commission began setting policies to decarbonize buildings. As part of that process, SoCalGas, a major gas company in the state, was set to testify to the Commission. A group called "Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions" (C4BES) also petitioned to be at the table.

But then, environmental groups exposed the truth—SoCalGas established and funded C4BES. By sneaking C4BES in front of the Commission, SoCalGas essentially gave itself two voices in the discussion, with C4BES posing as the interests of everyday Californians. 

Such groups ran rampant in California. In 2017, reporters uncovered 16 front groups run by the Western States Petroleum Association—the largest lobby group for Big Oil in the West. A leaked presentation by WSPA's president revealed that the Association was using these fake organizations to create the illusion of public opposition to climate policies.

The Oil Slick in The Halls of America's Universities

Big Oil money saturates nearly every energy institution in academia. For instance, the Marcellus Shale Coalition funded much of the research on fracking out of Penn State University. The Coalition includes huge gas companies such as Chevron and Sunoco. 

Our 2013 report—in the middle of the fracking boom—found that fracking companies had their hands in university studies across the country. Researchers hid previous ties to the industry; companies funded professor positions and improvements to university buildings.

They also funded research that blew through peer review processes; a University Texas panel declared that one industry-funded study "fell short of contemporary standards for scientific work." Such research has claimed fracking was getting safer (even when it wasn't). One study even successfully advocated for tax policy that would benefit the industry.

This is an endemic problem, from our country's biggest research universities to its most prestigious Ivy Leagues. The gradual withdrawal of public funding for education has driven universities into corporations' willing arms, which are all too happy to pay for research supporting their products and profits.

By funding and swaying university research, Big Oil's supporters can point to respected and "independent" sources—when these sources are actually on Big Oil's payroll. 

We Can Take The Power Back From Big Oil

Fossil fuel corporations have gotten away with misleading us for so long because of their money and power. They've used their resources to recruit public relations firms, trade groups, front groups and researchers. These folks in turn leverage their influence to sway courts, lawmakers and public opinion in Big Oil's favor.

But climate change and its effects continue to worsen. Climate action becomes more urgent every day. We can't afford distractions. In a fight of fact versus fiction, one of our best defenses is exposing deception. Once we reveal the disguises and the deceit, we see the only way forward must be 100% renewables and the end of the fossil fuel industry.

© 2021 Food & Water Watch

Mia DiFelice

Mia DiFelice is a Digital Copywriter at Food & Water Watch


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