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The Oil Companies Are The Reason We Don’t Have Climate Policy

CounterSpin interview with Richard Wiles on fossil fuel lies.

Janine Jackson interviewed the Center for Climate Integrity’s Richard Wiles about the lies of the fossil fuel industry for the December 16, 2022, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: The House Oversight Committee has revealed new documentation showing that fossil fuel companies have long been well aware of their industry’s impact on climate disruption, with all of its devastating effects. And rather than respond humanely to human needs, they’ve opted to use every tool in the box, including bold lying, pretend naivete and aggressive misdirection, to continue extracting every last penny that they can.

It invites a question: If an investigation falls in the forest and no laws or tax policies or news media approaches are changed by it, does it make a sound?

Our next guest’s group collects and shares the receipts on fossil fuel companies’ architecture of deception—not for fun, but for change. Richard Wiles is president of the Center for Climate Integrity. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Richard Wiles.

Richard Wiles: Thanks for having me. Pleasure to be here.

JJ: I don’t think we can assume listeners will have heard the details from this House committee. What, most importantly to your mind, did the evidence that they unearthed show or confirm or illustrate about the actions and intentions of fossil fuel companies with regard to climate change?

RW: I guess the big new findings here are internal emails, internal communications, PowerPoint presentations, prepared for the CEO of the oil majors that reveal in a number of different ways the way they continue to aggressively mislead the public and the Congress and the media about their role in solving climate change—which is nothing, as you can imagine.

So this investigation was limited to internal documents that the company might have after the Paris Agreement in 2015. The committee subpoenaed any communications that they might have had relevant to climate change since that date.

And that’s important because there’s around 28 states and municipalities, plus another 16 communities in Puerto Rico, that are now suing oil companies for basically lying about what they knew about climate change, and their ongoing deception and greenwashing.

And the committee’s work, the documents that they’ve uncovered, have really added a lot to the evidence that will support those cases that make the case, particularly since 2015, that the companies continue to lie about their commitment to solving the problem.

And they do it in a number of different ways. I’m sure that some of your listeners have seen Exxon’s famous and seemingly never-ending ads about algae, right, which internal emails to the company make clear is never going to be any kind of a significant contributor to solving climate change, or being a carbon-free fuel.

There’s a lot more stuff in the weeds, like the companies talk about how they support the Paris Climate Accords. But then, internally, they’re saying things like, “God, please don’t say anything that’ll commit us to advocate for the Paris Agreement.”

There’s lots about how they want to position natural gas as a climate solution, when they know that it isn’t a climate solution. And they talk about that in these documents.

So the Committee’s efforts, this investigation, has produced a lot of information that is going to be helpful to holding the companies accountable in court, and also just educating members of Congress and the media about the fact that these companies are the problem, they’re not part of the solution. They’re aggressively part of the problem.

And it’s one thing to have somebody like me say that, or environmental advocates say that, or public interest groups say that. It’s another thing to be able to prove it with the company’s internal communications.

So that’s basically the contribution they made.

JJ: Let me just, as a side note, this is with available information, right, because some of the biggest players just said, “Nope—transparency, public oversight, indicate our internal conversations? Nope, not gonna do it.” Right?

RW: Right. The committee used its subpoena power. But the companies have fancy lawyers, and they’re not particularly interested in cooperating on this issue.

And so they did produce, I think, a million pages of documents, but probably roughly 900,000 of those pages, probably more than that, were things that were irrelevant, like company websites and whatever, that stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with what the committee wanted.

In a lot of cases, some of the players, like API, among others—that’s the American Petroleum Institute, the lobbying group for the oil industry—they would just redact page after page of these internal documents, and might give you a sentence or two.

So there was a lot of redactions, a lot of withholding. I think it’s clear that the companies and the trade association fundamentally obstructed this investigation.

But at the same time, they also knew they had to turn over something. And what they did turn over did contain a significant amount of evidence of this ongoing duplicity and deception around climate change, and their role in causing it, and their role in “solving it.”

JJ: Yeah. You know, it’s shorthanded to the House Oversight Committee, including by me, but it’s called the Oversight and Reform Committee.

And the Center for Climate Integrity, you guys seem post-weasel words, post–”Yes, they do harm, but look at the good they also do”–style conciliation.

You seem to take the fact that fossil fuel industries are in bad faith, as not like, “Let’s talk about it,” but a factor to consider in what we do moving forward, right?

RW: Right, exactly. One hundred percent.

JJ: I appreciate that. And so many people are like, “Oh, well, they’re the experts on the industry. So if we’re going to regulate them, obviously the industry needs to be part of how they define how we regulate them.” And it’s just such a merry-go-round.

And I want to ask you, as a group that steps outside of that, what are we calling for now? What is our work, concretely, now? How do we get off this dime?

RW: Yeah, this is a good point. You got to think about the oil industry the way you think about the tobacco industry, the opioid industry, right? Nobody is looking to the tobacco companies for healthcare policy advice anymore, and the same for the opioid guys.

These guys, they cause a problem, and there was no way to work it out with them, right? They had a very profitable product, they knew it was killing people left and right, and they didn’t care at all.

And the only way they were stopped was by head-on confrontation in the courts—not the Congress, which they fundamentally own, but to the courts.

And our view is that, while obviously the Congress has a role here, and we hope someday the Congress passes meaningful climate legislation, that certainly hasn’t happened yet.

We had a good energy bill this fall, but it didn’t do anything to reduce emissions or to rein in these companies.

The only way we’re going to have the kind of meaningful climate policy change that ushers in an era of renewable energy is if we actually beat the oil guys. We have to actually win. It’s not a negotiation, it’s a fight. They want us to think it’s a negotiation, because that means they’ve won; we’re talking to them.

But if anyone can think of a time in human history where the most powerful industry or interest group of that era, that time, voluntarily committed suicide, voluntarily said, “Ah, you know, we don’t want all this power, we don’t want all this money….”

JJ: “We’ll just show ourselves out.”

RW: “…go out of business,” right. Yeah, if you can show me that, maybe I’ll change my mind. But you’ve got to be pretty naive to think that’s what’s going to happen here.

And all the evidence shows that’s not true. We can say that, and there’s still powerful forces who think, “Oh, well, they’re just naive, of course you’re going to have to work with the oil guys.”

Well, no. And what these documents do is help make it clear to people who need to have it made clear to them, like members of Congress and the media, that the oil companies are the problem, period. That’s it. That’s the reason we don’t have climate policy. There’s no other reason. It’s because these very wealthy, powerful, vested interests make sure that the public is confused about climate change, that everybody thinks that they’re part of the solution, that all these things that we know aren’t true, and that this evidence helps us show are not true.

So our view is you’ve got to attack the companies, you’ve got to expose them for all the lies that they live off of. And you’ve got to make them pay, both reputationally and financially, through the courts, for their ongoing lies and deception. And for the damage that those lies do, in terms of the cost that communities face from extreme storms and hurricanes, and just the routine business of adapting to climate change.

Building a seawall we didn’t have to build. Now we need a cooling center, or suddenly we got to move the sewage treatment plant. Look, our drinking water’s loaded with salt water now. Whatever it is, all these costs that were foisted upon us by the industry, they need to pay.

And I guess our view is if they’re held accountable financially, and if people understand through that process—like they do with Big Pharma now, that “opioids, not good, really bad, these companies deliberately and knowingly killed people.”

If we can hang that same kind of messaging around the necks of the oil and gas industry, where it belongs, then I think we can change the conversation about how we’re going to solve climate. It’ll be a much more fruitful conversation.

And if the companies have to pay, also, if these cases are successful and the companies are made to pay for the damage that they knowingly caused—and I want to emphasize that the companies knew 50 years ago that their products would cause climate change, and they wrote it down, and they talked about catastrophes that would happen. And then they decided, at some point in the early ’90s/late ’80s, that they needed to run a massive disinformation campaign instead of tell the truth. If they’re held accountable to that, it’s a big financial cost that they absolutely deserve to have to pay.

And they’ll be very different-looking industries if they’re made to pay those costs. And at that point, maybe, just maybe, we will get the kind of climate solutions that we need.

Until we do that, I don’t think there’s any reasonable path that’s going to get us to the transformational kind of change that we need to get to, if the oil companies and gas companies are just standing in the way, as powerful as they are today, and everybody thinks that really the problem is them, right? That’s what they’ve done, right?

JJ: And how long a shower they take, right? And I would love to put a pin in that right there. But I feel obliged to ask you a final question, which is that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, his takeaway, as he tweeted, was, “Second only to hydrocarbons, the biggest product of the fossil fuel industry is lies.” That’s what he took away.

But then I read this Washington Post subhead, that was, “Some oil companies remain internally skeptical about the switch to a low-carbon economy even as they portray their businesses as partners in the cause, documents say.”

I mean, uff da, what the heck is that?

RW: Right? Sheldon Whitehouse nailed it, right? The number two product is lies.

JJ: How’s that kind of media coverage going to get us, is what I’m saying.

RW: Yeah, that’s just completely wrong. That’s what we’re battling against, right? There’s somehow this notion that the companies have a legitimate skepticism, and internal debates about whether or not they should really try harder on climate, and that’s what the documents showed…No, that’s not what the documents show.

The documents show that they are lying about their commitment to solving the problem. The documents show that they’re going to increase drilling in the Permian Basin by maybe 1,000% while they’re going to say that they’re in favor of the Paris Climate Accords.

That’s what the documents showed. They showed ongoing duplicity and lies. And, yeah, that’s part of the challenge, is to get the media to report this correctly.

We’re up to that challenge. And we think the more documents come out, the clearer it’s going to be, and the more attorneys general that step up and sue these companies for consumer fraud, and the more municipalities that demand to have the cost that they are spending to adapt to climate change covered by the oil companies, like they should be, the more evidence that comes out, I think, the better we’ll do.

And the more people understand, the message in the media will change. But we got a long way to go.

But this investigation is a good step in the right direction, for sure. You’re building a wall; it’s just a brick in the wall. And at some point, it’s going to be a wall that they can’t get out around. So in the meantime, we’ll just keep building.

JJ: Keep on keeping on.

RW: Yeah, that’s what we do.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Richard Wiles. He’s president of the Center for Climate Integrity. You can find their work online at Richard Wiles, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

RW: Oh, thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.

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