Oil Execs, Anxious About Public Support, Claim Halting Fossil Fuel Production Would Be 'Criminal'

Read time: 12 mins
Oil and gas pumpjack

A new oil and gas industry ad pushes back against growing calls to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the climate crisis — by making the bold statement that it would be criminal not to produce oil and gas.

The ad by the industry trade group Western Energy Alliance (WEA) takes the form of an open letter to 2020 Democratic presidential candidates and is signed by 54 oil and gas company executives. It calls out Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and former Vice President Joe Biden, who have all said they believe the industry should face accountability.

Sanders said fossil fuel executives could be held criminally liable, and Biden said at a recent debate in Nevada that fossil fuel companies should be sued, “just like we did the drug companies, just like we did with the tobacco companies.”

According to a survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, half of Americans support their local officials filing a liability lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, and 53 percent say that these companies should pay for all or most of the costs of climate damage.

But the Western Energy Alliance’s open letter, which ran as a full-page ad in The New York Times on February 24, fiercely defends oil and gas and deflects calls for holding the industry accountable. “Sen. Sanders calls us criminal and Vice President Biden says he would put us in jail, but it would be criminal not to produce the life-sustaining energy that enables a healthy, safe and modern lifestyle,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance.  

There is a lot to unpack in that statement, but as several sources told DeSmog, WEA’s messaging indicates the industry is desperate to defend its public image. 

As a legal matter this claim is laughable so it’s better thought of as a PR stunt,” said Douglas Kysar, professor of law at Yale Law School. “The oil and gas industry seems to realize that its products are being recognized as deadly by growing portions of the world community and is trying to salvage their image with this ploy.”

They can see their social license to operate slipping away, and they're scrambling to hold on as long as they can. They must be scared,” added Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard research associate who studies the history of fossil fuel disinformation. “Propaganda campaigns like this ad are the flagging fossil fuel industry's predictable response.”

DeSmog reached out to Western Energy Alliance for a response, and Sgamma refuted the labeling of industry campaigns like this ad as propaganda. “I challenge you to find anything in our ad that is incorrect,” she said.

Merriam-Webster defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.”

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at this open letter and the arguments it makes in defense of oil and gas.

Debunking the Industry Defenses of Oil and Gas

The open letter advertisement is filled with false claims and misleading industry talking points. Here are five examples, each followed by a response explaining why it is problematic.

Claim #1: Oil and gas are essential and society cannot function without these fuels. According to the WEA letter,Without our energy, the lights go dark, and smart phones go silent. Medicines and medical devices cease to cure the sick and injured. Food cannot be grown and grocery store shelves go bare.”

First of all, none of the presidential candidates, including those who support a fracking ban, are saying that fossil fuel production and usage should be halted immediately, as this warning seems to imply. While the world is still subsidizing fossil fuel development, the electric power system is undergoing a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The electricity that powers modern life is increasingly supplied by renewable, carbon-free sources such as wind, water, and sunlight, and analyses show that the U.S. and the world can indeed ramp up to run entirely on these alternative energy sources.

What [oil and gas executives] don't seem to understand is that fossil fuels are not the only source of energy,” explained Stanford researcher Ben Franta. “Indeed, averting catastrophic global warming requires the replacement of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Oil barons’ denial of that fact won't change it.”

Claim #2: Natural gas is clean. “The clean-burning natural gas we produce helps improve air quality and lowers greenhouse gas emissions.”

The oil and gas industry frequently touts gas as a “clean” fuel due to the fact that it produces fewer emissions of CO2 and other air pollutants when burned for electricity, compared to coal. But burning gas still produces these pollutants, which include smog precursors, and a growing body of research shows that gas has an even larger carbon footprint and is worse for the climate than coal, when considering the methane emissions associated with gas production.

According to a recent study published in the journal Nature, oil and gas production has had a greater climate impact than previously understood, with methane emissions underestimated by up to 40 percent. Greater reliance on gas has also contributed to carbon emissions reaching a record high in 2019, according to research led by Stanford University and published in December. The growing use of gas, even as coal has declined, accounts for 60 percent of the rise in fossil fuel emissions from the past three years.

When including the full life cycle, natural gas, referred to by some as “fossil gas,” also does not help improve air quality, and the production process — including drilling, fracking, and pumping the gas through compressor stations — actually has adverse impacts on health and air quality. One study published last year that examined available data from compressor stations in New York found significant emissions of hazardous air pollutants including 39 chemicals that are known carcinogens. As the authors of this study, from the State University of New York at Albany, point out in their discussion, “natural gas is still not a ‘clean’ fuel. It still produces greenhouse gases, particulates, and volatile organic compounds when combusted.”

Claim #3: Fossil fuels help lift people out of poverty. “By exporting our clean, abundant natural gas, we can help lift out of poverty the one billion people worldwide without access to electricity.”

This idea that fossil fuel executives are determined to help alleviate global energy poverty has been repeated by former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as well as the coal industry, among others. And as DeSmog has previously reported, the evidence to support this claim is sometimes undermined by the same executives. “The track record of the industry certainly looks like a group focused more on making money than helping lift the developing world out of poverty,” DeSmog’s Justin Mikulka wrote, noting both Tillerson’s stated philosophy “is to make money” and Exxon’s experience exploiting oil in Equatorial Guinea while leaving the vast majority of the population impoverished.

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson Credit: GreatAgain.gov

In claiming to care about impoverished people in developing nations, such as those in Africa, fossil fuel executives fail to acknowledge that the climate impacts of using their products will substantially and disproportionately harm these people.

Climate journalist and HEATED publisher Emily Atkin recently addressed this point in her newsletter: “Africa is the most vulnerable continent to climate change under all scenarios above 1.5 degrees Celsius. That means that if we fail to address climate change, African people will suffer most. Period. Climate deniers never address that reality; they just continue to say ‘Fossil fuels improve peoples’ lives,’ as the ocean acidifies and croplands shrivel and Australia burns and billions of locusts take over East Africa.”

Energy, not fossil fuels, is what helps alleviate poverty, and fossil fuels are not the only source of energy. Meanwhile, people in developing countries are increasingly turning to renewable energy sources like solar power

Claim #4: Oil and gas are “life-sustaining,” and help prevent thousands of deaths during cold weather.

The WEA’s open letter describes oil and gas as “life-sustaining” and the accompanying press release mentions that “abundant supplies of American natural gas have kept home heating prices so low that 11,000 deaths are averted annually during cold weather.” This narrow talking point ignores the broader context that fossil fuel pollution sickens and kills many more people than that every year. A recent report estimates that 4.5 million deaths globally and 230,000 deaths in the U.S. annually are linked to fossil fuel air pollution. And again, gas and oil are not the only sources for heating homes. Solar, geothermal, pellet stoves, and heat pumps are all cleaner alternatives.

According to another study on fossil fuels and air pollution, published in April 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, air pollution kills more people each year than smoking, and fossil fuel-related emissions account for 65 percent of these deaths attributable to air pollution. Phasing out fossil fuels would help prevent 3.6 million premature deaths worldwide each year, according to this study.

Yet another study, published February 2017 in Environmental Health Perspectives, shows that fossil fuel emissions are harmful, particularly for the health of children. “The data summarized here show that by sharply reducing our dependence on fossil fuels we would achieve highly significant health and economic benefits for our children and their future,” the study states.

Fossil-fuel combustion by-products are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future,” according to a paper published by a Columbia University children’s health expert. The peer-reviewed research documenting the harmful, even deadly, impacts of fossil fuels is well established.

Claim #5: Democratic candidates’ plans would kill millions of jobs and force America to import foreign energy. “Were we to be prosecuted, as you promise, and forced to stop providing our life-sustaining products, 10.3 million jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars would be sent overseas to import the energy that Americans rely on.”

The fossil fuel industry has repeatedly pointed to potential job losses as a defense, but today there are more jobs in clean energy than in fossil fuels. According to one analysis published last year, the number of jobs in clean energy outnumber fossil fuel jobs nearly 3 to 1. And, contrary to the claim that jobs would be sent overseas, the Democratic candidates targeted in this ad are actually calling for massive job creation in America in building the clean economy. While Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign this week, her climate plans, for example, were estimated to generate over $10 trillion in new wealth and create more than 10 million new jobs. Bernie Sanders’ plan for a Green New Deal similarly would seek to create 20 million new jobs.

Industry Has a History of Deception

Several experts in climate change accountability and industry deception told DeSmog that the Western Energy Alliance ad is just the latest example of deceptively false messaging by the fossil fuel industry whose product fuels the climate crisis.

For decades, fossil fuel company executives faced with the harmful effects of their products have responded by distorting the truth in an effort to evade accountability. This ad is the latest manifestation of that strategy,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director in the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It falsely claims that there is no alternative to oil and gas and misrepresents these fossil fuels as ‘life-sustaining products’ despite their role in driving global warming emissions upward and despite the cost effectiveness, economic growth, and jobs related to renewable energy and clean vehicle technologies.”

ExxonKnew protest
A 2015 protest in Washington, D.C. Credit: Flickr/Johnny SilvercloudCC BY-SA 2.0

The oil and gas industry has a long track record of using the media to lie about its products. But expensive advertising campaigns can't greenwash the truth — fossil fuels are accelerating our global climate crisis while poisoning communities,” Keith Slack, director of strategic impact at EarthRights International, emphasized.

Harvard’s Supran called the claim that natural gas is “clean” blatantly false advertising. “I’d also note that the ad is essentially a public relations effort to misdirect audiences from the actual assertions of the Democratic nominees, which are that if fossil fuel firms knowingly misled the public or shareholders about the global warming dangers of their products, they should be held accountable,” he said.

Supran and Mulvey both mentioned that oil giant BP recently announced it would be cutting ties with several trade associations including Western Energy Alliance. “Just two days after the Western Energy Alliance ran this ad, BP announced its decision to leave the group because it is not aligned with the company’s position on federal regulation of methane,” Mulvey explained. “If other fossil fuel companies want to avoid a backlash from climate-conscious investors and activists, they should quickly break with WEA and publicly repudiate its climate disinformation.”

The bottom line, as Stanford’s Ben Franta explained, is that the fossil fuel industry cannot escape the weight of evidence showing it knowingly misled the public on the dangers of its product.

From the industry's own internal documents, we know that oil companies have privately known since the 1980s — and even before — that their products, if not replaced, would cause global catastrophe,” he said. “Instead of warning the world and working to develop sustainable energy sources, the oil industry deceived the public and blocked solutions — all for a buck. Now the bill is coming due. Oil industry heads can take out all the full page ads they like, but they won't escape history, science, or the law.”

Main image: California Oil and Gas. Credit: blmcalifornia, CC PDM 1.0

Get DeSmog News and Alerts