Big Oil Launches Propaganda Campaign to Thwart US Energy Transition

Domestic production and global temperatures both set new records in 2023.

An American flag flies to the right of a towering metal structure.

Double Eagle Energy Oil Rig, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas.Tony Gutierrez/AP

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The American oil lobby launched an eight-figure media campaign this week promoting the idea that fossil fuels are “vital” to global energy security, alarming climate experts.

“US natural gas and oil play a key role in supplying the world with cleaner, more reliable energy,” the new initiative’s website says. The campaign comes amid record fossil fuel extraction in the US, and as the industry is attempting to capitalize on the war in Gaza to escalate production even further, climate advocates say.

Launched Tuesday by the nation’s top fossil fuel interest group, the Lights on Energy campaign will work to “dismantle policy threats” to the sector, American Petroleum Institute CEO, Mike Sommers, told CNN in an interview this week.

The ad blitz—which uses images of farm vehicles, footballers under floodlights, and concertgoers holding phones lit up —comes after US oil production reached a record high in 2023, which was also the hottest year ever recorded. “We’re already moving in the wrong direction on fossil fuels,” said Timmons Roberts, professor of environment and sociology at Brown University. “They want to push us further.”

Roberts said the new ad blitz is rife with the kinds of “discourses of climate delay” that the fossil fuel industry commonly uses to thwart climate action, as documented in a 2020 study he co-authored on the topic. A video ad posted on Tuesday, for instance, says “demand for energy is growing and so is the need for American oil and natural gas,” positioning the sector as essential to continued human flourishing—a form of discourse Roberts and his co-authors call an “appeal to wellbeing.”

In his CNN interview, Sommers said clean energy can currently only play a limited role. “Renewable sources have a role to play, but oil and natural gas will be needed for decades,” he said.

In doing so, he employed a second discursive strategy known as “change is impossible,” which denies the ability for large-scale transformation, Roberts said, adding that the statement may be a “self fulfilling prophecy,” as fossil fuel companies still invest minimally in carbon-free energy.

The claim also ignores copious evidence that the world can begin to phase out fossil fuels, and must do so to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis, said Caleb Heeringa, campaign director of Gas Leaks, a nonprofit attempting to counter pro-gas messaging.

“We aren’t saying we can turn off the spigot tomorrow,” he said. “But [the industry] is trying to expand the fossil fuel system, expand pipelines, expand fracking, and make more of our economy and our existence dependent on fossil fuels, even though clean energy is advancing at a rapid rate.”

The campaign also states that increased gas usage is a “key reason” that US carbon emissions have fallen, employing a tactic Roberts calls “fossil fuel solutionism” by framing polluting energy as a climate solution.

The ad blitz states that gas use led to a drop in CO2 emissions, but fails to mention the attendant rise in emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more planet-heating than carbon dioxide in the short term, Heeringa said. It also refers to the “reliability” of gas-powered energy, “despite significant gas system failures” during weather emergencies such as 2022’s winter storm Elliott and 2021’s winter storm Uri.

The campaign comes amid industry claims that Israel’s war in Gaza will threaten energy security by inhibiting the flow of oil out of the region. “This should be a real concern, I think, to every American,” Sommers told CNN.

It seems like an attempt to take advantage of a crisis to maximize profit, said Patrick Galey, a senior fossil fuels investigator at Global Witness. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the industry similarly called to expand domestic extraction, as Global Witness tracked.

“Evidence suggests the fossil fuel lobby are not letting the latest crisis—this time in the Red Sea due to Israel’s carpet bombing of Gaza—go to waste, either,” said Galey. “Until countries rapidly and justly phase out fossil fuels, consumers will continue to be prey to the whims of despotic petrostates and feeding frenzies from the oil and gas lobbies whenever the next crisis hits.”

In a Wednesday press release, API’s Sommers noted the US produces more energy than any other country, something that “can’t be sustained without the right policies from Washington.”

API did not directly address questions from the Guardian regarding the scientific consensus that fossil fuels must be phased out, or experts’ concerns about the campaign.

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

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