ENVIRONMENT
12/18/2019 05:45 EST | Updated 12/24/2019 13:11 EST

Fossil Fuel Giants Claim To Support Climate Science, Yet Still Fund Denial

Fourteen oil and gas companies are funding a website that attacks scientists and undermines their work.

Most energy companies now acknowledge that burning fossil fuels is warming the planet. And yet many continue to fund disinformation about industry’s role in climate change and its harm to human health. 

In the latest example, documents and recordings reviewed by HuffPost show that the Independent Petroleum Association of America has spent almost $2 million a year for the last two years on Energy In Depth, a “research, education and public outreach campaign” that regularly attacks scientists whose research is critical of industry. The campaign has received financial backing from 14 different oil and gas companies including Shell, Occidental Petroleum, BP, Chevron and Halliburton.

These revelations come as world leaders adjourn the COP25 in Madrid, an international summit held to discuss detailed ways to address the rapidly warming planet. In a recent review, scientists writing for The Lancet stated that climate change will affect the health of every child born today as populations face weather extremes, food and water insecurity and changing patterns of infectious disease. “The only solution is to get rid of fossil fuels in power production, industry and transportation,” Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, said upon releasing the report.

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File
Pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, California, on Jan. 16, 2015.

Announcing Energy in Depth in a 2009 press release now removed from its website, the Independent Petroleum Association of America described EID as a campaign to combat new environmental regulations, especially on hydraulic fracturing. EID’s website includes fact sheets, videos and analysis, and promises to clearly explain oil and gas development while “straightening out the myths you may have heard.” 

Although it’s not apparent from the EID website, many of the site’s writers are employees of FTI Consulting, a global consulting firm that has come under scrutiny for its work for oil and gas companies, Monsanto, Delta Air Lines and the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, a front group created to stop universal health care. The documents reviewed by HuffPost provide further insight into the specific funders of EID and how FTI Consulting helps companies burnish their images.

At a 2014 oil and gas conference in Brazil, FTI explained how Energy in Depth helped generate and guide media “behind the scenes,” influencing hundreds of articles and opinion pieces. Most importantly, FTI claimed that the site and its surrogates had the ability “to say, do and write things that individual company employees cannot and should not.” 

At the IPAA’s 2017 retreat, an employee told members that the site is “a bunch of companies that have come together to fight some of this fake news that’s out there about our industry.” An attendee recorded the session and provided it to HuffPost. 

“EID has now grown into what many consider the industry’s lead research and rapid response platform,” states an IPAA report presented at a June 2019 board of directors meeting. The report adds that EID helps beat back attempts to stop fossil fuel extraction and addresses research that finds fracking harmful.

EID has posted several pages attacking the research of Harvard scholars Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, calling their published study that showed Exxon Mobil misled the public on the dangers of climate change “incomplete” and “activist.” In another example, EID points to Exxon Mobil-funded research to undermine the scholars’ studies. 

“This EID case demonstrates that although fossil fuel companies now claim to support climate action, they continue to misrepresent scientific work in order to protect profits and protect themselves from liability or responsibility,” said Supran, a research fellow studying the history of science. 

“When science threatens their interest, they attack or attempt to undermine it,” said Oreskes, a professor of history of science. “And when they can’t do that, they attempt to discredit the scientists who produced it.”

Although fossil fuel companies now claim to support climate action, they continue to misrepresent scientific work in order to protect profits and protect themselves from liability or responsibility.Geoffrey Supran, Harvard research fellow

On EID’s website, Rebecca Simons, field director for Energy In Depth-Mountain States, excoriated Lisa McKenzie, an assistant professor in the department of environmental and occupational health at the University of  Colorado whose published studies find air pollution caused by fracking to be harmful to humans. In a Denver Post op-ed, Simons dismissed McKenzie’s research, writing that it allows “activists” to argue that “energy production is somehow a pernicious threat to public health.”  According to her LinkedIn page, Simons left FTI Consulting this year to join Encana, one of the energy firms that helped start EID.

“They attack anyone without using evidence,” said McKenzie. “They respond sometimes before they could even have read a study.” Earlier this month, public health scholars published a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine noting that fracking is linked to water contamination, air pollution, radiation releases and ecosystem damage.

Jeff Eshelman, senior vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and founder of EID, said in an interview that he was not familiar with the academics whom EID has criticized, but emphasized that America now has the cleanest air in 20 years thanks to natural gas.

“Since 1929, IPAA’s mission has been to tell the truth about the importance of America’s natural gas and oil resources to consumers and policy makers,” said Eshelman. “We are a 90-year-old advocacy association. That’s quite obvious and transparent.”

Several of the fossil fuel companies behind Energy In Depth have made statements avowing the science on climate change and the need to take action. 

“Burning fossil fuels is the primary contributor to CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere,” states BP in a handout on climate change.

“The world needs to take urgent action to tackle climate change,” Shell states on its website. “Our ambition is to make sure the energy we sell is in tune with society as it moves towards that goal.”

HuffPost contacted the oil and gas companies that funded EID and asked them to explain their support for a group that attacks researchers working on climate change. Shell, BP and Chevron were asked to explain why they support such actions while simultaneously embracing the science on climate change. 

“Your questions are better addressed to EID or IPAA,” said Ashley Alemayehu, a spokesperson for Exxon Mobil, the parent company of XTO Energy.

“BP has not provided funding or been a member of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) since January 2014,” wrote BP spokesperson Jason Ryan.

The other companies did not respond.

Eshelman told HuffPost that while his organization runs the EID website, he hired FTI Consulting to support it. In the past, FTI Consulting worked on behalf of several companies to defeat fracking regulations in Europe. Earlier this year, a member of the European Parliament complained about potential violations of lobbying transparency after FTI sent mailers to members of Parliament promising to donate 50 euros to UNICEF for answering a “perception audit” and agreeing to a meeting with FTI. FTI sent the letters on behalf of Eurogas, an association for Europe’s gas industry. And over the summer, a columnist at The Guardian referenced dozens of pages of internal court documents that pointed to FTI as part of Monsanto’s plan to destroy the columnist’s reputation. 

“We will have to refer you to IPAA for any comment on IPAA or EID,” said FTI spokesperson Matthew E. Bashalany. He added that FTI does not comment on clients, per company policy.

While most Americans aren’t familiar with IPAA, the organization has close ties to the Trump administration, which denies much of the science on climate change. Shortly after Donald Trump took office, the IPAA celebrated when he picked the group’s former attorney David Bernhardt for the No. 2 spot at the Department of the Interior. 

“We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues,” the IPAA’s political director told a group of gathered industry representatives at the time, according to a secret recording of an IPAA meeting provided to the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Trump recently appointed Bernhardt as secretary of the Interior Department, and the IPAA has cultivated other powerful Trump appointees. A flyer for the IPAA’s annual conference last month listed two Trump officials as speakers: Larry A. Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, and Andrew Wheeler, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

“All of this — both the attacks themselves and individual companies’ efforts to conceal their involvement — tells me the industry is scared,” said Ben Franta, a Stanford graduate student whom EID targeted for noting that the fossil fuel industry has a history of hiding what it knows about climate change. “It’s scared of the truth. And it should be, because the truth doesn’t look good for the fossil fuel industry.”

This story has been updated with comment from a BP spokesperson.