Big Oil — PBS Frontline Series On An Industry That Lies To Get What It Wants

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A new PBS Frontline 3-part series delves into exactly how Big Oil — led by ExxonMobil — has used its money and influence time and time again to short circuit attempts by federal and state officials to reduce the amount of carbon emissions created when oil is extracted, transported, refined, and then burned. The first video is available now on PBS stations and will be aired in the UK this summer.

Former senator Timothy Wirth tells the documentary makers how in 1988 he organized historic hearings at which a distinguished NASA scientist, James Hansen, testified that greenhouse gases were changing the climate. “That was a kind of a magic sentence,” Wirth said. “This was not environmental groups. This was not some green cabal. This was probably the lead climate scientist in the federal government making this statement.”

The New York Times reported Hansen’s testimony on its front page. It seemed a turning point to Wirth and Hansen. Now the country would have to face reality. Instead the hearing served as a warning to the oil industry to intensify its campaign of denialism.

“There have been quite a few moments where it has felt to people interested in climate change that it’s all about to change,” Dan Edge, the Power of Big Oil series producer, tells The Guardian. “There’s a moment in episode one where Senator Wirth laughs and says, ‘I really felt we were getting somewhere. It was so exciting.’ That was 30 years ago. Then you hear some of the Obama speeches, and the genuine hope that something might be done about climate change in 2009. It was palpable and it was destroyed so quickly.”

Big Oil Is Swift To Adapt

As the documentary makers trace the evolution of the fossil fuel industry’s success at staving off climate legislation, it becomes clear that the oil firms were swift to adapt their strategies to changing circumstances, The Guardian says.

Jane McMullen, the director of the first episode in the series, said the research revealed how, as it became harder to deny the overwhelming evidence of global heating, the industry shifted gears. “They realized that they were losing the science arguments, especially after the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report came out in 1995 that said there is a discernible human influence. So they turned to economics.”

Key to that shift was a little known company in the 1990s, Koch Industries, which specialized in refining and distributing some of the heaviest and dirtiest oil. The firm was run by brothers Charles and David Koch. Charles also founded a libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute in Washington.

The Kochs saw a threat to their business from the Clinton administration’s plan for a carbon tax. They mobilized Cato and a Koch-funded front group masquerading as a grass roots organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, to oppose it. The Kochs drew in lobby organizations, such as the American Petroleum Institute and the Global Climate Coalition, a group of businesses that opposed climate science. “We would be meeting in various locales in Washington with over 100 people in the room. It was a real war room situation,” Jerry Taylor, director of Natural Resources Studies at the Cato Institute, told Frontline.

Taking Down A Senator

Jeff Nesbit, communications director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, told the documentary makers that the decision was made to target David Boren, a senator from Oklahoma who chaired the committee handling Clinton’s budget and therefore the carbon tax. “They basically said: if we can get David Boren to flip, we win. So, they said, we’re gonna do whatever it takes.”

The industry ran ads claiming the tax would cost the average Oklahoma household $500 a year, and mobilized supporters to call Boren to complain that people would effectively be paying a carbon tax every time they took a shower or drove their car. Years later, Nesbit admitted that the supposed public backlash was an illusion manufactured by the Koch brothers. “Maybe there were a handful of folks who thought, oh, gosh, I should call my senator and register my complaint. But they had no such grassroots army. It was funded and fuelled by the corporate interests.”

Nevertheless, Boren caved and that killed the carbon tax. The oil industry took note. “He folded right away,” Nesbit said. “It’s like, wow, this can really work. We can pick our targets strategically and win, even when we’re not in political power.”

Playing The “It’s The Economy, Stupid” Card

Jane McMullen says research for the documentary showed that same strategy playing out repeatedly over the years. “It’s become almost accepted fact that tackling climate change will cost the economy, whereas look at the cost of damages were faced with today.” The result, she says, is that one administration after another from Clinton onward found reasons to delay action because they did not want to face accusations of making Americans poorer.

“That’s been a problem all the way through this 40 year history. There’s this very strong impetus for politicians to say, we’ll just wait, we don’t need to do it now. But obviously there isn’t time. And the longer you put it off, the steeper the hill that you have to climb to deal with it,” she says.

Citizens United & Climate Crimes

The ironies associated with this story are legion. The Koch brothers rail bitterly about government regulation, yet according to the book Kochland, their path to wealth began when they bought an oil refinery to process oil from the Alberta tar sands. No other refineries want to deal with the stuff, but US regulations provided incentives to any company that would handle the nasty stuff, and the Kochs grabbed on to those incentives and never let go.

The various tentacles of the Kochtopus, as their empire came to be known, included the Federalist Society, a far right organization that grooms lawyers for jobs in government. Donald Trump made an endorsement by the Federalist Society a prerequisite for all of his nominations to the federal judiciary. 6 of the 9 sitting members of the US Supreme Court were suckled by the Federalist Society, which means Charles Koch has bought control of the Supreme Court. You can’t make this stuff up!

Chief Justice John Roberts regurgitated the pablum fed to him by his mentors that corporations have the same rights as human citizens, which led to the disastrous Citizens United ruling. That decision gave the tactics used on Senator Boren the seal of approval by the USSC and made them part of how business is done in America. That case itself was bankrolled in part by instrumentalities of the vast Koch network.

Things have gotten so out of hand that Exxon Mobil recently argued to the Texas Supreme Court that, if it lied about climate change, those lies are protected free speech according to a tortured reading of the Citizens United decision. Even the oil soaked Texas Supreme Court choked on that argument.

The most fitting activity one could hope for on this Earth Day would be seeing Rex Tillerson, Darren Woods, and Charles Koch arrested and frog marched off to the International Criminal Court to face charges of crimes against humanity and the environment. That would surely be cause for celebration among those who are not willing to sell out the Earth for a few billion barrels of oil.

Check out this trailer for part one of the PBS Frontline report below.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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