Big Oil's New Tactic: Profit Today, Fight Again Tomorrow
Despite countless investigations, lawsuits, social shaming, and regulations dating back decades, the oil and gas industry remains formidable.
Photo Insert: Big Oil saw climate change coming but lied about the danger of their products, blunting public awareness, and lobbying against government action.
It has confused the public about climate science, bought the eternal gratitude of one of America’s two main political parties, and repeatedly out-maneuvered regulatory efforts, Naomi Oreskes and Jeff Nesbitt for Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story.
Ida Tarbell is one of the most celebrated investigative journalists in American history. Long before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the Watergate scandal, Tarbell’s reporting broke up the Standard Oil monopoly of John D. Rockefeller and his family.
In 19 articles that became a widely read book, “History of the Standard Oil Co.”, published in 1904, she exposed its unsavory practices. In 1911, federal regulators used Tarbell’s findings to break Standard Oil into 33 much smaller companies.
One of the offspring of Standard Oil was Esso (S-O, spelled out), which later launched one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. It did so by relying on the talents of a young cartoonist who millions would later adore under his pen name, Dr. Seuss.
Decades before authoring the pro-environment parable The Lorax, Theodore Geisel helped Esso market “Flit,” a household spray gun that killed mosquitoes. What Americans weren’t told was that the pesticide DDT made up 5% of each blast of Flit.
The campaign ran for 17 years in the 1940s and 1950s, at the time an unheard length of time for an ad campaign. It taught Esso and other Standard Oil companies how to sell derivative products (like plastic and pesticides) that made the company and the brand a household name in the minds of the public.
At the time, the public (and even many scientists) didn’t appreciate the deadly nature of DDT. That didn’t come until the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring.”
Big Oil also saw climate change coming. As abundant investigative reporting and academic studies have documented, the companies’ own scientists were telling their executives in the 1970s that burning more oil and other fossil fuels would overheat the planet. (Other scientists had been saying so since the 1960s).
The companies responded by lying about the danger of their products, blunting public awareness, and lobbying against government action. The result is today’s climate emergency.
Less well-known is how oil and gas companies didn’t just lie about their own research. They also mounted a stealth campaign to monitor and influence what the rest of the scientific community learned and said about climate change. And they pushed methane as “natural gas” when it is 80 times more toxic than carbon dioxide.