Oil Industry Pumped Up Spending on Disinformation This Summer to Kill California Climate Bill Provision

Got Science? | November 2015

After decades of denial, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell are now talking the talk. The five oil giants—collectively responsible for 12.5 percent of all industrial carbon pollution since the 1850s—now publicly concede that climate change is real. They acknowledge that it is primarily caused by burning their products. Some of them even support a carbon tax.

Cars on California freeway

Freeway traffic in Berkeley, California. A deceptive marketing campaign aimed at drivers was just one of the tactics the oil industry used to kill a provision to reduce petroleum consumption in a recent California climate bill. Photo: Minesweeper/ wikipedia

That said, the five carbon majors and the rest of the oil and gas industry are still spending millions to deceive the public about climate science and derail government attempts to address global warming.

What happened in California this summer is a case in point. The state Legislature was considering a climate bill (SB350) designed to double the energy efficiency of existing buildings, increase electric utilities’ renewable energy use to 50 percent by 2030, and halve petroleum consumption by cars and trucks by 2030. The oil industry objected to that third provision, misleadingly dubbing the bill the “California Gas Restriction Act of 2015.” And, according to state data released this week, the industry tripled its quarterly lobbying expenditures—from $3.68 million in the spring to $11.5 million from July through September—to pressure California lawmakers to scrap the oil reduction goal.

More than half of the industry’s summer spending spree came via the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the industry’s main lobby group on the West Coast. WSPA doled out $6.7 million, more than twice what it spent in the first six months of this year. On top of that, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell—all WSPA members—together kicked in $2.45 million, more than twice the $1.06 million they spent in the spring quarter. Of the five, Chevron—California’s largest oil company—was the big spender, dropping $1.8 million during the three months covered by the reporting period.

Some of the money went to wine and dine key lawmakers. But most of it underwrote a PR campaign to scare California drivers, falsely claiming in direct mail pieces, on billboards, and in radio and television ads that the proposed bill would lead to gas rationing, driving restrictions, minivan fines, and SUV bans. Even the organization taking credit for the campaign—the California Drivers Alliance—is phony, one of more than a dozen fake grassroots groups WSPA has created to promote its agenda.

Besides the fact that the state of California does not have the authority to implement any of the policies WSPA’s front group cited, California is well on its way to reduce its petroleum use by nearly 25 percent even without the oil-reduction target in the climate bill. That’s due to a number of measures established by the landmark 2006 “Global Warming Solutions Act” (AB32) that have led to more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road; greater use of alternative fuels, including biofuels and electricity; better transportation planning; and more transit options. And California is not alone in cutting oil use. Thanks to smart, science-based policies and efficiency improvements, petroleum consumption nationwide was lower in 2014 than in 1997, despite the fact that the economy grew nearly 50 percent over that time.

That’s the good news. The bad news is we still need to do more to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, and that’s where the oil industry’s cynical campaign to derail the climate bill’s provision to cut oil use in half flies in the face of what climate science tells us.

In the end, the oil industry’s disinformation campaign paid off—at least for now. In early September, the Legislature dropped the oil consumption provision from the bill that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last month.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, the bill’s author, vowed to continue the fight. “Big Oil might be on the right side of their shareholder reports, but we’re on the right side of history," he said. “And ultimately California is going to demand that an industry which represents most of the problem has an economic and moral duty to be part of the solution.”

California’s goal of cutting oil consumption by 50 percent is certainly achievable. The state is already on track to meet half the target, and the climate bill’s provision would have accelerated the introduction of  more efficient cars and trucks; cleaner, low-carbon fuels; and smarter land use and transportation policies. In fact, the entire country could meet that target over the next two decades, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 2012, the organization crunched the numbers, providing a blueprint that identified a number of ways to wring oil out of the economy—from retrofitting buildings to producing better biofuels to making planes, trains and ships more fuel efficient—and calculated that the United States can feasibly slash projected annual demand by more than 4 billion barrels by 2035.

For his part, Brown told reporters in September that he would use his executive powers to outmaneuver the oil industry. “Oil has won the skirmish, but they’ve lost the bigger battle,” he said. “Because I am more determined than ever to make our regulatory regime work for the people of California: cleaning up the air, reducing the petroleum and creating the green jobs that are going to put hundreds of thousands of people to work over the coming decades.”

In the meantime, the progress oil companies have made in their rhetoric has to be matched by their deeds. They need to start walking the walk.