What sort of ‘moment’ is this for Big Oil?

In the spring, a reporter from Unearthed, a journalistic project run by Greenpeace UK, went undercover. Posing as a recruitment consultant, they spoke with Keith McCoy, a senior lobbyist for the oil behemoth ExxonMobil, who told the “recruiter” that Exxon supports a carbon tax as a “great talking point” that won’t ever come to anything, that the company was actively seeking to water down President Biden’s climate policies—including via regular talks with the conservative Democratic senator Joe Manchin—and that it had used “shadow groups” to fight early climate science. (“There’s nothing illegal about that,” McCoy said. “We were looking out for our shareholders.”) Unearthed handed footage of the exchange to Channel 4, a British broadcaster, which put it on the air; in the US, where undercover journalism is more controversial (if not unheard of), major news outlets wrote up McCoy’s admissions as they drove outrage. Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, said that the tape “only proves our knowledge that the industry’s disinformation campaign is alive and well,” and said that he’d “ask the CEOs of Exxon, Chevron, and other fossil fuel companies to come testify before my Environment subcommittee.”

Yesterday, the CEOs of Exxon, Chevron, and the US division of BP, along with the US president of Shell and the leaders of the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce, were called before the full House Oversight Committee to answer for the disinformation campaign. “This is a historic hearing,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the committee’s Democratic chair, said, before referencing the McCoy tape. “For far too long, Big Oil has escaped accountability for its central role in bringing our planet to the brink of a climate catastrophe. That ends today.” Not that it ended for long. Speaking next, Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, dismissed the exercise as a distraction from Democratic malfeasance, before channeling his party’s typical deep concern for media ethics, calling the McCoy video “deceptively reported and edited,” so much so that it undercut the “legitimacy” of the entire hearing. (McCoy—whose comments to Greenpeace were publicly disowned by Exxon, and who has since parted with the company—spoke out about the video for the first time yesterday, telling Politico that it was “highly-edited.” He put the word “interview” in scare quotes.)

Related: Cover the COP26 climate summit like our lives depend on it

Like McCoy, the executives who testified yesterday stressed that they take climate change seriously, actually, and denied ever covering up any science. They also declined, when asked by top Democrats on the committee, to promise that they’ll stop funding lobbying efforts aimed at undercutting aggressive climate action. Rep. Byron Donalds, a Florida Republican, reassured the executives that “trying to get you to pledge on what you’re going to spend your money on is a gross violation of the First Amendment.” Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat, beamed in virtually and used two jars of M&Ms (one full, the other very much not) to symbolize Shell’s respective planned investments in fossil fuels and renewable energy, before opening a car trunk full of rice to quantify the amount of unused federal land that fossil-fuel companies occupy. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said “God bless Chevron.” Maloney said that the committee would subpoena documents from the companies, including around their payments to shadow groups. Comer objected, again citing the First Amendment. The hearing ended. The committee’s investigation continues.

That big oil companies knew about the climate harms of their products while working to obscure them was not a revelation of the McCoy video, of course: in recent years, outlets including the LA Times and Inside Climate News have reported on their denialism and brought the receipts. Big Oil is increasingly facing a swirl of commercial, political, and legal pressures: major fossil-fuel firms were denied the formal role they sought at the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, which starts next week; numerous lawsuits have been filed in a bid to hold the industry accountable. As Emily Atkin, of the climate newsletter HEATED, pointed out yesterday, the Oversight committee’s promised subpoenas might help on that front. Atkin also noted that the lawsuits resemble those that once hit the tobacco industry, and the broader Big Tobacco parallel was ubiquitous in coverage of the hearing, with much of it recalling the 1994 hearings at which tobacco executives claimed that nicotine is not addictive—a turning point on the road to regulation of that industry. (The timing of yesterday’s hearing added to what was already a busy moment for the phrase “Big Tobacco Moment.” Facebook is said to be in the midst of one, too.)

The comparison has its limits, however. As Hiroko Tabuchi and Lisa Friedman, of the New York Times, reported after the hearing, the oil executives present “seemed to have learned from the tobacco hearings” and stuck to a careful script. And, while the word “moment” conjures something fleeting, it’s easy to forget just how long it took to get to meaningful federal regulation of tobacco. The present political climate matters, too. The Republican antics at yesterday’s Big Oil hearing were hardly reflective of bipartisan agreement (and the Facebook example is emerging as evidence that even the latter does not equate to quick action). And, despite some weighty coverage, the hearing struggled to punch through a news cycle that was dominated, once again, by wrangling over Biden’s agenda.

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This is itself a climate story, of course, even if the press hasn’t always covered it as one. Biden initially wanted to pass aggressive climate action as part of a bipartisan infrastructure deal, but it was watered down; a bigger, party-line spending bill was supposed to pick up the slack, but that’s been watered down, too, thanks in no small part to Manchin’s opposition to a provision that would have targeted fossil-fuel-dependent utilities with both carrots and sticks. (A carbon-tax proposal also went nowhere.) Yesterday, Biden laid out what he described as a compromise package that contained five-hundred-billion-plus dollars in climate spending, including incentives for utilities and transitional spending on electric vehicles. Various climate reporters and other observers pointed out that this would constitute both a historic investment in US climate policy and also a dereliction of duty; as the New Republic’s Kate Aronoff noted, the climate provisions in the package “would spend about half as much to confront a catastrophic, epoch-defining crisis each year as Americans spent on their pets in 2020.” And it’s not yet clear if the package will pass in its current form. The political media has some Manchin-watching still to do.

A meaningful “moment” for Big Oil—and in the wider fight against climate change—will require more concrete action than he and others are willing to countenance, and we should remember that in our coverage. It will also require media action beyond the sharp-reporting side of things. Many major media companies long since stopped taking ad dollars from Big Tobacco (though as Dan Kennedy has reported, some outlets have recently run ads from Philip Morris touting its smoke-free research). Some media companies—The Guardian, for instance—no longer accept fossil-fuel ads either, but on the whole those remain a comparatively common sight. As Atkin and Molly Taft, of Earther, reported this week, a trio of influential newsletters—Punchbowl, which covers DC politics, and energy-focused offerings from Politico and Axios—have collectively run more than fifty greenwashing fossil-fuel ads this month alone. Yesterday, the Axios energy newsletter covered the oil hearing under the heading “a critical day” and an eyeball emoji. The newsletter was “presented by ExxonMobil.” Eyeball emoji, indeed.

Below, more on the climate crisis and moments:

  • “Our lives depend on it”: For Covering Climate Now, a climate-reporting initiative led by CJR and The Nation, Andrew McCormick urges news organizations to drop any triviality from their coverage of COP26. “Yes, there will be gaffes and oddball occurrences in Glasgow,” McCormick writes, referring back to some of the light-hearted coverage that relayed leaders’ quirky behavior at the G7 summit over the summer. “Some of them will be very funny. But even if a president is caught tugging on a locked door, even if Boris Johnson goes for a morning swim or jogging in his dress shoes, newsrooms must, for all our sake, keep focus on the story that matters most.”
  • Whatever, the weather: This week, Fox launched a new ’round-the-clock streaming service covering weather. Executives pledged, in the face of widespread skepticism, that the channel would not ignore the climate crisis—but Eleanor Cummins watched its first six hours of programming, for the New Republic, and found the climate focus to be inadequate. “I saw storm-front reports, turbulence reports, school-day forecasts, a power outage tracker, expert advice on filing for homeowner’s insurance, viewer-created videos under the #FoxWeather hashtag, and plenty of Monday night sports banter—all slickly produced and often genuinely informative,” Cummins writes. “What I didn’t hear was mention of the scientific consensus that climate change is well underway.”
  • Build Back Better: Also for the New Republic, Aronoff argues that the timing of Biden’s spending announcement gave oil and gas executives “a lot to be thankful for.” The news “left climate reporters—including yours truly—with a lot on their plate,” Aronoff writes. “It meant fewer people, perhaps, might see oil executives decline to commit to leave the API, which has spent some $500,000 on Facebook ads in recent weeks against electric vehicles and campaigned to weaken proposed constraints on the methane emissions in the gas industry. None of the CEOs who took the stand were even willing to criticize API for its continued efforts to block climate policy. After all, they fund those efforts.”
  • Build Back Meta: In the aftermath of the Big Tobacco moment, Philip Morris changed its name to Altria Group. Yesterday, Facebook (the company) changed its name to Meta. (Facebook, the platform, will still be called Facebook.) Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook/Meta’s CEO, denied that the rebrand, which refers to his company’s ambitions in the metaverse (don’t ask), was inspired by recent bad publicity, but many observers were not convinced. Zuckerberg, Motherboard’s Jason Koebler wrote, “is pitching products that don’t exist for a reality that does not exist in a desperate attempt to change the narrative as it exists in reality, where we all actually live.”

A programming note, and an invitation:
Two weeks from now, I’ll be writing this newsletter from inside COP26, reporting and commenting on the media stories surrounding both the conference and the climate crisis itself. If you or your news organization is headed to COP, I’d love to hear about your coverage plans (especially if you’re lining up something innovative) or just to say hi. If you aren’t heading to COP, I’d love to hear about what you’re looking for from others’ coverage of the conference, or any thoughts you may have on the state of climate journalism generally. You can reach me at [email protected].

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: The witnesses of a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change, raise their hands as they are sworn in virtually, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The witnesses include, Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, David Lawler, CEO of BP America Inc., Michael Wirth, CEO of Chevron, Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil Company, Mike Sommers, president of the American Petroleum Institute, Suzanne Clark, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Neal Crabtree. All of the witnesses chose to appear via video conference. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)