Episode 1 of BBC’s Big Oil vs The World is a polished, emotional, lawyer-like brief for one side of a multi-sided, complex issue. But in the final analysis, the BBC case is long on agenda and feelings and short on facts, balance, and proper context. The documentary is slick propaganda that accuses oil companies of producing slick propaganda.
With its documentary Big Oil vs The World, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has added its voice to the chorus accusing the petroleum industry in general, and ExxonMobil in particular, of misleading the public and slowing the global response to climate change. The three-part documentary (Denial, Doubt, and Delay) was produced in cooperation with PBS, which ran its version on Frontline under the title The Power of Big Oil in April and May of this year.
While watching Episode 1 of the BBC’s film, I was reminded of the 2002 movie The Bourne Identity. In the story, the CIA had a global phalanx of assassins sitting by their phones waiting for orders. I imagined actual CIA operatives watching the show longingly saying to themselves, “If only.”
According to Big Oil vs The World, the petroleum industry is as all-powerful as was Bourne’s CIA. The documentary relentlessly pounds the theme home. We learn, for example, that ExxonMobil’s occasional newspaper advertisements controlled the opinion of a public that was, by the way, regularly exposed to stories and opinions of climatological doom from every conceivable media outlet. We also learn that the oil industry dominated the United States Senate.
In 1997, for example, the Senate unanimously (95 to 0) passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, which declared that it would not sign off on a Kyoto treaty that put the United States at an economic disadvantage. The documentary describes industry lobbying efforts in support of the resolution, implying that, but for those efforts, the resolution would have failed. However, the idea that the oil business had every Senator from every state – even those states with little or no oil reserves – in its pocket is pure Bourne-level fantasy.
Senators were concerned that the Kyoto Protocol would exempt developing countries from emission reductions, as, in fact, it did. During an interview for the documentary, former Vice President Al Gore pointed out that global politics dictated that Kyoto could not have been enacted if developing nations were not exempted. He argued that developed nations had, up to that point, produced the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions and should be responsible for the reductions.
But what is fair is not necessarily effective. As U.S. lawmakers feared, the exemption created incentives for companies in developed nations to offshore emission-intensive industries to developing nations – a fact not mentioned in the video. Nor did the BBC bother to report that labor unions also backed the resolution. Labor’s support may partially explain the Clinton White House’s failure to oppose Byrd-Hagel.
During his interview with the BBC, former Senator Chuck Hagel – one of the Resolution’s co-sponsors – claims that industry lobbyists lied to him. The interviewer then asks, “If they had held their hands up then and said, ‘Yes, this is real,’ could it have been different?” Hagel replied,
Oh, absolutely. It would have changed everything. I think that it would have changed the average citizen’s appreciation of climate change, and mine. Of course. It would have put the United States and the whole world on a different track. And today we would have been so much further ahead than we are. It’s cost this country and it’s cost the world.
Is it really true that the oil companies deceived Hagel, blocking a new energy and political reality? Would inexpensive and reliable alternatives to fossil fuels have been discovered were it not for Big Oil? Did Big Oil really have the power to suppress research into alternative energies during the quarter-century that elapsed since the resolution was passed? Would the average citizen gladly have shelled out trillions in taxes and higher energy prices if the oil companies had backed the Kyoto Protocol? Hardly.
Al Gore’s stark summation for Episode 1 is revealing:
I think that it’s the moral equivalent of a war crime. I think that it is in many ways the most serious crime of the post-World War II era. The consequences of what they have done are almost unimaginable.
Note that Gore isn’t condemning the Senate for unanimously passing Byrd-Hagel, nor the automotive industry nor the labor unions for supporting it. Gore is not condemning his own administration for failing to oppose the resolution. He is condemning the petroleum industry, following the BBC’s narrative that Big Oil is pulling all the strings. Like the documentary itself, Gore’s accusation does little to enlighten and much to inflame.
Putting ExxonMobil on Trial
Part of the case against ExxonMobil, the video’s main target, is that the company began researching the greenhouse effect in the late 1970s (the “global cooling” and Peak Oil era), and its scientists found cause for concern. When the bottom dropped out of the oil market in 1982, though, the company cut back on its research program and sold off its research into solar power and lithium batteries.
During the downturn, in fact, Exxon was hemorrhaging money and desperately worked to staunch the flow. Not only did it lay off thousands of employees, it sold both Exxon Nuclear and Reliance Electric Company in 1986. Moreover, its earlier abortive attempts to diversify had taught it that it needed to concentrate on what it knew – oil, gas, and chemicals. Thus in 1981 the company closed Exxon Office Systems and, in the 2000s, it sold off its retail gas stations.
Ed Garvey was one of the young scientists Exxon brought on board in 1978 to do climate research. During his interview with the BBC, he stated:
It’s heartbreaking to me. I saw all that potential… to really solve the problem…. Had Exxon chosen to pick up the ball then and begin to lead, the discussions would have been about how to do it. We had solar scientists doing research. We had lithium battery chemists doing research. Think of how important these sciences are to the world currently. Parts of the world are going to suffer enormously, unnecessarily so and for something that we could have done something about. Not doing anything for decades, that… that’s just squandered time and we’re going to pay for it.
Again, the theme of the all-powerful oil industry. Without Exxon, nothing could happen; with it, everything could be solved. Yet earlier in the documentary, Garvey had stated that, rather than shutting down their lithium battery and solar research, Exxon had sold them. The research did not stop; it was transferred to companies with more expertise in those fields than Exxon had or could realistically ever hope to have. That’s a good thing.
Throughout the documentary, videos of natural disasters – drought, floods, hurricanes, forest fires – appear on the screen. While the scenes are typically presented without comment, their placement implies that each was the result of global warming. The BBC was wise not to make the claim explicit. As Dr. James Hansen stated in his 1988 Congressional testimony, “It is not possible to blame a specific heatwave/drought on the greenhouse effect.” That was true then and it’s true today.
Simply showing the film clips left out key facts. For example, the videos of the 2018 California forest fires provided horrifying images but no context. The California “Camp Fire,” the deadliest and most destructive in the state’s history, was sparked by faulty equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric.
Winds, a large buildup of dead trees, and warm weather all made the wildfires worse. Global warming, natural or not, may well have contributed; the vast number of dead trees was, in part, a result of droughts during the 2010s. On the other hand, as NPR reports, “environmental laws prevent [the state’s forests] from being thinned or logged.”
The climate is changing, and we need to adapt to those changes. That includes updating our forestry management practices.
The documentary discussed the Global Climate Coalition, an industry PR organization, at length. In 1996, the GCC published The IPCC: Institutionalized “Scientific Cleansing,” a report that accused Dr. Benjamin Santer – the convening lead author of Chapter 8, “Detection of Climate Change and Attributions of Causes,” in the IPCC’s second assessment report – of altering the text after the other contributors had signed off on it. Although Santer’s fellow authors supported him, editorials across the U.S. repeated and amplified the charge.
BBC’s documentary focused on the word “cleansing,” which appeared in the title as well as in the body as follows:
The changes quite clearly have the obvious political purpose of cleansing important information that would lead policy makers and the public to be very cautious, if not skeptical, about blaming human activities for climate change over the past century.
Dr. Santer’s response:
I had grandparents who were ‘cleansed’ because of their religion in the Second World War. People were being cleansed because of their religion in Bosnia…. This attack on individuals, on their integrity, decency, honesty involved high personal cost.
Santer had every reason to be outraged at the language used. Ironically, though, the documentary quickly switches to climate activist and investigator, Kert Davies, who launches a similar personal attack on Lee Raymond:
In the mid-90s, after he becomes chairman of the board of Exxon, Lee Raymond is an ardent denier.
The term “denier” – used throughout the video – evokes the phrase “Holocaust denier,” and it first appeared in print in 1995, one year before the GCC’s paper appeared.
Davies is followed by Professor Martin Hoffert, an Exxon Climate Consultant from 1981 to 1987, who characterized statements in Lee Raymond’s 1996 article, “Climate Change: Don’t Ignore the Facts,” as “evil.”
What were Raymond’s statements that sparked the condemnation? That the “scientific evidence remains inconclusive”–and cutting back on fossil-fuel usage would have “ominous economic implications.” Raymond’s article also argued that “we must understand it better” before we take “precipitous, poorly considered action on climate change” that “could inflict severe economic damage.”
While scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming is far more widely accepted today than it was in 1996, Raymond’s warnings were prophetic. Governments around the world – in the politically-driven need to “do something” – grasped at readily available but impractical alternatives to fossil fuels that only made the problem worse:
Climate policy has also shifted oil production, mineral mining, and energy-intensive industries to countries with dismal environmental records. “Emit more elsewhere” policies do nothing to ease climate change. And the EU’s refusal to produce its own natural gas has made it dependent on a militant Russia that is now using its leverage for extortion.
Early in the documentary, a scientist states that, in the 1970s, fossil fuels provided 85% of the world’s energy. By 2019, after the expenditure of scarce resources and trillions of dollars, that portion had dropped to 84%. Switching from fossil fuels is technically, economically, politically, and diplomatically difficult. Nothing that Big Oil could have done, or can do, will change that fact. Energy density and reliability are what they are.
Grand Fog or Obvious Truth?
The BBC also interviewed John Passacantando, founder and executive director of Ozone Action from 1992 to 2000, and executive director of Greenpeace from 2000 to 2008. During the interview, he took aim at the GCC document Communications Program, published on July 11, 1995:
This is the strategy of the grand fog. This is a plan from the PR firm E. Bruce Harrison after [the UN Convention on Climate Change in] Berlin.
Reading from the document:
Prepared for the Global Climate Coalition, July 11, 1995. Third party recruitment and op-ed placement will continue although with a new emphasis on economists.
No longer reading:
There are firms that they can pay who will say, you know, ‘solving global warming will cost lots of jobs, there will be higher energy costs.’ This is the next layer of fog.
Yet, as we have learned – and as the BBC neglected to report – the costs have been very high indeed. The UK/EU energy crisis that began prior to the Russian invasion from a “wind drought” is an important data point.
Episode 1 of BBC’s Big Oil vs The World is a polished, emotional, lawyer-like brief for one side of a multi-sided, complex issue. The film is well directed. Its melancholy background music effectively sets the mood; its disaster film clips convey urgency; and its interviews reflect remorse, despair, and anger.
But in the final analysis, the BBC case is long on agenda and feelings and short on facts, balance, and proper context. The documentary is slick propaganda that accuses oil companies of producing slick propaganda.
Richard W. Fulmer is the coauthor (with Robert L. Bradley Jr.) of Energy: The Master Resource (Kendall-Hunt: 2004) and the author of numerous articles, book reviews, and blog posts in the classical-liberal tradition.
For other posts on the same subject (with Robert Bradley Jr.), see: