We’re leading an all-out national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.

Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 


We’re leading an all-out national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.

Join our work today to help us build a thriving and just clean energy future. 

How the Fossil Fuel Industry Conned the American People

Fossil fuel companies, and the network of front groups and lobbyists they fund, have a long, documented history of intentionally misleading the public on climate science and solutions.

A tall Exxon sign from below.

Today, executives from four fossil fuel companies and two industry associations will appear before the House Oversight Committee to testify on their industry’s record of spreading disinformation on the realities of climate change. Just like big tobacco executives who came before Congress in 1994 (and later faced perjury investigations), the top brass for the country’s top corporate polluters and their trade associations will now be subject to questioning about their record of misleading the public in pursuit of profit.

Each of the six organizations that will be represented—BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—has a long history of promoting climate disinformation and fighting viable climate solutions. In recent years, all six have pivoted, at least in their marketing, to saying they support limited climate action. But behind the scenes, even their own lobbyists admit that’s nothing more than a talking point. In fact, the companies have refused to fully comply with requests for documents and communications submitted by lawmakers for this very hearing.

After years of misleading the public about the threat of climate change, fossil fuel industry executives are finally facing scrutiny from Congress—but we know from experience that they’ll do everything in their power to obfuscate their responsibility for delaying climate action for decades. This memo lays out the real history of how these companies deceived the American public, and the dark truth behind the rehearsed testimony their CEOs will give before the House Oversight Committee later today.

How the Fossil Fuel Industry Deceived The Public For Decades

Intentionally Spreading Climate Disinformation

Fossil fuel companies understood the science of climate change long before it became a public issue, and they’ve spent the last four decades spreading misinformation and lies about the existential threat of our time—all so they could continue to maximize profits without regard for the long term consequences of the climate crisis. Exxon knew about climate change all the way back in 1977, and has since spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate denial. According to internal company documents, Shell understood the climate risks of its business model in the 1980s, but continued to publicly undermine the emerging scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions were fueling the climate crisis. 

Fossil fuel companies didn’t act alone in their campaign to discredit climate science. Powerful industry-aligned lobbying groups like API and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were carrying the torch of climate denial every step of the way. In 2009 a senior vice president for the Chamber of Commerce called for “putting the science of climate change on trial” even as the organization was making the case to the Environmental Protection Agency that global warming would be “beneficial to humans.” And despite warnings from their own scientific committee that continued fossil fuel production expansion could lead to “globally catastrophic events,” API helped lead industry-wide efforts to spread disinformation and fight climate policies.

Waging Shadow Campaigns against Climate Policies

When the government has considered taking meaningful action to fight climate change, the fossil fuel industry has relied on a network of shadow groups to sink those plans. The Chamber of Commerce funded front groups that played a significant role in persuading the Bush administration to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol and vigorously fought the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. And in recent years, API has fought against climate-friendly policies in 16 states.

Explosive footage captured by Greenpeace activists and released by Unearthed earlier this year showed Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy explicitly acknowledging that the company had joined “shadow groups” to oppose climate action efforts. McCoy also explained that his employer’s support for a carbon tax gives them “a talking point” for supporting climate action even though they believe the policy has no chance of being enacted. While McCoy’s comments were certainly revelatory, intentional misdirection on carbon pricing from the fossil fuel industry is nothing new. In 2018 after they had already publicly endorsed carbon pricing, BP quietly spent $13 million fighting that exact policy in Washington state.

Shifting the Burden for Climate Pollution onto Individuals

In their ongoing effort to dodge accountability for fueling the climate crisis, fossil fuel companies have worked to shift the blame for the pollution that they are driving onto individuals instead. In 2004, BP hired a PR firm to create the concept of an individual “carbon footprint” to make the case that consumers, not producers, are responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions caused by fossil fuels, and that consumers, not producers, are responsible for fixing the problem. The CEO of Chevron even defended a recent decision to enrich shareholders through stock buybacks rather than investing in wind and solar projects by saying, “We’d rather dividend it back to shareholders and let them plant trees."

New Industry Commitments: A Smokescreen For More Of The Same 

In recent years, oil and gas companies have seemingly changed their tune. They now claim to embrace the science of climate change and have made varying commitments to decarbonize their operations, but a look beyond their glossy marketing tactics reveals that these commitments are little more than a duplicitous greenwashing effort.

Here’s a roundup of what the companies and organizations testifying today say they’re doing to fight climate change, and why it’s clear that this new tune is just their latest tactic to obfuscate their role in driving climate change:


In 2020, BP set an “ambition” to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but the pledge has some major carve-outs that make it functionally meaningless. The company’s calculation excludes “more than 40 percent of its oil production and 15 percent of the gas” and all of the oil and gas extracted by other companies that is processed and resold by BP. 


Shell set a public target of net-zero emissions by 2050, but the company has no plans to phase out natural gas extraction and continues to insist that natural gas is “vital to building a sustainable energy future, especially in power generation,” despite the high risk of methane emissions during the natural gas extraction process—a pollution source recently found to be 25 to 40 percent larger than previously thought. 

But even that woefully insufficient plan is an overstatement of Shell’s real trajectory: a recent report found that Shell is on track to miss its own pollution reduction targets after 2022. The company has so grossly overstated its moves to reduce carbon pollution that a Netherlands watchdog directed Shell to pull ads it was running on its carbon neutrality program because they were misleading. 


Though Exxon has faced recent shareholder pressure to act on climate, the company has not set a goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, even as that target has become commonplace among its peers in the industry. Exxon’s current climate pledge focuses on the carbon intensity of its operations, rather than its net emissions, meaning that the company’s climate plan would actually allow it to increase its carbon footprint over time. This type of pledge amounts to little more than a useful talking point for Exxon executives on climate action, even as the company remains committed to expanding oil and gas production. 


Unlike its peers that have set an explicit target of reaching net-zero emissions in the coming decades, Chevron recently set an “aspiration” to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But even that flimsy non-commitment rings hollow when you take into account the fact that only .2% percent of Chevron's capital expenditures between 2010-2018 were in low carbon energy sources, and the company’s net production of high-carbon sources including crude oil, natural gas, and oil-equivalent all increased in 2019 compared to previous years.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

In 2019, a decade after its flagrant climate denial led to an exodus of high-profile corporate members, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convened its first-ever climate task force. More than a year later, the Chamber finally adopted a limited suite of climate policy goals that had already been endorsed by the fossil fuel industry, including carbon pricing. But as previously noted, sources within the fossil fuel industry have been crystal clear that they do not believe a price on carbon is actually politically viable and that the position is just a convenient talking point to deflect criticisms over opposing climate action policies.

American Petroleum Institute

API has played a key role in laundering the reputations of its member companies by lobbying behind the scenes to block the climate policies that its members claim to support. In 2020, API launched “Energy for Progress,” a massive PR campaign that portrayed fossil fuel companies as heros in the fight to defeat the climate crisis—even while it was actively opposing climate action efforts in states across the country. More recently, API has endorsed a new set of climate policies, including a carbon tax which industry lobbyist Keith McCoy described as a convenient “talking point” to misdirect from more viable climate action policies. 

Fossil fuel companies have pursued profit at the expense of Americans’ health and safety, and it’s clear that their priorities have not changed since they began their campaign of climate misinformation decades ago.

The Path Ahead: Accountability And Action 

Fossil fuel companies, and the network of front groups and lobbyists they fund, have a long, documented history of intentionally misleading the public on climate science and solutions. They have pursued profit at the expense of Americans’ health and safety, and it’s clear that their priorities have not changed since they began their campaign of climate misinformation decades ago.

Luckily, we have leaders in Congress who are ready to hold them accountable. Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA), who leads the House Oversight Environment Subcommittee, made it clear that today’s hearing is just the start of his investigation into the industry’s lies and has promised to use every tool available to him to expose them.

One hearing won’t be enough to undo the harm wrought by decades of deception on the part of the fossil fuel industry—but it’s a signal to the industry that time is up on their decades-long campaign to dupe the public and poison our discourse. Congress, and the world, will be watching.