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Big Oil Backing Off of Climate Denial?

By: Jeremy Houser

It takes a lot of cash to maintain that peculiar style of balance portrayed in mainstream news coverage: that despite the fact that 97-98% of climate scientists accept the basic climate change consensus, to be fair we must give equal time to both sides to “debate the controversy.” In recent years, the world’s largest oil companies and allied interest groups, such as the American Petroleum Institute, have provided a lot of the funding for groups devoted to “climate skepticism.” Those groups in turn promote the ideas of the remaining 2-3% of climate scientists (along with anyone else in the public eye, such as TV weather forecasters), from funding their research programs to ensuring their voices are heard frequently and loudly.
A recent leak of fundraising documents from the Heartland Institute, a public policy nonprofit, provides an inside look at how one group works to undermine the public’s understanding of the scientific consensus. One example: providing $200,000 to create a new curriculum for public schools, in hopes of combating the “alarmist perspective” students have been receiving. (Sounds a lot like teaching the controversy of evolution in biology class.) There’s more interesting material than can even be touched on here, so please click over to the NY Times article above, a good summary, and Brad Plumer’s blog at the Washington Post, which breaks out five cogent observations from the documents. (One example: he explains that these groups don’t necessarily corrupt individual scientists, their mission is more to amplify the voices of the few who already agree with them.)

One of Plumer’s topics in particular is worth commenting on: The apparent diminishing interest from big oil corporations, in particular ExxonMobil, in supporting these groups. As documented in a 2005 exposé, forty groups (including the Heartland Institute) working to promote the “skeptical” viewpoint received substantial funding from ExxonMobil. In 2011, though, Heartland received no money at all from ExxonMobil or any other major oil company. Even the Koch Charitable Foundation, historically a very important source of funding for climate denial, specifically earmarked its 2011 donation for a separate program unrelated to climate change.
Before generalizing, it should be emphasized that these documents only speak to the strategy and funding sources of one of many climate denial organizations. That said, why might big oil have decided they have better uses for their lobbying dollars? One possibility is that much of the reserves that are currently held by these oil companies are in fact natural gas, which emits less carbon per unit of energy produced than oil, and much less than coal. So, in the intermediate-term, the sorts of small-scale steps to address carbon emissions that are more likely to be taken by the US government – for example, mandatory installation of scrubbers on coal-burning plants or restrictions on mountain-top removal coal mining – could actually favor the bottom line of big oil, at the expense of coal. With the already declining price of natural gas, moderate climate legislation could help make gas-burning power plants even more price competitive with coal. More stringent laws in the distant future could of course reduce the profitability of natural gas, but unlike politicians, industry interest groups are free to switch positions any time they want; no one will care if they’re “flip-floppers.”