The climate is warming. The effects of ever-increasing global temperatures are already impacting coastal cities, and extreme weather events are becoming commonplace around the world. The U.N. International Panel on Climate Change has given humankind a timeframe of 12 years within which we must radically reconfigure the status quo if we are to avoid the most catastrophic version of our future.
Yet methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, continues to pollute and warm our atmosphere, with oil and gas representing the largest source in the U.S.
For some in the oil and gas industry, these circumstances call for no change. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a major industry trade association, remains one of the biggest obstacles to urgent and sensible action on climate change in the United States. They use front groups and public relations tricks, such as EnergyInDepth and eidclimate.org, to confuse the public and make the argument that industry is responsible for nothing.
However, there are some in the industry who see the writing on the wall. They are now moving quickly to try to be perceived as part of the solution to climate change.
Industry Commitments to Cut Methane & Why
Many companies–such as BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil have made concrete commitments to cut methane pollution. A year ago, these companies and others signed the “Guiding Principles to reduce methane emissions” promising to support methane policies and regulations to reduce pollution from the global oil and gas industry. They have also formed a group whose stated aim is to reduce methane emissions to zero throughout the entire oil and gas supply chain called the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI). Some companies have gone even further, like ExxonMobil, which has explicitly endorsed the need for federal regulation of oil and gas industry methane emissions.
But why, all of a sudden, would some of the largest companies in an industry that profits from selling a product that is a harmful and powerful climate pollutant, and whose members have backed groups specifically to deny the existence of man-made climate change, now apparently dedicate themselves to reducing climate pollution?
Because they believe they must.
In just the past few months, Hurricanes Michael and Florence struck the Southeast, affecting communities that have been part of the Republican bulwark against congressional climate action. These catastrophes may have finally changed some minds about the effects of climate change.
Over the past year, lawsuits holding the oil and gas industry responsible for climate change denial were filed in the United States and around the world. In one of the latest, the state of New York sued ExxonMobil for allegedly defrauding investors regarding climate risk.
The oil and gas industry is beginning to realize that if it doesn’t convince the world that it’s acting on climate, it won’t be able to maintain its social license to operate in a world not just threatened by but damaged by climate change.
The Big Question & Introducing the Oil and Gas Accountability Project
The big question remains whether any of these commitments to cut methane will be backed up with necessary action, or whether these words are just more smoke and mirrors from an industry whose record on environment and public health leave little reason for them to be trusted.
But how will the public know if the promises of these companies are backed by action?
That is a question that we, here at Earthworks, have resolved to answer.
It is my honor to introduce to you the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP). We are an initiative from Earthworks born out of necessity during this precarious time in the climate fight. Our aim is twofold: to counter the climate lies of the EnergyInDepth’s of the world; and more importantly, to hold global oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, who have made concrete climate commitments accountable for their word.
Our message to these companies is a simple one: Put up or shut up.
We believe that these promises mean nothing without action to back them up. And with good reason.
Words Are Not Enough; There’s Reason to Be Very Skeptical
Words are not enough for an industry whose companies reek with extensive records of dereliction in their responsibility to, and even outright voluntary disregard for, public health and our environment. Look no further than the ExxonKnew controversy, now under investigation in New York and Massachusetts.
Much like the tobacco industry lied about the risks of addiction and cancer, ExxonMobil knew about climate change in the 1970s and 80s and chose to lie about it. More than lie, ExxonMobil led the charge of climate denial for nearly thirty years. But now that they have been exposed, ExxonMobil has had a change of heart and is suddenly willing make concrete commitments on methane.
Really, how can any reasonable person trust them now?
Many companies who are touting voluntary climate promises cannot even abide by the basic standards set by current state and federal laws.
Every month, Earthworks staff are in the field documenting methane and associated toxic air pollution from oil and gas production. Our optical gas imaging thermographers are certified to use special optical gas imaging cameras to assess pollution by the same body that certifies state and federal regulators and employees working within the oil and gas industry. We use the same equipment to record and make visible the normally invisible air pollution.
What we see casts doubt on the credibility of industry and their claims to cut air pollution. What we see is business as usual. With 1200+ videos taken from operations in the U.S., we see an industry that still has a pervasive problem with polluting methane and volatile organic compounds into the air. Simply put, we see behavior at odds with the climate commitments so many big companies are making.
It’s Time to Put Up or Shut Up
Getting back to our message to the oil and gas industry: it is time to put up or shut.
While there are a number of ways these companies should and must act, an immediate opportunity to prove their sincerity about cutting methane comes via the Trump administration’s current attempt to weaken national methane pollution safeguards. The EPA public comment period will be a major test for companies like BP, Shell, Exxonmobil and the rest of the OGCI member companies.
Earthworks and the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC) have already called out BP and its onshore drilling CEO Dave Lawler to live up to their methane commitments in an open letter in the Denver Post published just before an EPA Hearing in Denver. BP didn’t show, but their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, did to praise the EPA for being on the “right track” in gutting methane safeguards.
So, the trend continues: the oil and gas industry talking up environmental responsibility for public relations while doing the opposite for profit.
As long as that trend continues, Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project will here to point it out. So, tune in as we build out this effort. We’re not going anywhere. But for the, the oil and gas industry’s chance to stop harming the climate, time is running out.