On Wednesday I spent an hour belatedly viewing the first part of BBC2’s documentary, “Big Oil v the World“. My initial intention was to view all three of its episodes before commenting here, but the task began to weigh heavily. The Guardian keeps mentioning programme 1 in glowing terms and I began to feel deprived. Nevertheless I’m so glad I didn’t watch it when it was first broadcast, deep in the midst of the heatwave. Having read a number of published reviews of the first episode, it seems clear that the reviewers suffered greatly from heat-stress, and as a bunch now hold the Oil Industry to blame for their own discomfort as well as that of the planet. Heated brains might also partially explain their common view that that the programme was so very, very important. I have a more jaundiced view.
The first programme of the series, Denial, intended to show that Exxon in 1978 (then the biggest company in the world) paid for and encouraged research into global warming. It then, according to one review, when “faced with a choice between saving the planet or enjoying another three decades of profits chose the latter. It spent huge amounts on lobbying.” I find it difficult to constrain my outrage at the unfairness of this comment and the ignorance of the reviewer. At this point I must stress that I have never worked for Esso or Exxon (now ExxonMobil) nor have I ever received monies from them.
The false impression is given that Exxon did its research on the greenhouse effect and climate change in secret, so when it chose to close down its efforts in this field they were buried and lost for decades. This is highly unlikely. Even in the programme it slips out that Exxon was funding climate research at Columbia University, and I heard frequent references at UEA that CRU was partially funded by Exxon (and other major oil companies). The Climategate emails, for example, include discussions on how CRU might extract ever more funding from American oil companies and BP.
Exxon staff attended meetings and spoke at some. There are even publications. Those outside Exxon knew what was happening, where do you think Exxon researchers got their data from?
Exxon closed down its climate research because of massive falls in income caused by drastic reductions in the price of crude oil. Around this time (1980s) I visited Shell’s research lab in the Netherlands, seeking funding for my research. Quite the wrong time to do this. As I walked in the front door I passed a notice board giving the latest oil price. I had chosen the very worst time to visit. On that board was the lowest price ever – 0.13$/bbl. Even the mighty Exxon could not survive at those prices.
So Exxon’s choice was not really between supporting climate research and enjoying profits; instead it was between simple survival and continuing to fund extraneous projects not essential to its business. I know of several research geologists who voluntarily left Exxon and other big American oil companies at around this time, reading the writing on the wall. Even geological and geophysical research, at the heart of its exploration business, was on rocky ground. Research with universities definitely dried up for years.
I think the programme correctly assessed Exxon’s interest in climate; they were concerned, and thought they might become part of the solution. They were looking at alternate sources of energy. Later in the programme was a bit of unvarnished truth. Exxon had examined all the alternative energy sources, and nothing came close to petroleum. From that time on Exxon became exclusively a fossil fuel company.
The programme then moved away from its focus on Exxon to consider the founding and growth of a collection of major companies that either produced fossil fuels or used them. This group collectively founded and funded the American Petroleum Institute (API). It was concerned that the extensive hype given to climate change would result in political action that would adversely affect its members. It focussed upon the uncertainties inherent within climate science, and especially the IPCC which was increasingly coming to conclusions that humans were responsible for climate change by burning fossil fuels. The API set about becoming a counterweight, stressing uncertainties and promoting individuals, like Pat Michaels, to speak on their behalf.
Usually when an individual is featured in person within a documentary: someone who has died between recording and broadcasting, as Michaels was, this is acknowledged. Not so the BBC. Very poor.
The plot moves from the API seamlessly to Koch Industries, a truly major company that deals extensively with the transportation of oil and its multitude of by-products. This final part of the programme was, for me, the most worrying but it’s on a subject that I have least knowledge about. The programme argued that because the political aim of reducing emissions was being promoted by successive U.S. presidents, Koch Industries set about displacing Republicans who had voted for reducing emissions and replaced them with people who questioned climate change dogma. Eventually this resulted in the greater polarisation of American politics that we live with today. Certainly statements made by the surviving Koch brother substantiated the programme’s claims.
Between the three main parts of the programme are episodes of weather porn – forest fires, flooding in China – which were meant to be interpreted as consequences of climate change. No doubt there will be more of these in later programmes. There were no attempts to substantiate the climate links, they were just thrown into the mix likes plums in a pudding.
I doubt that Denial (the programme) was meant to convince non-believers. In fact the programme assumes the viewer has absolutely no doubts whatsoever about the reality and cause of climate change. So obvious is this that viewers are even expected to believe that in the 1970s when Exxon scientists were first researching the possible effects of increased CO2 that it was indisputable that there was a significant effect. There was no doubt whatsoever, so any questioning by oil company management must have had nefarious motives. But oil company management, in my experience, works with major uncertainty and questions everything. As soon as other research showed that petroleum had no viable competitors, Exxon never went back to examining energy alternatives or climate. It even ignored shale gas for a time and I was told by my then manager that this was probably a deliberate decision. If fracked gas became significant the “Big Boys” would simply buy themselves into the action.
The title of the series is Big Oil v the World and from the first episode you would be led to believe that all our climate woes can be laid at the door of Exxon and its oily buddies. By my count, coal is mentioned (as a word) only four times in passing. Keeping coal miners in employment has been on the political must-do list, yet is totally ignored by the programme in its desire to brand big oil as the baddies.
There is little doubt that the first episode is grossly biased, but also that it is very effective, especially when, by chance, it was shown in the midst of a heatwave that most people immediately attributed to climate change. Only one review (in the Telegraph) questioned anything about the programme. (My estimation of the Telegraph has risen significantly). What is noticeable about all reviews I read was their concentration on the “culpability” of Exxon. Nary a mention of the API or Koch Industries, yet to my mind these were more significant topics.
Should you expose yourself to Big Oil v the World? On balance I would suggest you do. You might wear down your teeth somewhat, but the programme is full of interest. I learned much, for instance that Exxon equipped one of its tankers with measuring equipment which contributed climate data from otherwise remote areas along its routes.
Only two more programmes to view. I cannot claim to be excited by the prospect, but such are the tribulations of becoming a Cliscep henchman.