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Inside Big Oil’s Push Against Climate Change Action

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NEWS ANNOUNCER:
They’re saying ‘it’s now or never.’

NEWS ANNOUNCER:
Now or never.

NEWS ANNOUNCER:
It’s now or never.

NEWS ANNOUNCER:
It’s now or never for the world to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as we face the prospect of an unlivable earth.

RANEY ARONSON RATH, HOST:
Experts continue to warn that we are running out of time to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

In our three-part documentary series, the Power of Big Oil, FRONTLINE investigates America's decades-long failure to confront climate change

VOICE [excerpt from The Power of Big Oil, Part I]:
Please welcome our chairman, Lee Raymond.

[applause sound]

RANEY ARONSON RATH:
and the role the fossil fuel industry played in casting doubt and delaying action.

LEE RAYMOND [excerpt from The Power of Big Oil, Part I]:
I believe we can change the perceptions of the American people about energy.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
I’m joined today by journalist Russell Gold. Russell is an investigative reporter who has spent the last two decades covering the energy sector — companies like Exxon, Chevron, BP, and more.

RUSSELL GOLD:
How do we grapple with our addiction to fossil fuels?/ these incredible sources of energy that/ propelled modern life, but are also heating up the atmosphere and making life on earth uninhabitable

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
He is a senior editor at Texas Monthly, and he worked as an editorial consultant on this series. I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, and this is the FRONTLINE Dispatch.

Russell, welcome to the Dispatch. Thanks for joining me.

RUSSELL GOLD:
Thanks for having me.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Yeah. So first of all, thanks for all your help on this major series that Frontline's just, um, done over the last year. I, can you tell me how it all started with us? Um, I know the story, but I'd love for our audience to hear about how you got involved.

RUSSELL GOLD:
Well, you reached out to me. I mean, I had written a book about some of these topics. I had covered energy for the past 20 years, mostly for the wall street journal. Uh, and you reached out and sort of said, look, we've got this really ambitious idea, which is to look at the last. 30 plus years of energy and climate and policy, uh, and really try to wrap our arms around it.
And I scratched my head and said, wow, 30 years of energy climate, that's ambitious. You know, that's. But, but it was important. You know, I, I recognized immediately that this was an important story to tell, because there's just so much relevancy right now and we're still making choices and we need those choices to be guided by, by sort of an understanding of how we got here. So I was, I was overjoyed to join the team and help out.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
We're so glad you did. I think that the thing that we were looking for the most from you obviously is, you know, the fact of the matter is you spent the last couple of decades, not just covering the energy sector, but actually talking to industry insiders. And I want to get right to that. Through all these conversations with industry insiders and executives, and as we've learned more about climate, what have they told you when you talk to them about climate change, or even the idea of moving away from oil?

RUSSELL GOLD:
The answers I've gotten have changed over the years. Um, you know, in the 2000s, The conversation was more about, you know, we're running out of energy. Where's, where's the oil going to come from? How are we going to find the oil and gas? And it really is not until right about 2008, 2009 with all the activity in Congress, that there's this conversation that begins to arise and, you know, early on in that conversation, most of what I heard was, um, that's all nice. You know, it's nice to think about climate, but the world needs oil and gas And it, it really isn't until the last couple of years that you find, and it's really still just a smattering of executives saying: ‘we need a way forward. We, we need a path to understand what our company is going to look like in 10 years, because it's not going to be what it is today.’ And a lot of that conversation has been driven by investors, and um, bankers who are saying: look, guys, we're not, we don't think you're as valuable as you used to be as publicly traded companies. Unless you can give us a sense of how you're going to transition away, you know, we're not going to keep putting money into it. We're not going to value you as highly.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
How do you feel that we're still having this conversation?

RUSSELL GOLD:
Well, I think we're still having this conversation because we never resolved the conversation. How do we grapple with our addiction to fossil fuels? You know, these incredible sources of energy that are propelled modern life, but are also heating up the atmosphere and making life on earth uninhabitable. So how do you balance those two things? We started having that conversation and as the films show, it was, uh, it was short-circuited. You know, it sort of became, you know, we went from this bipartisan – we might not all agree, but we're going to have this bipartisan conversation about where to go and what to do, and should it be a tax or should it be this or that? That all got short-circuited and all of a sudden it just became part of the culture wars. And so we stopped talking about what to do. And we started sort of yelling at each other and we started, you know, we made these part of our identity. Are we pro, are we con? Or do we like wind turbines or do we hate windmills? Um, and so, you know, we never finished the conversation. So that's why we're still talking about it right now.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
That is a great analysis for what the series shows, these circular conversations that then get more and more heated over time.
I'm curious. So from your perspective, looking at this series now, what did you find the most surprising yourself, as somebody who knows quite a bit?

RUSSELL GOLD:
Well, I was really struck by the number of key players that we were able to get to sit for interviews who talked so candidly about the mistakes they had made and how they felt they were misled.
You have former Senator Chuck Hagel, basically coming out and saying, look, I was misled. I was misinformed by the industry. If I had been told the truth, we would have done something differently. You have Heather Ziko, who is a key advisor to president Obama, Carl Pope, the former head of the Sierra club, Jerry Taylor, who was one of the, sort of the big, you know, people who was talking about, ‘oh climate change, you know, it's not proven.’ All of these people reflecting back and saying either ‘I made a mistake’ or ‘I didn't understand the consequences’ or ‘we made errors.’

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Yeah, I mean, that's a really interesting reflection, ‘cause we noted that as well in the edit room. And we kept thinking, you know, have they done this before?

RUSSELL GOLD:
I'm glad that we were able to get them to reflect like that. because you know, that's a first step. To acknowledge that over the last 20 and 30 years, we've made a number of mistakes as a country, and as a world, I think is a really important way that we can start, moving forward.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Part 1 of the series begins with the story of Exxon conducting pioneering research into climate change in the seventies and early eighties. Can you talk to me about what industry researchers were learning at the time and frankly warning at the time?

RUSSELL GOLD:
Some of this information has come out before, uh, in some pioneering journalism over the last few years.
But, many people don't understand that ExxonMobil is more than just an energy company. It's a science company. It has, you know, hundreds of PhDs doing basic research because, you know, if your job as a company is to go find the oil and gas, then you're going to have some of the greatest, you know, geologists available to you, to try to understand where that is.
So they had in their employ, these globally top-notch scientists who are trying to look at the geology of the world and understand it. And one of the things that they, you know, identified and sort of saw early on with some of the science, was this early indications that greenhouse gasses were accumulating that the parts per million were going up.
And that that was going to have an impact on the weather around the globe. And, you know, it's sort of fascinating to think about Exxon as being uniquely positioned to understand this, so much better than other companies, and to communicate it. And they were doing that research. Um, they were trying to understand it, and then it was heartbreaking when the data comes back and the information comes back, and the project is sort of ended just suddenly because of a downturn in the price of oil.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Right. It was actually really emotional watching that for me when I saw it the first time, you know, ‘cause of course I had read a lot of this in inside climate news. We'd even done prior reporting on this. It just hit me that it was such a missed opportunity

RUSSELL GOLD:
To me, the way it hit me, you know, I'm sort of what people call a techno optimist. I actually believe that we're going to have the technology. We're going to figure out, uh, how to manage our way through this, this crisis we're in right now. But the sooner we get started on that, the sooner we come to some sort of solution, the less damage there is, the less communities that are impacted. So to have this opportunity in the late seventies and early eighties, to begin to understand what was going on. I mean, imagine if we had started this journey and then versus 10 years ago, you know, it's, to me, what just hits me is just the lost time.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Do you know what Exxon says to these criticisms?

RUSSELL GOLD:
Their message, in response at the time, was that they were following the science and the science wasn't conclusive, and that they were making the best decisions, you know, based on what the science told them. And there are instances of Exxon scientists, who the filmmakers interviewed, who make, what to me is a really compelling point, which is, you know, of course, the science was not a hundred percent clear. There's never going to be a bright flashing neon arrow that says go in this direction, you know, this is exactly what the science says. But there was overwhelming evidence going back to the eighties that was pointing in this direction. And you know, that we could have and should have known where we were heading. And started acting on it. And Exxon did know, but you know, the conclusion that Exxon would have had to come to is that they need to start moving away from oil and gas because of the climate implications. And this was a company that literally for a hundred years had gone out, its entire mission was to go out and find new deposits of oil and gas. The value of Exxon is based on how much oil and gas it has found and is yet to produce. And to say, well, wait a second. All that value that you guys have locked up and found and are getting ready to pump out of the earth. You can't do that anymore. You shouldn't do that anymore. I mean, that was, that was really the challenge and it was, it was just too much really for Exxon to stomach.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Let's actually talk about ExxonMobil CEO, Lee Raymond. There's a really memorable clip in the film where he talks about renewables, like wind and solar. And the question is, well, how have these alternatives actually been a factor in this story?

RUSSELL GOLD:
I mean Lee Raymond is just this incredibly larger than life character in the oil industry. To this day, people still talk about him in these hush reverent terms. He had led part of Exxon that had solar, uh, underneath it. You know, ‘cause Exxon in the late seventies and early eighties had a decent size solar business and he shut it down. And he looked at the state of solar and said, no, that's never going to compete. It's not good enough. And moved Exxon away from that. He never changed his mind, never revisited those decisions. And that's fascinating, because in 1980, if you look at the state of solar power, he is right. It really wasn't that great. You know, it wasn't cost competitive. It just, there was so much that still needed to be developed. But by the time he sits down with Charlie Rose, and we've got these great clips of him talking to Charlie Rose, in about 2005 or so. Well that, in those 25 years, solar had come a huge distance. So yeah, to me, he was right in 1980, that solar was not going to replace oil and gas, in 1980. But he failed to understand that solar was developing and moving

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
What would he say to that? Lee Raymond would not sit down for an interview. We tried, multiple times.

RUSSELL GOLD:
Well, he's really not spoken very much at all since he left ExxonMobil, he's been very quiet. So we don't know, we don't know what he would make right now. I think that'd be a fascinating interview, to sit down, and say ‘look, you were, you know, one of the great thinkers about energy in the latter part of the 20th century, you know, now in the 21st century. A lot has changed, you know, wind and solar are not just large contributors of energy. They're incredibly low cost, incredibly competitive. Have you changed your mind? You always said, you know, we're a factor of an organization, we're driven by the data. Well, the data looks a lot different today than it did in 2005. And it looks a lot different than what it did in 1980. So how have the facts changed his view? We don't know. I look, I mean, I would love to get a sit down interview with him and ask him about that,

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Let's fast forward to the Obama years. I mean, that's quite a jump here, but let's, let's go there. Um, in your interview in part three of the series, you say that the U S really had two masters during the Obama years.
Can you explain what you mean by that?

RUSSELL GOLD:
Sure, sure. Uh, you know, president Obama, when he came in, talked to. Um, about when he was a candidate, talked a lot about wanting to be a climate president and really, uh, leading on climate and, and having the United States be a global leader on climate issues. But at the same time under Obama, uh, the oil and gas industry grew by leaps and bounds.
And, you know, really became, once again, a dominant industry in the United States. And, you know, the point I was trying to make was that It's impossible, really, to both be a climate leader and an oil and gas superpower, because they just, you know, they pursue different policies. And it's really – I can't think of a way to sort of be both. That's what was sort of emerging, when we look back now on the Obama administration, was sort of having these two masters. We want to be this climate leader, you know, we're going to try to enact, uh, you know, the clean power plan. But we're not going to get in the way of just phenomenal growth in oil production. There are so many contradictions in the Obama administration, you know. We did become a smaller emitter of greenhouse gasses on a per capita basis, because we got rid of so much coal, but we did it by bringing in gas and, you know, and as we get into a lot in the third film in the series, I mean, there was a lot, we didn't understand about gas.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Right. So much. And in fact, you all taught me so much about that territory, which I thought I had known, um, so much about. So it was, I think, the third hour's revelatory in that sense. Let's actually talk about natural gas. You reported on it forever, um, many years anyway. Having covered it and watching it evolve, how did that impact the conversation around climate change?

RUSSELL GOLD:
For a period of time, kind of like 2000 to 2008 or so, we saw this incredible growth of natural gas and these companies that were very natural gas focused. And they sort of emerge and they realize that there's so much natural gas out there that to create markets there, they need to go out and they sort of need to, you know, promote themselves.
One of the ways they did that was by targeting coal and sort of saying ‘hey, we're better than coal.’ Let’s get, you know, coal out of the, out of the picture here and we'll bring in natural gas. And so, you know, you sort of see for the first time, these fossil fuels versus fossil fuel antagonism that you'd never seen before with natural gas or saying, ‘hey, we're the cleaner alternative to coal.’ And it was sort of interesting at one point, Carl Pope, uh, from the Sierra club in the film, sort of says, I understood oil companies were big and had muscles. I didn't realize how big gas had gotten, uh, and he’s right. It's sort of gas sort of comes out of nowhere, and you know, goes from being this sort of afterthought to being this really powerful political force, which was advocating for itself and advocating for its growth.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
The public relations strategy around natural gas, what's new or different about that from what we hear about oil?

RUSSELL GOLD:
Their line was ‘we’re the clean fossil fuel,’ you know. And so they were basically saying, look, fossil fuels are going to be around for a long time. We can't, you know, flip a switch and get off fossil fuels. So why don't we go with the clean fossil fuel? There's a great promotional video that we have in, in one of the films where, you know, there’s an Eagle flying over this beautiful verdant landscape, promoting natural gas. That was sort of the message that they drove home. And, you know, to this day, you still hear this message, of natural gas being this incredibly important, uh, fuel and it's cleaner. Um, and all of that's true. Part of it, though, is because we weren't looking for leaks. You know, when you compare it, How much greenhouse gas natural gas emits, making electricity versus coal, usually you look at what's called the burner tip, you know, delivered in the power plant. The problem of natural gas is that to get that gas to the power plant, you have to drill a well, and then you've got these little gathering lines and it gets into, then runs it through a compressor station, which, you know, makes, pumps up the pounds per square inch and goes through a big pipeline. Every step along the way, you could have leaks. And what's leaking is methane. And methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas. It doesn't last for that long. It's a much shorter lifespan, but it's incredibly potent, more potent than carbon dioxide. And we didn't really fully realize how much was leaking and how potent it would be. And you hear that throughout the film. You hear the former energy secretary, Ernie Moniz, sort of saying, we didn't quite realize how much was leaking.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
When did you actually start to understand the methane issue and its climate implications?

RUSSELL GOLD:
It was slow. It was slow. You know, I remember talking with Tony Ingraffea, who we have, from Cornell, in the films. And he was sort of saying this, and there were just paper after paper, peer review, being published and they would have these different messages. You know, gas is better. There's, there's 2% leak or there's 6% leak. Um, but I think for me, when I realized that there was something that was really going on was that there was this one study that was undertaken. where a team of scientists drove around with a car that was sort of specially modified to look for methane leak detections.
And they were driving through the city streets, looking for leaking pipes, and we're just finding them everywhere. And it just sort of made me realize just how leaky this system was.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
So, of course the series focuses, like Frontline often does, on industry and then of course the politicians. But one of the points that you make, um, that I think is really important, is that there also hasn't really been a public will to really take action because of how ubiquitous oil is in our life.
When you look at this history, how much has that been a factor in your mind?

RUSSELL GOLD:
It plays a big role. We built our communities around the use of large amounts of oil. I mean, the suburbs themselves were enabled because there were cars and there was oil and it was relatively inexpensive oil. So when you're building your cities, uh, you know, and I live in Texas, all of our cities have these giant suburbs Um, it's just, It's so difficult to even begin to have that conversation. Uh, and I see the beginnings, you know, the green shoots of some of those conversations right now, but It's, you know, it's difficult.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
You know, as we're talking, oil and gas are making headlines again, and Russia has cut off natural gas to Poland and others.
And here at home, of course, we're paying over $4, a gallon of gas in some states. So I'm curious, what does this all say to you about where we are in the story of fossil fuels and climate change?

RUSSELL GOLD:
To me, the messages that I've gotten so far in 2022 are, you know, just how unpredictable fossil fuel prices can be because of world events. Um, but also, you know, where we still have this economy, which can be threatened or, you know, pushed into a recession because of high oil and gas prices. And maybe we should be thinking about other ways to generate our energy that's not so dependent on foreign powers. Um, you know, I think there's a real push towards more domestic energy production. And I think, you know, that's going to mean natural gas and oil from the United States, but it's also gonna mean wind and solar. Uh, there's this sort of, you know, conversation I hear out of Houston these days where people are saying, you know, we should be producing more wind and solar, because that means we have more gas to export to our European allies. So I think there's a much bigger push towards can we produce things in the United States, generate jobs and just be less dependent on Russia and other people, uh, which has been a problem for decades for the United States.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
You say you're a techno optimist. What do you mean by that? And what kind of rays of hope are you seeing?

RUSSELL GOLD:
The source of my optimism is that I think back to about 2000, um, you know, which is 22 years ago, it's not the longest period of time. And if you think back and you study what was going on in 2000, fracking barely existed. You know, now it's this giant world changing event. Wind, as a source of energy, also barely existed. We had just begun to build the first wind farms in the United States. Solar was, you know, sort of for hobbyists who wanted to put a couple panels up on their roof, but really, uh, nobody drove an electric vehicle. And now 20 years later, You know, Tesla and everyone is selling electric vehicles. Wind and solar are contributors, um, and growing. And you know, fracking, in the course of 10 years fed just by so much capital out of Wall Street, became this globally changing event, which we cover. So if we can change so quickly, our energy mix, you know, I just see the possibility to continue that change and accelerate it. I just see so much interesting and exciting work that's being done. Last week I was down in Houston, I was visiting with someone who spent years as basically a banker to the fracking industry. And he's now, uh, emerging as sort of a banker for renewable energy and has more people knocking down his door, uh, than he knows what to do with. There's so many ideas. I just, I think this is, we're going to be able to tackle this problem. You know, to me, I have no doubt. I don't, you know, this is not the end of civilization. You know, we are going to tackle this problem. The one caveat that I would want to leave you with, is that the wealthy nations of the world will do fine. You know, we have the money to build the air conditioners, you know, survive, and, you know, to build new systems to collect water and to trade water back and forth. Not everyone's going to be able to do that. There's still going to be a lot of pain. And that's why there's still this urgency to accelerate this transition. Because the sooner we can get through this transition, and it's going to take time, um, the sooner we can, you know, get to a point where we're reducing the amount of carbon, year over year, that we're putting into the atmosphere, and beginning maybe to suck some of it down, uh, the less damage there will be. Every step is important and there's a lot of work to be done.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
I think that's an excellent way to stop the Dispatch, right there on that note that we have more work to do. And I do believe that that's true at Frontline as well. And Russell, thank you so much.

RUSSELL GOLD:
Oh, absolutely it was a pleasure

RANEY ARONSON-RATH:
Thank you to Russell Gold for joining me on the Dispatch. You can watch all three episodes of the Power of Big Oil on frontline - dot- org, where you can read, watch, and listen, to all of our original reporting on this series, and many other stories.

This podcast was produced by Emily Pisacreta. Maria Diokno is our Director of Audience Development. Katherine Griwert is our Editorial Coordinating Producer. Frank Koughan is our Senior Producer. Lauren Ezell is our Senior Editor. Andrew Metz is our Managing Editor. I’m Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of FRONTLINE.

Music in this episode is by Stellwagen Symphonette. The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

Thanks for listening.

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