Tomorrow, Big Oil executives will testify before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee about their industry’s role in driving record high gas prices — and reported record profits. This important hearing, coupled with the release of the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, presents cable news with an opportunity to inform viewers about the industry’s harmful anti-consumerist practices and its role in driving the rapidly escalating climate crisis. It’s also a chance for news outlets to counteract conservative narratives, pushed by Fox News, that hold the industry above reproach.
Big Oil has been credibly accused of profiting from economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine
The war in Ukraine has been a “road to Damascus” moment for many people who are becoming increasingly aware of how climate change and the world’s continued reliance on fossil fuels drive geopolitical instability. With public majorities outraged at Russian aggression against Ukraine and in support of “developing alternative energy, including wind and solar, over increasing production of fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas,” the industry has obfuscated its refusal to produce more oil and gas, while agitating for deepened reliance on its products.
The issue of gas prices has, understandably, received a great deal of media attention. Unfortunately, much of the TV news coverage has failed to provide the full context, instead misleadingly suggesting that the Biden administration is to blame or that increased production would solve the problem. According to a Bloomberg piece from November:
The U.S. oil industry is still producing less crude than it did before the pandemic curtailed travel and cratered demand for fuel. Even as demand returns, oil companies are keeping production flat while using profits to reward shareholders.
Nonprofit environmental law organization Earthjustice was even sharper in its analysis, noting in March: “Gas prices are not dictated by White House policy, and the industry’s argument that federal leasing and permitting policies are the source of high gas prices is a flat-out lie crafted to deceive the American public.” It continued:
The real problem here is corporate greed. The industry could drill on those 9,000 leases with approved permits, but drilling costs money the industry doesn’t want to spend. In 2021 alone, Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron made a combined $75 billion in profits. Instead of spending some of this massive profit on drilling the leases they already hold, oil companies are buying back their own shares, funneling dividends to their shareholders, and paying lobbyists to demand cheap new federal leases so they can stockpile them for future profit. The industry is also talking out of both sides of its mouth. It suggests that issuing new federal oil leases or permits would magically cause gas prices to go down. But just this week, Exxon Mobil and Chevron announced they would increase production immediately by 160,000 barrels a day collectively—but warned we wouldn’t see that oil at the pump anytime soon.
These hearings, which will feature executives from BP America Inc., Chevron Corp., Devon Energy Corp., ExxonMobil, Pioneer Natural Resources, and Shell USA Inc. represent an opportunity to hold the industry accountable for harmful practices that have squeezed consumers already beset by years of economic stagnation and uncertainty. But political action coupled with media inattention will do little to move the needle of public opinion. It also won’t make the public more conversant on the myriad factors that affect what they pay at the pump, especially when conservative media, led by Fox News, have been diligently carrying Big Oil’s water since the beginning of the most recent crisis in Ukraine and have even started defending oil executives ahead of the hearings tomorrow.
Fox News has carried the fossil fuel industry’s water throughout the war in Ukraine
Since the beginning of the crisis in Ukraine and throughout Russia’s invasion, Fox News has attempted to blame the Biden administration’s climate and energy policies for President Vladimir Putin’s brazen actions, while running cover for the fossil fuel industry. This includes blaming the administration for high gas prices and a perceived lack of American energy independence. For example, Fox figures mentioned the canceled Keystone pipeline approximately 141 times in segments about Ukraine from February 22-28 and mentioned “energy independence” or “energy security” — industry talking points to promote more domestic drilling for oil and gas — at least 329 times from February 24 through March 9.
Even more absurdly, after President Joe Biden’s March 8 announcement that the United States was banning Russian fossil fuel imports, Fox News hosts blamed him for instituting the same policy that they had previously demanded. Meanwhile, hosts and guests on the network praised oil and gas companies as “the greatest industry around the world,” deflected criticism of them as “unpatriotic,” and argued that they are “basically our national defense.”
Now, ahead of tomorrow’s hearings, Fox News has begun running cover for Big Oil executives by defending their companies’ massive profits and decision to sit on leases. For example, during the March 31 episode of America Reports, co-anchor Sandra Smith and her guest, Fox Business host Charles Payne, accused the Biden administration of “demon[izing] the oil industry” and defended the industry’s refusal to use its leases to drill for more oil. Later in the afternoon, during Your World, host Neil Cavuto also launched into a defense of the fossil fuel industry’s decision to sit on leases.
The next evening, during the April 1 episode of Jesse Watters Primetime, host Jesse Watters and his guest Douglas Murray continued the drumbeat by defending Big Oil CEOs, with Murray mocking renewable energy.
While Fox has carried the fossil fuel industry’s water, CNN and MSNBC have largely failed to capitalize on opportunities to contextualize the roles climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels play in exacerbating geopolitical conflicts. These networks have also produced sparse coverage about how clean energy, which can bring more price and geopolitical stability than fossil fuels, could usher in an era of economic and energy security.
CNN and MSNBC managed to devote a modest amount of coverage to the October 28 congressional hearing on Big Oil disinformation, providing the briefest glimmer of what accountability journalism could look like if cable news shows began seriously interrogating the fossil fuel industry. Tomorrow’s hearings will be a chance to build on this effort.
What the latest IPCC report says about the need to transition away from fossil fuels
Time is running out for meaningful climate action, according to the latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which focuses on mitigation. It is a damning indictment of climate inaction by western governments such as the United States that have been captured by fossil fuel interests. The report found (citations removed):
One factor limiting the ambition of climate policy has been the ability of incumbent industries to shape government action on climate change. Incumbent industries are often more concentrated than those benefiting from climate policy and lobby more effectively to prevent losses than those who would gain. Drawing upon wider networks, campaigns by oil and coal companies against climate action in the US and Australia are perhaps the most well-known and largely successful of these.
To avert climate disaster, the world must immediately transition away from fossil fuels and scale up renewable energy. According to Grist:
The authors’ top recommendation: Immediately move away from fossil fuels and replace them with renewable technologies. According to the panel’s calculations, the climate pollution associated with existing and planned fossil fuel infrastructure is already enough to launch the planet past 1.5 degrees C and potentially past 2 degrees C of warming. New fossil fuel infrastructure is incompatible with international climate goals, and up to $4 trillion of fossil fuels and related infrastructure will likely have to be abandoned by 2050 in order to keep within safe temperature limits.
Political barriers — rather than scientific, monetary, or technological ones — are currently holding the world back from urgent climate targets, the report stressed. Although some countries’ policies have helped avoid significant carbon emissions, world governments are still disproportionately investing in fossil fuels rather than renewable energy.
This report, released two days before the congressional hearing, has thus far received scant coverage from a corporate broadcast and cable news coverage, similar to the measly coverage of the second IPCC report that was released earlier in the year. The hearing represents yet another opportunity for cable news networks to discuss the report on its own merits and provide further context on the climate and energy aspects of the crisis in Ukraine, especially the fossil fuel industry’s profiteering.
This moment demands accountability journalism from national TV news outlets
Even though the hearings will be focused on price gouging, they are still a climate story — one about how the fossil fuel industry continues to thwart much-needed climate action. Fox News will be loath to cover this stark reality, but CNN and MSNBC should take every opportunity to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. Climate journalism will never reach its pinnacle if cable news shows refuse to identify what actions must be taken to mitigate global warming’s worst consequences and who is standing in the way.