The American Petroleum Institute (API) exists to serve the interests of the fossil fuel industry. They have been discrediting the facts and spinning the truth for decades. API is behind a raft of disinformation efforts designed to undermine science and manipulate public perceptions. Through front groups and politicians they fund climate denial and the denigration of science.
Through studies they have commissioned and conferences they have hosted API has become familiar with the science of climate change. However, they are in the business of countering science that challenges their core mission. To do this they craft false narratives and spit out fake data that serves their agenda. They are purveyors of doubt challenging sound science. They are authors of fake narratives like the false choice that forces people to choose between the economy and the environment.
API’s efforts to distort the facts dates back more than a half century. In the 50s a biochemist named Arie Haagen-Smit from the California Institute of Technology, identified oil as the cause of smog. His research showed that nitrogen oxide emissions and uncombusted hydrocarbons from cars and refineries formed smog when exposed to sunlight.
API counter-attacked by funding scientists who rebutted Haagen-Smit and disparaged him personally. API succeeded in delaying the implementation of smog limits with a false but familiar assertion that the science was too uncertain to justify new laws or expensive pollution-control equipment. This claim has crumbled under the weight of the research. The Clean Air Act of 1970 has provided trillions of dollars in health and economic benefits. An Environmental Protection Agency study calculated that the benefits of the Clean Air Act amount to $2 trillion a year by 2020.
API claims the science linking fossil fuels to global warming is not clear, however this is contradicted by their own research. For example, API hosted a conference at Columbia University in 1959 which clearly stated that fossil fuels are causing global heating.
By the late 60s industry researchers were warning API about CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels this included specific warnings that there could be “melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels”.In 1968 the American Petroleum Institute received a report on air pollution it had commissioned from the Stanford Research Institute, and its warning on carbon dioxide was direct:
“Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000, and these could bring about climatic changes…there seems to be no doubt that the potential damage to our environment could be severe…pollutants which we generally ignore because they have little local effect, CO2 and submicron particles, may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes.”
A 1969 paper noted that carbon dioxide levels would rise, “as our combustion economy continues to consume increasing amounts of fossil
fuel”. As summarized by Benjamin Franta “API had this long-running awareness of climate change and climate science, and in that history the message they were getting from scientists was that climate change was real.”
The API obfuscates to influence government policy. In 1967 API Chairman Robert Dunlop, addressed U.S. legislators who were investigating the potential of electric vehicles. Dunlop said:
“We in the petroleum industry are convinced that by the time a practical electric car can be mass-produced and marketed, it will not enjoy any meaningful advantage from an air pollution standpoint. Emissions from internal-combustion engines will have long since been controlled.”
Others draw on API “research” to support the fossil fuel industry. The National Industrial Pollution Control Council is a Commerce Department advisory committee made up of industry executives. In the 1970s they drew on API “research” to make inaccurate statements like, “Carbon dioxide concentrations do appear to be increasing for reasons not well understood,”. The purpose of this subterfuge was to delay action as they called for further study. As the Council explained in the 1970s, scientists would have to wait until the year 2000 to determine “whether or not a serious problem exists”. They also added that reducing pollution would “impose impossible administrative and enforcement burdens”.
API’s efforts are largely focused on breeding doubt about the certainty of climate science and supporting pseudoscience. API directly funds researchers that provide alternate explanations for climate change that do not involve fossil fuel emissions. Willie Soon is one such scientist, he falsely claimed that solar cycles are responsible for climate change. Between 2003 and 2015 Soon’s research received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from API and oil companies (ExxonMobil, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Southern Company).
The denial strategy was revealed in a leaked draft memo in 1998. The memo was titled “Global Climate Science Communications Plan,” and it lays out their official position which has been to question the existence of climate change and/or its anthropogenic origins by claiming the science is uncertain. The goal is to allow them to keep reaping profits from dirty energy for as long as possible.This is now the go to strategy for climate deniers.
API has a track record of denying the veracity of climate science and attacking scientists including those who contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They also use their resources to resist any attempt to enact climate policies.
API has known that fossil fuels cause climate change for at least 60 years. Today API continues to obfuscate calling for more research while pushing for expanded fossil fuel extraction.
API’s influence is troubling. They have always had easy access to the most senior levels of government and their influence has only grown under the presidency of Donald Trump. Just ahead of Trump’s inauguration API president Jack Gerard said this is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to reshape energy policy. It appears Gerard was right.