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Blog Post | November 21, 2023

Fossil Fuel Front Groups Do Not Care About You

Climate and EnvironmentExecutive BranchIndustry InfluenceState Attorneys General
Fossil Fuel Front Groups Do Not Care About You

The American Petroleum Institute represents the interests of labor abusers, environmental destroyers, vicious price gougers, rabid monopolists, and more. Why does their faux advocacy count for anything at the EPA?

In efforts to reduce average emissions across the incredibly pollutive transportation sector, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new tailpipe emissions standard. The new rule functionally mandates automakers to electrify portions of their fleets in order to comply with a reduced average emissions standard for vehicles starting with 2027 new vehicle classes. The proposal, while one of the most significant of the administration’s forays into regulating pollution reductions, has also faced steep criticism from some environmentalists for not going nearly far enough in achieving the 75 percent pollution cut necessary to actually address the climate crisis. On July 11, 2023, however, the American Petroleum Institute (API) led a sign-on letter campaign asking the EPA to roll over to industry on the rule. For far too long corporate feedback has been hugely – and disproportionately – influential for regulators. It shouldn’t be.

API, and the collusive corporate posse of polluters, monopolists, and labor abusers undersigned to that letter, would have you believe that they are concerned about the proposed rules’ impact on workers, corporate-funded “innovative” climate solutions (famously the primary concern of Big Oil and its allies), and the economic wellbeing of the American consumer. Let’s unpack that. 

A Wage Stealing, Job Killing Industry

The letter opens with a smug assertion that the undersigned institutions “collectively employ millions of Americans.” First, while there are 100 organizations signed on, this is deceptive, considering that many of these organizations are composed of the same member corporations and thereby represent many of the same interests. Second, API has long exaggerated the impact of Big Oil and its contributions to U.S. employment numbers, even claiming that industry supports a whopping 11.3 million jobs (or nearly six percent of all U.S. employment) in 2022. The actual number of Americans directly employed in oil and gas last year was just a portion of that – albeit not an insignificant one – or 504,000 people. Of course, oil and gas jobs have also been actively declining in recent years, despite near-record production and record profits for industry. Indeed, in 2021, Food and Water Watch found that “oil and gas production in 2021 was associated with only 47 percent as many jobs as it was in 2014,” and was trending continuously downwards. 

In fact, oil and gas companies are actually “job killers,” as described by Kate Aronoff for The New Republic. Aronoff meticulously detailed how automation, layoffs, and a general lack of respect for workers has fueled the oil industry’s vicious culling of its workforce, even while it rakes in massive tax subsidies intended to save those same jobs. For example, Marathon Petroleum accepted $1 million in pandemic-era tax breaks per worker it ended up laying off during 2020.

Even before 2020, which saw 107,000 oil and gas jobs disappear in record layoffs for the industry, True Transition found a pattern of abusive job insecurity within the field. Their survey found that over half of its respondents had “lost their jobs at least once previously to 2020, evidence that the oil and gas industry has already been systematically reducing its workforce.” Not only were workers at significant risk of being fired, but “average wages in the oil and gas industry ha[d also] declined. Workers complained about having been fired and then re-hired for the same work at lower pay.” 

Such findings necessarily beg the question, are the jobs that the oil and gas industry promises, and the fewer still that it delivers on, even good ones? For significant swaths of the industry, the answer is no. 

Far from being a bastion of American-dreamism, fossil fuel companies are notorious for undermining their employees’ basic rights through union busting, wage theft, and manifestly unsafe conditions.

Take ExxonMobil, the U.S.’ largest publicly traded oil company and a direct descendant of the Original Evil Incorporated, Standard Oil, as well as a member of multiple of the oil and gas front-groups signed here, including the American Petroleum Institute (API), the Association of Fuels and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), amongst others. Exxon was accused of union busting of United Steelworkers (USW) at its plant in Beaumont, Texas in 2021. Chevron, also a member of AFPM, API, and WSPA, just faced filings last year from USW for its firings of union organizers and strike leaders. In 2015, a mass oil refinery strike was launched by USW members while negotiating new contracts with Shell, BP, Marathon Petroleum, and Tesoro (now a subsidiary of Marathon.) The strikes were driven, in no small part, by extraordinary concerns over endemic safety issues at the plants involved. Unsurprisingly, workers were met with bad-faith negotiations from the oil companies, and USW ultimately filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) that included the companies’ coercion of employees back to work.

Deadly Disregard For Worker Safety

Oil and gas companies are also historically one of the worst industry violators of wage and hour laws in the country, particularly regarding unpaid overtime. Tess Catilleja, a representative of the Department of Labor (DOL), said in 2016 that the department had “‘found cases where workers were not even paid the minimum wage, because they’re working so many hours. […] So the idea that [oil industry employees are] being highly compensated, in some cases, they’re not.” 

In 2014, ProPublica reporting revealed that the Department of Labor (DOL) – from 2012 to August of 2014 – had conducted “435 investigations resulting in over $13 million in back wages [owed to] 9,100 workers. […] In over a fifth of the investigations, companies in violation paid more than $10,000 in back wages.” From 2012 to 2016, DOL “recovered more than $40 million for more than 29,000 workers nationally.” In 2015 alone, the Department of Labor found that oilfield services giant Halliburton (and member of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), also a signatory on the aforementioned letter) owed more than $18 million dollars in unpaid wages to over 1000 employees nationwide.

Oil and gas jobs also actively endanger their employees. The entire industry is littered with endemic safety concerns, and deaths at workplace sites are abysmally common. 

One of the biggest Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines ever issued (and the largest ever at the time) was to British oil giant BP (an API and AFPM member) in 2009. That penalty was for a cumulative total of “$87,430,000, in proposed penalties to BP Products North America Inc. for the company’s failure to correct potential hazards faced by employees. The fine is the largest in OSHA’s history. The prior largest total penalty, $21 million, was issued in 2005, also against BP.” The 2009 fine was the result of chronic undertraining and the prevalence of workplace safety violations, which ultimately resulted in an explosion that caused 15 deaths and 170 injuries. This fine – though historic – seemingly accomplished nothing, as less than a year later a different BP site exploded, killing 11 workers and leading to the “largest spill of oil in the history of marine oil drilling operations.” Deepwater Horizon, as that disaster is known, could have been entirely avoided had BP demonstrated any respect for basic workplace safety standards. It’s apparent that oil barons view fines as another cost of doing business, rather than a deterrent against systemic lawbreaking. 

These also aren’t merely isolated incidents — the mortality rate for oil and gas job is seven times higher than that of other industries, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Bureau of Labor Statistics data corroborates this, finding that 1,901 workers died from injuries in the oil and gas drilling industry and related fields from 2008 – 2020, totaling more than 158 deaths per year. 

True Transition found that “despite constituting .00005% of the total American civilian workforce, upstream oil and gas jobs constitute 3% of all workplace related hospitalizations and 4% of all workplace related amputations.” Unfortunately, this is not surprising given the fact that “35% of survey respondents indicated that they had been ordered to engage in unsafe working practices that were in direct violation of established safety practices.” When oil companies willingly disregard employee safety standards, workers suffer life-altering injuries, up to and including death, at incredibly alarming rates. 

Given what we know about these corporate practices, it is objectively absurd to take the industry at face value when it alleges any degree of self-awarded import to – and care for – U.S. workers. American workers are routinely disrespected, devalued, stolen from, and endangered by the oil and gas industry. Workers deserve better. 

Despite industry’s grandiose declarations, it should not be allowed to claim authority to speak for (and over) its employees. It should not be taken seriously – by the EPA, or by members of the media – as the voice of its workers. Big Oil (and its execs) cares only for its own apocalyptic bottom line and should be held actually accountable to the harm they cause to their own workers nationally and internationally, to domestic and global consumers, and to the planet.

Oil Industry’s Track Record: Pollution And Price Gouging

The industry’s hypocrisies do not stop at its utter failings on labor. Following industry’s self-awarded pat-on-the-back for its misleading employment numbers, API and its cosignatories assert in their letter that the “EPA’s proposals inhibit the marketplace from identifying the most efficient, lowest cost opportunities to reduce GHG emissions from vehicles and greatly restrict consumer choice. We are concerned that such a prescriptive policy is not in the best interest of the consumer.”

It hardly bears mentioning, but the oil and gas industry has no interest in reducing emissions. Indeed, its bottom line actively relies upon vast amounts of carbon and methane emissions. In fact, industry actors famously invented climate change denialism, despite possessing early and breathtakingly accurate scientific modeling, in order to protect their own profits. 

Second, this iniquitous slate of corporations and corporate interests has absolutely no claim to protecting the interests of the consumer. In 2022, Big Oil’s recordbreaking profits were mostly a result of their vicious price-gouging at the pump, in a year that saw 35 percent of those polled by the Fed state that their financial situation deteriorated, the highest level ever reported. Their faux concern for consumers now rings decidedly hollow given the fact that they screwed over vulnerable consumers to make a quick buck following a global pandemic. 

The oil and gas industry is responsible for decades of poisoning the American and global publics and can be credited for causing (and worsening) some of the worst environmental disasters in recorded human history. Air pollution alone kills ten million people a year. All top 20 global polluters are in the fossil fuels industry. Five of the west’s largest oil companies, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell – all members of signatories of this letter – all number in the top 12 of global polluters. Between the five of them, since 2000, these companies have racked up an impressive $43,298,561,229 in total violations from U.S. government entities alone, with $39,130,333,431 of that representing cumulative fines associated with environmental violations. Another $821,978,261 represents these companies’ collective defrauding of the American taxpayer via government contracting violations. (Note: These numbers are compiled from the Good Jobs First Violation Tracker and can be found here for each Chevron, Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Shell.) 

This model of flagrant disregard for the law has proven extremely profitable for the industry. Historically, while even seemingly significant fines have been levied against corporations in response to wrongdoing, these amount to little more than a slap on the wrist for corporations themselves. Indeed, it doesn’t seem as though corporations are concerned about the law, even when faced with facially hefty fines. This is epitomized by the fact that in 20 years of egregious negligence and wanton violation of U.S. law – including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster – levied fines against industry have totaled nearly $8 billion less than these same companies put up in collective profits during FY22 alone. 

A Coalition of Corporate Crooks

To be clear, the oil and gas industry is not acting alone in its toxic attachment to selling out – and polluting – the public in search of short-term profits. These shadowy coalitions of fossil-fuel front-groups also represent the interests of other corporations. Wells Fargo, for example, is a member of the aforementioned signatory of the Western Energy Alliance (WEA). Wells, infamously, has engaged in rampant fraud, manipulation, and abuse as a key component of its business model for years. Its slate of scandals includes creating and charging consumers for fake credit card, insurance, and checking accounts, engaging in racketeering on foreclosed homes, falsely padding auto insurance rates, and more. Wells’ actions – done often without any notification to the customers they were defrauding – saw the creation of at least 3.5 million accounts, impacted at least 16 million people, compromised hundreds of peoples’ credit scores, and cost everyday consumers their homes, livelihoods, cars, and more.

Wells has also routinely dragged its feet on addressing or ameliorating these scandals when they come to light; in 2017, Wells refused to pay back the costly insurance it deceptively added to its auto loans. In 2021, Wells risked further regulatory action from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) due to its non-delivery of the restitutions owed to its victims. In 2022, the CFPB levied a further $3.7 billion penalty against Wells to address its owed remittance. 

Wells’ misconduct also has yet to cease. In 2022, Elizabeth Warren’s office published a report detailing “rampant fraud and abuse” on the online financial payments app Zelle that specifically excoriated Wells “as a bank where Zelle fraud was particularly prevalent — the number of fraudulent transfers rose 2.5 times between 2019 and 2022. [Warren] further said that the bank ‘attempted to mislead’ by capping the data it provided in 2021.” Earlier in 2023, Wells Fargo faced an additional suit alleging that it knowingly facilitated a Las Vegas-based Ponzi scheme. Just this month, Wells was hit with fines from both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) due to flagrant and endemic record keeping violations. 

These are the same corporations that want you to believe they’re writing to the EPA because they care so deeply about consumer welfare.

Again, the question must be asked: Why should the EPA defer to Wells Fargo in determining what might be in the best interest of the American consumer when Wells has shown a continuous and egregious disregard for both consumers and the strictures of U.S. law and policy? 

The answer is simple; it shouldn’t.

The Greenwashing Agenda 

API’s letter continues on to detail Big Oil’s interest in fueling the “diversified portfolio of vehicle and fuel technologies” it claims is necessary for reducing emissions and supporting American energy needs. That sounds great, except for the fact that Big Oil doesn’t actually fund renewables, and the “diversified portfolio” that it touts largely consists of expanding fossil fuels while pushing false climate solutions that accomplish nothing towards the actual reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions.

API & Co. list several (not so) green alternatives, namely biofuels and carbon capture, asserting that these so-called solutions “represent promising advancements … to accelerate emissions reductions.”

To be clear, biofuels, far from being a climate solution, are actually terrible for the climate and come with the added effect of contributing to food inflation and global hunger. Carbon capture is yet another climate-complicitous scam peddled by the oil and gas industry, and one that contributes pronounced harm to local ecosystems, international food and water security, and human rights globally.

In truth, Big Oil is far more attached to manufacturing expensive PR campaigns attempting to greenwash its climate villainy than it is – or ever will be – in aiding a just transition to a green energy future.

Regulators Must Call Big Oil’s Bluff 

The letter ends with the assertion, among others, that “our organizations have worked with EPA on numerous regulatory programs to successfully reduce emissions across the transportation sector.” 

Once again, this isn’t true. 

Emissions across the transportation sector have been reduced over time not because of industry’s “help” in building climate-forward regulatory schema, but in spite of it. Corporations – and the oil and gas industry specifically – have never been and will never be a voluntary partner in solving the climate crisis. Instead of pretending that eventually they might come around to it, the EPA and other regulators in the field should endeavor to enforce the most robust regulatory regimes – structured to protect the people, public, and places that they are actually obligated to – regardless of the fits that industry will throw. After all, corporate crooks ought to be held to account and forced to comply with a regulatory framework that serves the public good, not bargained with in order to protect the pockets of shareholders.

The oil industry is brilliantly manipulative, and utterly committed to their nebulous webs of lies that are keeping us trapped in climate mayhem. Yet, regulators have seen this playbook before – be it with Big Tobacco or Big Oil’s own historic antics – and it would be humiliating for regulators to fall for it again. 

The writing is on the wall: Big Oil was not, is not, and will not be a partner to the public or to its regulators in a just energy transition. Regulators should accept that and choose to boldly defend the public interest over private polluter profits, for all of our sakes.


Climate demonstration in Stockholm 22 September 2023” by Frankie Fouganthin is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Climate and EnvironmentExecutive BranchIndustry InfluenceState Attorneys General

More articles by Toni Aguilar Rosenthal

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