Exxon Spends Millions on Facebook To Keep the Fossil Fuel Industry Alive: Right-wing political consulting rallies supporters to fight for oil and gas interests at every level of government.

Anthony Rogers-Wright of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance sees unique­ly pow­er­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties now and online to broad­en the movement’s base. ​“It’s real­ly one of our only choic­es right now, so how do we use the time to reshape the nar­ra­tive for every­thing that we want?Online cam­paigns, he points out, can reach more of the coun­try and devel­op new local lead­ers using the same online tar­get­ing tac­tics adver­tis­ers use to build a diverse grass­roots move­ment across the country. “We’ve had three people’s cli­mate march­es and the cli­mate cri­sis has got­ten even worse,” he points out. ​“So if we can use this moment to recap­ture the nar­ra­tive and go on offense with our nar­ra­tive that’s in itself would be a tremen­dous win.”


A local resident patrols the beach for oiled wildlife on May 19, 2015, north of Goleta, Calif. About 21,000 gallons spilled from a pipeline near Refugio State Beach, spreading over about four miles of beach within hours. (David McNew/Getty Images)

In Jan­u­ary 2019, an out­fit called San­ta Bar­bara for Safe and Local Trans­port (SBSLT) began run­ning social media adver­tise­ments for select Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dents. SBSLT’s name and logo — show­cas­ing dis­tant green moun­tains, a sliv­er of blue ocean and a high­way slic­ing through them — could be mis­tak­en for that of a typ­i­cal grass­roots group or a gov­ern­men­tal high­way agency. In real­i­ty, SBSLT is part of a cam­paign by the giant oil cor­po­ra­tion Exxon Mobil to change pub­lic sen­ti­ment about its off­shore drilling in California’s Cen­tral Coast.

Exxon closed down its local off­shore oil plat­forms in 2015, after a bro­ken pipeline led to the cat­a­stroph­ic Refu­gio oil spill. With­out that pipeline, Exxon has no way to move the oil it pumps from its off­shore plat­forms. As a tem­po­rary replace­ment, the com­pa­ny wants to run oil trucks over­land to refiner­ies in cen­tral California. 

Pub­lic sup­port is not on Exxon’s side — a fall 2019 poll found 51% of coun­ty res­i­dents oppose Exxon’s truck­ing plan (com­pared with 32% sup­port­ing), and sur­veys show a major­i­ty of Cal­i­for­ni­ans oppose more off­shore drilling — which might explain why SBSLT has paid for dozens of social media ads over the past two years. The ads have appeared on the screens of Cal­i­for­nia Face­book and Insta­gram users around 3 mil­lion times, and often fea­ture racial­ly diverse school chil­dren and cov­er­all-clad oil work­ers. The ads, of course, offer sup­port for Exxon’s over­land truck­ing plan. 

The San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty Board of Super­vi­sors will decide Exxon’s local fate, like­ly next year, but the San­ta Bar­bara ad blitz is just one front in Exxon’s dig­i­tal pol­i­tick­ing onslaught — with bat­tles tak­ing place nation­wide. The strat­e­gy sug­gests Exxon is gird­ing for a pro­longed fight to secure its increas­ing­ly ten­u­ous ​“social license” to oper­ate, despite the dire pre­dic­tions of how con­tin­ued fos­sil fuel busi­ness-as-usu­al is trans­form­ing the planet.

A December 2019 Facebook ad suggests that restarting ExxonMobil’s Santa Ynez Unit off the California Central Coast would increase local school funding, due to Exxon’s property tax contributions. Santa Barbara for Safe and Local Transport spent between $5,000 and $6,000 to promote this ad. Local activists dispute whether offshore drilling is a safe or reliable source of property tax revenue. (Source: Facebook Ad Library)

An In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion, sup­port­ed by a year-long fel­low­ship from the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing, exam­ined 11,622 Exxon social media ads con­tain­ing around 350 dis­tinct mes­sages that ran in the two-year peri­od from June 1, 2018, to May 31, 2020, and appeared on U.S. Face­book and Insta­gram users’ screens as many as 265 mil­lion times. Face­book (which owns Insta­gram) has allowed access to the ads it serves through its Ad Library since May 2018, cre­at­ed by Face­book after a num­ber of trans­paren­cy scan­dals. In These Times used Python scripts made pub­licly avail­able by Face­book Research to search and down­load Ad Library data, then devel­oped cus­tom scripts to ana­lyze and aggre­gate region­al and demo­graph­ic data. (The full method­ol­o­gy is pub­licly avail­able here.)

Exxon has spent more than any oth­er major cor­po­ra­tion on ​“social issues, elec­tions, or pol­i­tics” Face­book ads (out­side of Face­book itself), and is the coun­try’s ninth-largest buy­er of such ads over­all: $15.6 mil­lion from May 7, 2018, to Octo­ber 8, 2020. Almost every oth­er top spender is an orga­ni­za­tion relat­ed to pres­i­den­tial cam­paign­ing. The top 100 pages are pri­mar­i­ly politi­cians, non­prof­its and oth­er mis­sion-dri­ven orga­ni­za­tions: The only major cor­po­ra­tion out­side of Exxon, Face­book and Insta­gram is Gold­man Sachs, which spent less than a quar­ter of Exxon’s total.

In These Times exam­ined about $10 mil­lion of that Exxon ad spend, a potent com­ple­ment to the more than $23 mil­lion Exxon report­ed­ly spent to direct­ly lob­by law­mak­ers in 2018 and 2019, and the $203 mil­lion it spent on tra­di­tion­al TV, radio, print and out­door ads from June 2018 to June 2020, accord­ing to data com­piled by Kan­tar Medi­a’s AdSpender.

Dig­i­tal adver­tis­ing is ​“a very pow­er­ful tool to accel­er­ate a range of strate­gies and tac­tics that [Exxon] already ha[s],” says Edward Collins, direc­tor of cor­po­rate lob­by­ing at Influ­enceMap, a Lon­don-based orga­ni­za­tion that ana­lyzes and reports on how cor­po­ra­tions influ­ence cli­mate poli­cies. Through Face­book, Exxon can tar­get its ads to users relat­ed to a par­tic­u­lar region, demo­graph­ic or oth­er vari­able, com­mu­ni­cat­ing direct­ly with any Face­book user who fits the company’s pro­file of who might be eas­i­ly per­suad­ed. Using tech­niques typ­i­cal­ly seen from activist groups and polit­i­cal cam­paigns, the ads then ask view­ers to sign peti­tions, take sur­veys and con­tact law­mak­ers in sup­port of Exxon, on issues from frack­ing to trade. 

In many ways, this type of ad cam­paign on social media is more akin to lob­by­ing or polit­i­cal orga­niz­ing than adver­tis­ing, and Exxon has worked with right-wing con­sult­ing firm Har­ris Media, a fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor with Repub­li­can elec­toral cam­paigns. Some states do require social media cam­paigns to be report­ed as lob­by­ing efforts. Exxon tells In These Times it dis­clos­es all of its lob­by­ing activ­i­ties as required, but experts say incon­sis­tent laws and enforce­ment means those require­ments are gen­er­al­ly scant.

“The oil and gas indus­try is THE engine that pow­ers America’s econ­o­my. Take action against inef­fec­tive, unnec­es­sary regulations!”

“The U.S. Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or is close to releas­ing the next iter­a­tion of its five-year off­shore leas­ing plan. Open­ing these addi­tion­al areas to drilling will enable the U.S. to access a greater por­tion of its sig­nif­i­cant ener­gy resource potential.”

Amer­i­ca’s resur­gent ener­gy indus­try has achieved some­thing few thought pos­si­ble a decade ago — we are the world’s #1 ener­gy pro­duc­er! SIGN YOUR NAME: Sup­port Amer­i­ca’s strong ener­gy industry!

“SUR­VEY: The ener­gy indus­try has been the back­bone of Amer­i­ca for decades. Do you think it’s impor­tant to keep our Amer­i­can ener­gy indus­try strong? Sign your name today!”

“Pipelines sup­port more than 500,000 jobs in the Unit­ed States. Defend them!”

Many of the Face­book and Insta­gram ads exam­ined for this sto­ry include calls to action, such as a sur­vey or peti­tion. One of Exxon’s biggest cam­paigns, for exam­ple, told Face­book users to con­tact their law­mak­ers to sup­port the Unit­ed States-Mex­i­co-Cana­da Agree­ment, the suc­ces­sor to the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (com­mon­ly known as NAF­TA) that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump rat­i­fied ear­li­er this year. Through the new agree­ment, the oil indus­try suc­cess­ful­ly lob­bied for spe­cial pro­tec­tion allow­ing it to cir­cum­vent Mexico’s court sys­tem and use inter­na­tion­al arbi­tra­tion in the event of an invest­ment dis­pute. The cam­paign even had its own form let­ter to email to law­mak­ers. Exxon spent as much as $1.3 mil­lion on the cam­paign ads, appear­ing on users’ screens as many as 21.4 mil­lion times. 

Because Face­book only pub­licly reports ad impres­sions — the num­ber of times an ad appears, includ­ing mul­ti­ple views by the same per­son — it is unclear how many peo­ple actu­al­ly act­ed on the cam­paign. Face­book also only offers a range of spend­ing and impres­sions for each ad, rather than an exact amount. For exam­ple, on Dec. 20, 2019, Exxon pub­lished a series of ads with the text, ​“Pipelines sup­port more than 500,000 jobs in the Unit­ed States. Defend them!” For each indi­vid­ual post, Face­book pro­vides a range for spend­ing (for instance, $300 to $399) and impres­sions (for instance, 7,000 to 8,000). (The low­er range is not report­ed on some ads, so this arti­cle presents the upper range unless oth­er­wise noted.)

Even if peo­ple do not click an ad or sign a peti­tion, Collins says, the ads ​“are prob­a­bly still hav­ing an impact, espe­cial­ly if you are see­ing it more than a few times — it’s like any oth­er adver­tise­ment, after all.”

When users do click, they are often sent to one of Exxon’s dig­i­tal orga­niz­ing web­sites. Exxchange​.com, for exam­ple, is Exxon’s ​“advo­ca­cy com­mu­ni­ty por­tal” com­plete with its own app for smart­phones. Before reach­ing a promised peti­tion, how­ev­er, users must offer up their per­son­al con­tact infor­ma­tion, build­ing Exxon’s data­base of supporters.

Exxon declined to com­ment on how many peo­ple have signed up — Exxon says only that the Exxchange is ​“made up of ener­gy sup­port­ers across the coun­try” and ​“its broad mem­ber­ship is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits of oil and nat­ur­al gas in local com­mu­ni­ties across the nation.” But an ad that ran twice in March 2019 pro­vides a clue. The ads are thank-yous for join­ing the Exxchange, sug­gest­ing they were served pri­mar­i­ly to Exxchange mem­bers. Accord­ing to Face­book data, the ads record­ed 40,000 impres­sions, and more than 85% of those who saw the ad were old­er than 55. 

Exxon posted two ads in March 2019 thanking users for joining the Exxchange. (Source: Facebook Ad Library)

Nation­Builder is a non­par­ti­san dig­i­tal cam­paign start­up com­pa­ny whose plat­form is the go-to tech­nol­o­gy for con­ser­v­a­tive and Repub­li­can caus­es, includ­ing the 2016 Trump cam­paign — and Exxchange.

Nation­Builder (and sim­i­lar com­pa­nies favored by lib­er­al caus­es) makes it quick and inex­pen­sive for polit­i­cal cam­paigns to map detailed intel­li­gence about, and main­tain close con­tact with, sup­port­ers. These dig­i­tal tools have trans­formed fundrais­ing and get-out-the-vote efforts by giv­ing orga­niz­ers tar­get­ed infor­ma­tion about reg­is­tered vot­ers in every state. Accord­ing to Exxon, the oil com­pa­ny ​“is just one of a num­ber of cor­po­ra­tions, asso­ci­a­tions and non­prof­its that uti­lize dig­i­tal grass­roots advo­ca­cy as a nec­es­sary com­mu­ni­ca­tions tool.”

The Exxchange web­site is built on Nation­Builder and was devel­oped by an employ­ee of Har­ris Media. That com­pa­ny is run by Repub­li­can con­sul­tant Vin­cent Har­ris, once dubbed in Bloomberg as ​“the man who invent­ed the Repub­li­can Inter­net.” Har­ris pre­sides over Har­ris Media in Austin, which devel­ops dig­i­tal cam­paigns from video to ghost tweets and text mes­sages for clients. Har­ris emerged as an online savant dur­ing Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2012 pri­ma­ry race and has since con­tin­ued his work with some of the most con­ser­v­a­tive Repub­li­cans in the coun­try, includ­ing (briefly) the Trump 2016 campaign.

Har­ris’ clients have includ­ed Secure Amer­i­ca Now, which calls itself a non­par­ti­san group ded­i­cat­ed to bring­ing ​“crit­i­cal secu­ri­ty issues to the fore­front of the Amer­i­can debate” and has count­ed among its board of direc­tors for­mer Repub­li­can Gov. Mike Huck­abee and nation­al secu­ri­ty fire­brand John Bolton. The Secure Amer­i­ca Now web­site fea­tures, among oth­er things, anti-immi­grant rhetoric and a con­ser­v­a­tive pod­cast series with such guests as for­mer Repub­li­can Speak­er of the House Newt Gingrich. 

In anoth­er case, Exxon hired Har­ris Media for a cam­paign to help defeat an anti-frack­ing bal­lot mea­sure in Col­orado in 2018, known as Propo­si­tion 112. The Exxon Mobil Col­orado Issue Com­mit­tee paid Har­ris Media $40,000 for that cam­paign alone, accord­ing to records on file with the Col­orado Sec­re­tary of State, and paid Face­book as much as $20,000 to run the cre­at­ed ads. Those ads cre­at­ed more than a mil­lion impres­sions on tar­get­ed Col­orado residents.

In anoth­er indus­try crossover, Rachel Cross, Exxon’s dig­i­tal and social media advi­sor since April 2020, is a for­mer Har­ris employ­ee. Before that, she worked for Amer­i­cans for Pros­per­i­ty, a polit­i­cal arm of the Koch brothers. 

Abroad, the U.K.-based non­prof­it group Pri­va­cy Inter­na­tion­al has called out Har­ris Media for its ​“vir­u­lent” online ads with ​“law and order” themes dur­ing a 2017 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in Kenya, where at least 33 peo­ple were killed in elec­tion vio­lence. The orga­ni­za­tion also doc­u­ment­ed Har­ris Media’s work for extreme right-wing par­ties in Ger­many and France and with Israel’s Likud government.

Lucy Pur­don, act­ing pol­i­cy direc­tor at Pri­va­cy Inter­na­tion­al, says Har­ris Media is part of ​“a whole ecosys­tem of com­pa­nies that are all using this tac­tic of data col­lec­tion, pro­fil­ing and micro­tar­get­ing in order to reach cer­tain audi­ences.” She adds, ​“There is no trans­paren­cy and no accountability.” 

“Look, how do you build a data­base?” Har­ris told Politi­co in a 2015 pro­file, explain­ing his meth­ods. ​“You build a data­base with enthu­si­asm. How do you build enthu­si­asm? With a mes­sage. How do you push a mes­sage? With social media.” 

In a 2018 pre­sen­ta­tion at a meet­ing of the Inde­pen­dent Petro­le­um Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca, Har­ris lament­ed how pro­gres­sive politi­cians and advo­ca­cy groups like Earth­jus­tice were shap­ing the nar­ra­tive around the oil indus­try on social media. On the sub­se­quent slides he laid out the way to neu­tral­ize crit­ics and ral­ly support:

“Before an issue aris­es Find OUR peo­ple, recruit OUR peo­ple, and edu­cate them”

“Using a bot to get phys­i­cal address”

“Acti­vate your folks with tan­gi­ble advo­ca­cy actions to sort and seg­ment the data­base ahead of an issue”

Har­ris Media did not respond to mul­ti­ple requests for comment.Exxon’s use of social media to lobby the public goes way beyond the rest of the industry.

As GOP dig­i­tal strate­gist Mindy Finn explained to Politi­co: “[Dig­i­tal orga­niz­ing is] not just raw num­bers. It’s ana­lyz­ing and deter­min­ing who those peo­ple [who are engag­ing] are and match­ing them back to vot­er pro­files. … It’s not hav­ing the most Face­book likes and clicks, because the ​‘who’ matters.”

While only age, sex and state infor­ma­tion for each ad is pro­vid­ed by the Face­book Ad Library, Face­book allows ad buy­ers to tar­get ads based on actu­al online behav­ior, in addi­tion to self-report­ed char­ac­ter­is­tics like work and edu­ca­tion. It can tar­get using online shop­ping and brows­ing his­to­ry, for exam­ple, and whether a per­son is like­ly to engage with con­ser­v­a­tive or lib­er­al polit­i­cal content. 

​“With that kind of tar­get­ing,” Lucy Pur­don says, ​“you don’t know what infor­ma­tion has been gath­ered about you, from who, and how you’ve been targeted.” 

“Face­book says it’s not a one-to-one match of an iden­ti­fi­able indi­vid­ual,” says dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy crit­ic Sara Wat­son, ​“but the more ele­ments that you start to tar­get against,” the clos­er you can get to iden­ti­fy­ing indi­vid­ual people. 

Exxon’s social media approach is unusu­al­ly brazen, accord­ing to Collins of Influ­enceMap. He tells In These Times that Exxon’s use of social media to lob­by the pub­lic goes way beyond the rest of the indus­try, a claim sup­port­ed by the company’s abnor­mal­ly high spend­ing on Face­book polit­i­cal ads. Typ­i­cal­ly, such tac­tics would be used by polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions or trade asso­ci­a­tions, not direct­ly by corporations.

“It does feel nov­el that the ads would not be about the prod­uct but the inter­ests of the com­pa­ny,” Wat­son says. She likens Exxon’s use of social media ads to the work­ings of ​“a Super PAC, but on a much more gran­u­lar scale.”

In the 11,622 Exxon ads exam­ined for this arti­cle, on aver­age, 16% of those who saw each ad were men old­er than 65, 16% women old­er than 65, and anoth­er 16% men between 55 and 64. In con­trast, only about 15% were users 18 – 34 (of any gen­der). Despite the fact that peo­ple old­er than 65 were a third of those who saw a typ­i­cal Exxon ad, the group rep­re­sents only 16% of the total U.S. pop­u­la­tion. Fur­ther­more, younger peo­ple use social media more than old­er ones. Pew Research Cen­ter has used polling to track social media adop­tion for the past sev­er­al years, report­ing last year that 79% peo­ple 18- to 29-years-old are on Face­book and 67% use Insta­gram, com­pared to just 46% and 8%, respec­tive­ly, of senior cit­i­zens. Although both Face­book and Exxon declined to com­ment on what fil­ters Exxon uses to tar­get its ads, this dis­pro­por­tion­al­i­ty sug­gests the ads are not being sent at random.

Since Exxon’s pri­ma­ry busi­ness does not involve sell­ing direct­ly to indi­vid­u­als (the com­pa­ny decid­ed to exit the gas sta­tion busi­ness in 2008), Wat­son says Exxon’s per­son­al tar­get­ing could build a case for con­sumer pro­tec­tion, since ​“most con­sumers should not have a direct rela­tion­ship with Exxon.” She adds, ​“So what right does Exxon have in col­lect­ing any con­sumer data at all, aside from aggre­gate infor­ma­tion about con­sumer trends?”

Exxon declined to com­ment on how it uses indi­vid­ual data, but a few recent exam­ples reveal how the oil indus­try as a whole is embrac­ing the strate­gies Exxon has been rely­ing upon.

Take the Texas con­tro­ver­sy ear­li­er this year over some­thing called pro­ra­tioning, the (now) rarely used gov­ern­ment author­i­ty to reg­u­late oil quo­tas to smooth out fluc­tu­a­tions in the U.S. oil mar­ket. The author­i­ty hasn’t been exer­cised in Texas since the 1970s, but this past spring, the Covid-19 shut­down led to an oil glut so large there was nowhere to store any more oil. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion ordered the U.S. Strate­gic Petro­le­um Reserve to fill ​“to the very top” in March, but his pro-oil poli­cies weren’t enough to make up for the plum­met­ing glob­al demand. 

The Texas Rail­road Com­mis­sion con­sid­ered lim­it­ing the num­ber of bar­rels that oil com­pa­nies could pump, but free mar­ke­teers — linked to the oil indus­try—suc­ceed­ed in beat­ing back that proposal.

Mul­ti­ple ener­gy com­pa­nies cir­cu­lat­ed the same anti-pro­ra­tion form let­ter, includ­ing Exxon. The Amer­i­can Petro­le­um Insti­tute (API), which includes Exxon among its mem­bers, field­ed an oper­a­tion under the name Ener­gy Cit­i­zens that used the same language. 

API used a sim­i­lar play­book in a 2017 Penn­syl­va­nia cam­paign, bankrolling an orga­ni­za­tion called Cit­i­zens Against Nuclear Bailouts. As revealed in a Feb­ru­ary Atlantic arti­cle, the group tar­get­ed res­i­dents with a bar­rage of Face­book ads, direct mail and phone calls. ​“Per­haps most sur­pris­ing,” writer Robin­son Mey­er not­ed, ​“the indus­try has … actu­al­ly bor­rowed tac­tics and ideas from cli­mate activists.” 

“It’s a real­ly dif­fi­cult ques­tion about what to do about” direct tar­get­ing of indi­vid­u­als with mis­lead­ing infor­ma­tion, says Kathie Treen, a Ph.D. can­di­date study­ing cli­mate change mis­in­for­ma­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Exeter, Devon, Eng­land. ​“It does raise all sorts of ques­tions about free­dom of speech and demo­c­ra­t­ic rights. Is there a demo­c­ra­t­ic right to be mis­in­formed? Whose respon­si­bil­i­ty is it and who gets to say what counts, what is mis­lead­ing and what isn’t, and whose respon­si­bil­i­ty it is to do some­thing about it?”

12.1 MIL­LION! That’s how many bar­rels of oil per day the Unit­ed States pro­duced in March. Sign up for ener­gy updates and sup­port America’s ener­gy industry!

13.1 MIL­LION! That’s the num­ber of bar­rels of oil per day the Unit­ed States is fore­cast­ed to pro­duce in 2020. Sign up for ener­gy updates and sup­port America’s ener­gy industry!

Exxon sent the two ads fea­tured above to social media users near­ly 4 mil­lion times in April 2019. A year lat­er, head­lines about the company’s for­tunes had tak­en a decid­ed­ly dif­fer­ent turn. 

“Big Oil has fall­en,” said May Boeve, 350​.org exec­u­tive direc­tor, in a tri­umphant state­ment emailed to the envi­ron­men­tal group’s sup­port­ers August 25, the same day the Dow Jones Indus­tri­al Aver­age kicked Exxon off its index. The Dow gave Exxon’s spot, which the com­pa­ny had held since 1928, to busi­ness soft­ware com­pa­ny Salesforce. 

Bloomberg called it ​“a stun­ning fall from grace,” not­ing Exxon’s ​“par­tic­u­lar­ly rapid shift in for­tunes” dur­ing the lethar­gic Covid econ­o­my. Exxon’s removal came a few weeks after the com­pa­ny report­ed a sec­ond straight quar­ter­ly loss. In August, the com­pa­ny announced it would sus­pend pay­ments to the pen­sion funds of its union­ized work­force, though it con­tin­ued pay­ing stock­hold­er dividends.

Exxon was the most valu­able com­pa­ny in the Unit­ed States as recent­ly as 2011, but its stock began los­ing val­ue well before the pan­dem­ic. ​“I’m done with fos­sil fuels.,” declared Wall Street guru Jim Cramer on the show Squawk Box in Jan­u­ary. ​“They’re done. They’re just done. We’re start­ing to see divest­ment all over the world.” 

As eas­i­ly acces­si­ble oil reserves decline, Exxon and the entire fos­sil fuel indus­try is shift­ing toward low­er-prof­it ​“uncon­ven­tion­al” activ­i­ties, such as frack­ing — the process of frac­tur­ing shale rock and cap­tur­ing the oil and gas that gets pushed out.

An August 2018 Exxon ad touts fracking.

Clark Williams-Der­ry, an ener­gy finance ana­lyst with the pro­gres­sive Insti­tute for Ener­gy Eco­nom­ics and Finan­cial Analy­sis, says frack­ing has been ​“a com­plete and utter bust,” a ​“cash flow-neg­a­tive” busi­ness with pro­duc­tion costs so high they’ve dri­ven many upstart inde­pen­dent drilling com­pa­nies into bankruptcy.

“Are they mov­ing into shale because shale is a great oppor­tu­ni­ty,” Williams-Der­ry says, ​“or is it that there is no bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty?” He adds it’s only a mat­ter of time before Exxon suc­cumbs to com­pe­ti­tion from renew­able ener­gy com­pa­nies and stock­hold­ers flee en masse.

Mean­while, the oil indus­try is attempt­ing to mar­ket frack­ing as a cli­mate-friend­ly ​“bridge fuel” to ease the tran­si­tion from coal and oil to renew­ables. But new research sug­gests nat­ur­al gas might actu­al­ly be con­tribut­ing more to car­bon emis­sions than coal—because of gas flar­ing from wells and leaky pipelines. Accord­ing to a 2020 study, 3.7% of the methane pro­duced in Texas’ Per­mi­an Basin (where Exxon has invest­ed in frack­ing) leaks away and nev­er makes it to mar­ket, more than twice the offi­cial EPA esti­mate for the region. Cli­mate sci­en­tists have already deter­mined that if just 3.2% of gas leaks it becomes worse than coal for cli­mate change.

“It breaks my heart,” says cli­mate sci­en­tist Peter Kalmus, ​“that we are basi­cal­ly skew­ing the planet’s future for the next 10 mil­lion years in exchange for a few more years of frack­ing, of fos­sil fuel CEOs rak­ing in record prof­its. … It’s just madness.”

Exxon’s local fights aren’t all win­ners, like the time it spent $16,000 on ads urg­ing Louisiana res­i­dents to ​“take action” in its fight against the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board over extend­ing expir­ing indus­tri­al tax breaks in Jan­u­ary 2019. Those ads were shown more than half a mil­lion times, though the com­pa­ny lost the vote.

But the trend is clear: Exxon turns to social media to push its nation­al agen­da and try to reverse its gen­er­al wan­ing pub­lic sup­port. Exxon spent up to $1.4 mil­lion on social media ads pro­mot­ing pipeline jobs, for exam­ple, appear­ing 40 mil­lion times over the two-year peri­od inves­ti­gat­ed for this arti­cle and par­tic­u­lar­ly tar­get­ing res­i­dents in states such as Michi­gan, where pipeline con­struc­tion is con­tro­ver­sial. Oth­er ads pushed for off­shore drilling in fed­er­al waters and the new trade agree­ment with Cana­da and Mexico.

For ads that were posted with the same or similar text multiple times, this shows the mean number of impressions and mean spending for ads with that text.

Amer­i­ca is the world’s top ener­gy pro­duc­er. Do you want to see that continue?
SIGN the peti­tion to add your name today!

ENER­GY SUR­VEY: 94% of fed­er­al off­shore acreage is off lim­its to devel­op­ment. Do you sup­port expand­ing access to off­shore ener­gy production?
Answer the sur­vey today!

232,000 Col­orado jobs are at risk. Tell Gov­er­nor Polis to OPPOSE a mora­to­ri­um on new oil and gas development.

In some states, polit­i­cal social media ads like Exxon’s may need to be dis­closed as lob­by­ing efforts. But many states — includ­ing Texas, where Exxon is based — have few rules or report­ing require­ments on social media spend­ing. Even in states with reg­u­la­tions, enforce­ment is near­ly non-existent. 

Unlike direct lob­by­ing efforts — in which Exxon would meet direct­ly with law­mak­ers — ​“indi­rect” lob­by­ing (also known as ​“grass­roots”) gen­er­al­ly refers to efforts that encour­age oth­er peo­ple to con­tact law­mak­ers, the types of cam­paigns that include peti­tions or that aim to influ­ence pub­lic opin­ion about a bal­lot issue. In some states, accord­ing to con­sult­ing firm State and Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, that def­i­n­i­tion includes ads on social media. 

“There real­ly isn’t data [about how much indi­rect lob­by­ing goes on in the U.S.] because every state is dif­fer­ent,” Eliz­a­beth Z. Bartz, State and Fed­er­al pres­i­dent and CEO, tells In These Times.

In New York, for instance, social media posts are con­sid­ered lob­by­ing (and sub­ject to reg­u­la­tion and dis­clo­sure) when the post includes a ​“lob­by­ing activ­i­ty,” takes ​“a clear posi­tion on the issue in ques­tion” and attempts to ​“influ­ence a pub­lic offi­cial,” accord­ing to a tip sheet from State and Fed­er­al. As Exxon tells In These Times, it ​“com­plies with all applic­a­ble laws and reg­u­la­tions and our lob­by­ing reports are pub­licly avail­able and filed with the appro­pri­ate reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies and author­i­ties. Where required, our reports to reg­u­la­tors and author­i­ties dis­close reportable grass­roots lob­by­ing activities.”

But dis­clo­sure is often not required.“Facebook and other platforms aren’t going to care about it until the public cares.”

“Quite frankly, grass­roots lob­by­ing is prob­a­bly the lion’s share of lob­by­ing that goes on at the fed­er­al and state lev­els — and it goes entire­ly unre­port­ed,” says Craig Hol­man, gov­ern­ment affairs lob­by­ist with the non­prof­it group Pub­lic Cit­i­zen. ​“As long as [lob­by­ists] don’t actu­al­ly knock on the door in D.C. of a mem­ber of Con­gress, it’s not actu­al­ly reported.”

Report­ed or not, indi­rect lob­by­ing is chang­ing the cor­po­rate lob­by­ing busi­ness, as illus­trat­ed by the 2019 annu­al report of the New York State Joint Com­mis­sion. In New York state alone in 2019, 24% of reg­is­tered lob­by­ists had expand­ed into indi­rect lob­by­ing efforts, though only 1% engage exclu­sive­ly in indi­rect lob­by­ing. Out of a total of $16.8 mil­lion that lob­by­ists spent on adver­tis­ing in 2019, dig­i­tal advo­ca­cy and web­sites account­ed for $3.6 mil­lion, sur­pass­ing the $2.9 mil­lion spent on print advertising.

Hol­man adds that the extent of Exxon’s social media oper­a­tion ​“prob­a­bly is evi­dence that [indi­rect lob­by­ing] is far more preva­lent today than it used to be. Social media now and the inter­net pro­vide a per­fect vehi­cle for decep­tive advertising.”

“Com­pa­nies will do it until they can’t,” says Sara Wat­son. ​“Face­book and oth­er plat­forms aren’t going to care about it until the pub­lic cares.”

In the mid-2000s, there was an attempt in Con­gress to pass a fed­er­al indi­rect lob­by­ing dis­clo­sure require­ment, but it was beat­en by what Hol­man describes as a mas­sive astro­turf cam­paign. Hol­man adds that sim­i­lar pro­pos­als do exist, but whether they even have a chance depends on the out­come of the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion and ​“whether or not the Democ­rats are sin­cere” about rein­ing in cor­po­rate abuses.
“I’m 24 and I wor­ry every sin­gle day about what will become of my future if the oil com­pa­nies keep drilling.”

Even if legal dis­clo­sure require­ments are passed, Wat­son says, ​“there are huge ques­tions about the enforce­abil­i­ty of these laws,” par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to plat­forms like Face­book with a busi­ness mod­el utter­ly reliant on tar­get­ed online advertising.

Since 2011, a coali­tion of more than 70 investor groups have pushed for more dis­clo­sure of all cor­po­rate lob­by­ing efforts, sub­mit­ting more than 400 lob­by­ing pro­pos­als to dozens of com­pa­nies in the past nine years. Only sev­en pro­pos­als have received major­i­ty votes, but the issue is gain­ing momen­tum. Mul­ti­ple such pro­pos­als have been sub­mit­ted to Exxon by the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers, includ­ing one ear­li­er this year. Exxon rec­om­mend­ed share­hold­ers vote against it. It failed to pass but will be resub­mit­ted next year.

“ENER­GY SUR­VEY: 94% of fed­er­al off­shore acreage is off lim­its to devel­op­ment. Do you sup­port expand­ing access to off­shore ener­gy pro­duc­tion? Answer the sur­vey today!”

In 2019, 58% of the oil refined in Cal­i­for­nia was import­ed from oth­er coun­tries. Take action and sup­port ener­gy pro­duc­tion and local jobs right here in Cal­i­for­nia. Sup­port Amer­i­can Ener­gy in San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty. Make your voice heard.

If you have not had a chance, don’t for­get to sub­mit your com­ment let­ter in sup­port of Exxon­Mo­bil’s Inter­im Truck­ing Per­mit. They’re due by 12pm on August 31st!

The address Facebook provides for Santa Barbara for Safe and Local Transport is the same address listed for ExxonMobil by the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce.

Exxon’s efforts to use social media to shore up pub­lic sup­port are being put to the test in San­ta Barbara. 

The issue con­cerns Exxon’s San­ta Ynez Unit (SYU), con­sist­ing of three off­shore oil plat­forms off the San­ta Bar­bara coast and an onshore pro­cess­ing facil­i­ty at Las Flo­res Canyon. In 2015, the pipeline Exxon used to send oil inland to refiner­ies — oper­at­ed by the Plains All Amer­i­can Pipeline com­pa­ny — spilled 140,000 gal­lons of crude onto the coast­line and into the ocean near Refu­gio State Beach. It wasn’t the first spill along this breath­tak­ing stretch of Pacif­ic Coast. The San­ta Bar­bara Spill in 1969 was the largest sin­gle event in state his­to­ry. His­to­ri­ans say it helped launch the mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the first Earth Day held the fol­low­ing year.

With­out that pipeline, Exxon’s three off­shore SYU plat­forms were retired. Exxon applied, in 2017, for a tem­po­rary truck­ing per­mit that would enable the com­pa­ny to reopen these wells. If approved, the com­pa­ny would run up to 70 trucks each day (about one every 20 min­utes) on Cen­tral Coast roads from SYU to Cal­i­for­nia refineries.

On August 12, the San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty Plan­ning Com­mis­sion issued its long-await­ed rec­om­men­da­tions based on the envi­ron­men­tal impact analy­sis on Exxon’s plan. A pub­lic hear­ing was sched­uled for ear­ly Sep­tem­ber, but before that could hap­pen, Phillips 66 announced it was clos­ing its San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty refin­ery — which Exxon had intend­ed as its pri­ma­ry des­ti­na­tion for the trucked oil. 

A pos­si­ble alter­nate path would be a longer route to the Plains Pent­land Ter­mi­nal in neigh­bor­ing Kern Coun­ty. In its envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis, how­ev­er, the com­mis­sion had sug­gest­ed Exxon aban­don Pent­land alto­geth­er ​“to lim­it truck trav­el, reduce air emis­sions, and reduce the like­li­hood of acci­dents result­ing in spills due to few­er miles traveled.” 

The com­mis­sion may still approve Exxon’s plan, how­ev­er, and the next step would be a final deci­sion from the San­ta Bar­bara Board of Super­vi­sors. Errin Brig­gs, super­vis­ing plan­ner in the Plan­ning Commission’s Ener­gy Divi­sion, says the project is still fea­si­ble depend­ing on what mod­i­fi­ca­tions Exxon makes to its pro­pos­al and that coun­ty offi­cials will have to weigh the risks of the oil against area eco­nom­ic benefits.

San­ta Bar­bara for Safe and Local Trans­port (SBSLT), mean­while, launched in Decem­ber 2018. SBSLT’s direct ties to Exxon are appar­ent. The San­ta Maria Sun, a local news­pa­per, spoke to Exxon Mobil’s then-SYU asset man­ag­er for a pro­file on SBSLT, and report­ed that SBSLT is ​“a joint effort between Exxon­Mo­bil and inter­est­ed San­ta Bar­bara Coun­ty com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers”; the group’s web­site says it’s ​“Pow­ered by Exxon SYU.”

Oil workers and protestors pack the Santa Barbara County Building May 6, 2019, at a hearing on Exxon’s application to truck crude oil through Santa Barbara County. (Gabriel Vargas / www.gabrielvargasdp.com)

The SBSLT web­site describes itself as ​“a coali­tion of res­i­dents and tax­pay­ers, includ­ing local busi­ness­es, teach­ers, law and safe­ty enforce­ment and Exxon­Mo­bil employ­ees.” Exxon does claim sup­port from sev­er­al unions and busi­ness cham­bers, about 30 busi­ness­es and a half dozen local lead­ers, includ­ing some cur­rent and for­mer elect­ed offi­cials. To date, SBSLT has spent more than $44,000 on social media adver­tis­ing, and Exxon has spent more than $2 mil­lion in a vari­ety of off­shore drilling ads through its pri­ma­ry page.

​“We need peo­ple to be real­is­tic about the deci­sions that must be made to live here,” Bob Set­back­en admon­ished oth­er local res­i­dents in a com­ment thread last year on the SBSLT page. He is a retired San­ta Bar­bara res­i­dent, accord­ing to his Face­book pro­file, but did­n’t return a phone call request­ing an interview.

As of Octo­ber 19, SBSLT’s Face­book page had only 408 likes and 422 fol­low­ers in a coun­ty of 450,000. The page has drawn the ire of local res­i­dents. ​“SYU is a wolf in sheep­’s cloth­ing,” San­ta Bar­bara res­i­dent Mau­reen McFad­den writes May 22. Amy Foss, anoth­er com­menter on the page, calls SBSLT ​“an oil com­pa­ny pro­pa­gan­da page, not a ​‘com­mu­ni­ty.’ ”

In Octo­ber 2019, Face­book said in an online post that it would be adding more infor­ma­tion about who is behind Face­book pages, includ­ing adding con­firmed page own­er infor­ma­tion and ver­i­fied city, phone num­ber or web­site. In Octo­ber 2020, the SBSLT page con­tin­ues to be list­ed as a ​“com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion,” and under the ​“Page Trans­paren­cy” sec­tion, it reads: ​“San­ta Bar­bara for Safe and Local Trans­port is respon­si­ble for this Page,” mak­ing no ref­er­ence to Exxon. But the address pro­vid­ed for SBSLT in the Face­book Ad Library is an Exxon­Mo­bil address.

​“If we find a Page is con­ceal­ing its own­er­ship in order to mis­lead peo­ple, we will require it to show more infor­ma­tion about who is behind it,” said a spokesper­son for Face­book in an emailed state­ment. ​“We’re inves­ti­gat­ing if these Pages fol­low our rules.” 

Beyond Face­book, oppo­si­tion to Exxon’s San­ta Bar­bara plans is fierce. The oppo­si­tion has its own grass­roots coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal and com­mu­ni­ty groups, local gov­ern­ment sup­port­ers and more than 80 busi­ness­es. They fear how anoth­er oil spill could impact the region’s tourism and fish­ing indus­tries. Oth­er locals com­plain the roads just aren’t made to truck that much oil.

In San­ta Bar­bara, as it does across the coun­try, Exxon hopes to turn the tide on its pump­ing, truck­ing and frack­ing through its lax­ly reg­u­lat­ed social media lob­by­ing efforts; its polit­i­cal con­sul­tants and cam­paign soft­ware; and its well-fund­ed and heav­i­ly moti­vat­ed sup­port­ers. Exxon’s $16-mil­lion ad spend­ing spree under­scores that the fight against the fos­sil fuel indus­try is far from over.

Stephanie Prufer, an oceans cam­paign­er at the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, says she does­n’t think Exxon’s strat­e­gy will work for the com­pa­ny, espe­cial­ly among youth.

“I’m not sur­prised that Exxon is tar­get­ing the demo­graph­ic that they are,” she says, refer­ring to the fact that Exxon ads dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly appear on the screens of old­er social media users. ​“They know they are not going to be able to get the sup­port of peo­ple who are afraid for their own futures. I’m 24 and I wor­ry every sin­gle day about what will become of my future if the oil com­pa­nies keep drilling.”

“The sci­ence is so clear,” she adds. ​“We need to keep oil in the ground. We need to end drilling on our coast, not revive it.”

David DeMaris served as a tech­nol­o­gy con­sul­tant on this sto­ry. Juan Caice­do con­tributed fact-checking.

CHRIS­TINE MAC­DON­ALD is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and author, whose work focus­es cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and green­wash­ing. She was a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

Big Oil Reality Check — Assessing Oil And Gas Climate Plans



Published by Oil Change International.

Endorsed by Amazon Watch, Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development, BankTrack, Bold Alliance, BothENDS, Christian Aid, Centre for International Environmental Law, Culture Unstained, Earthworks, Environmental Defence Canada, Friends of the Earth US, Global Catholic Climate Movement, Global Witness, Greenpeace USA, Hip Hop Caucus, Indigenous Environmental Network, Les Amis de la Terre, Milieudefensie, Power Shift Network, Rainforest Action Network, Reclaim Finance, Recourse, ShareAction, Sierra Club, SOMO, Sunrise Project, Stand.earth, Urgewald, Women’s Earth & Climate Action Network, 350.org.

September 2020

Download the discussion paper.
Download selected figures from the report.

As oil and gas companies claim to be part of the solution of the climate crisis, the reality couldn’t be more different. Our new discussion paper analyzes the current climate commitments of eight of the largest integrated oil and fossil gas companies, and reveals that none come close to aligning their actions with the urgent 1.5°C global warming limit as outlined by the Paris Agreement.

This discussion paper measures oil and gas company climate plans against ten minimum criteria, focusing on the ambition, integrity, and ability necessary to implement a just transition and achieve a 1.5°C aligned managed decline of oil and fossil gas. Focusing on the oil majors, BP, Chevron, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Repsol, Shell, and Total, we find that only one company has committed to cutting oil and gas production over the next decade, and even that pledge (BP’s stated commitment to cut production by 40% by 2030) excludes around a third of the oil and gas it invests in extracting via its major share in oil giant Rosneft. Below is a summary table of these criteria included in the discussion paper.

While the oil majors are responding to mounting public pressure that is rightfully stripping away their social license, we reveal that their responses to this pressure are dominated by empty rhetoric and obfuscation. The oil and gas industry needs to rapidly phase out its extraction-based business model and repair the climate damages it has caused. Governments, investors, and communities should not assume the industry most responsible for causing the climate crisis will do its fair share to solve it. Governments in particular must step in to manage the decline in fossil fuels, by phasing out fossil fuel production and implementing Just Transition measures.

Click here to download the full discussion paper.