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Big Oil v The World TV review: How oil companies drowned out their own scientists

The suppression of facts about climate change was a ‘multi-decade act of fraud’, we heard in a BBC series that owed much to the wisdom of old men

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Vehicles try to drive through flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by SK Hasan Ali via BBC Pictures

Vehicles try to drive through flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by SK Hasan Ali via BBC Pictures

Professor Tony Ingraffea, who helped make fracking profitable, and is now warning against its use

Professor Tony Ingraffea, who helped make fracking profitable, and is now warning against its use

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Vehicles try to drive through flooded street in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by SK Hasan Ali via BBC Pictures

There aren’t enough old men on television, and we need them. Old men are usually shunted to the sides of television programmes; they appear briefly marching their daughters up the aisle, or performing an unintelligible song. But old men, reliable, dogged and with nothing left to lose, are the ideal witnesses.

The three-part documentary series Big Oil v The World (BBC Two) was about how oil companies lied for 40 years about man-made climate change, and how they hid the evidence that their own scientists had produced four decades ago. No surprises there, you might say. And no surprise either to discover how the Koch brothers, of Koch Industries, set out to demolish independent thinkers within the US Republican party and funded extreme pressure groups such as Americans for Prosperity.

The most frightening thing about Big Oil v The World wasn’t how the planet lost 40 years in its fight against floods, forest fires and heatwaves, but the amazing effectiveness of lobby groups in getting what they want within a democracy, without ever appearing before the public. This depressing fact applies to the tiniest republic as well as to the world’s leading democracy. Of course it does.

Absolutely the best thing about Big Oil v The World was the fact that this story was told not by vegan, hippy climate change activists — there was only one man with a ponytail — but by old grandfathers sitting in their very tidy living rooms. These were the scientists who had worked for the oil and gas industries in the 1960s and ’70s. They were the type of annoying old men who had kept all the documents they had written, in much less tidy rooms which their wives have probably never entered. We had to wait until episode two before a woman appeared.

And it was fantastic television.

There were questions left unasked: are the renewable energy methods really ready to power the world instead of the polluting oil and gas?

But, for the ordinary stupid consumer (for example, me) there was shocking news here. That methane, which is released in the manufacture of so-called natural gas, has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it enters the atmosphere.

Old photographs showed the scientists as young, clever men at the time when they were thrilled to have been recruited by Exxon, the company that, in the 1970s, had the most sophisticated research department. It was salutary to see how slim and fit a lot of the old men are now — these are sensible, rational people who go running. The most radical transformation over the intervening decades was presented not by a scientist but by Jerry Taylor, a former public relations executive for the Cato Institute, which is funded partly by the Koch brothers. He went from being a fat young man in a polyester suit, arguing against the existence of climate change by saying “things are fine so far”, to being a slim silver fox in good tailoring. More radically, he has gone from being an articulate and virulent opponent of climate change activists to being a supporter.

Smart people

“I have a lot of regrets,” he said. “If I had known at the time what Exxon knew internally…” But what changed his mind? There were so many smart people on the other side, Taylor said. And (he didn’t say this) he was very smart himself. He read the evidence the scientists presented to him. He concludes that he had been part of “a multi-decade act of fraud”.

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Professor Tony Ingraffea, who helped make fracking profitable, and is now warning against its use

Professor Tony Ingraffea, who helped make fracking profitable, and is now warning against its use

Professor Tony Ingraffea, who helped make fracking profitable, and is now warning against its use

Scientists changed their minds too. Professor Tony Ingraffea, an engineer, came up with a method to make fracking not only feasible but profitable. It involves blasting shale rock with a mix of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to release gas. He thought he was being “patriotic” because, as America’s oil ran out, fracking would make the country energy-independent.

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Gas became a “bridge fuel”, promoted as cleaner than oil. The Obama administration loved it. Then in 2011, with Professor Rob Howarth, also of Cornell University, Ingraffea published a paper which showed that methane, which is leaked during fracking and in the subsequent production of so-called natural gas, was also driving climate change. The reaction was “a political and science firestorm… there were a lot of personal attacks… it hurts.” Howarth lost his research funding.

And so on and on. Even the energy companies were surprised by how successful their public relations campaigns were. They never expected that their lie about climate change being “a hoax” would enter mainstream debate, and that even an American president (Donald Trump) would claim he believed it.

But he did. And now, in a case brought against the energy companies by Maura Healey, the attorney general of Massachusetts, the lies of the oil companies are being conclusively revealed.

The very saddest thing about Big Oil v The World was the sorrow of the scientists.

Michael MacCracken was a senior scientist employed by the US government on the subject of climate change. In 2001, the energy companies wanted him fired — and he was. You should see his filing room. Now he’s 83 and he says he’s trying to distance himself emotionally from the whole catastrophe, because he’s so furious.

And when Tony Ingraffea was asked about what climate change means to him he said: “It means looking in the eyes of my grandchildren and wondering what kind of hell they’re going to pay.”



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