Op-Ed: Fossil fuel lobbyists keep stoking the West’s wildfires

A wildfire burns near oil derricks in Yorba Linda.
Of course the climate is going crazy with extreme heat and wildfires — because we just keep drilling for and using oil.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Western United States is burning. Last month Oregon and Washington lived through an unbearable 117 degrees — an all-time high for the region, which averages around 62 degrees this time of year. California is seeing the worst fires on record.

This isn’t a fluke. This is a data point in our new normal: Hot days and short rainy seasons turn our lush greenery and vibrant woods into kindling.

This also isn’t a mystery. We are still powering our country with the fuels that brought us to the brink of disaster. And when we are way past due for investment in a reliable, clean energy grid, Republicans are instead sitting around trying to define the word “infrastructure.” Why? Because fossil fuel apologists such as the American Petroleum Institute and the American Gas Assn. are actively campaigning against clean energy proposals. They’re lobbying against cheaper energy for consumers, lobbying against the changes that will make our grid more reliable, more equitable and sustainable for the clean energy future that we know must come.

Hoping for the U.S. to continue its dependency on oil, natural gas and coal, fossil fuel lobbyists are drawing from the same playbook Big Tobacco used to push cigarettes to kids, and that playbook of deception was recently revealed by Exxon Mobil’s top lobbyist. For more than a decade, oil companies have spent tens of millions of dollars each year spreading misleading slogans, adapting their message to fit the political and cultural moment — from “Thanks to Natural Gas, the Air Up Here Is Cleaner” to “We can produce the energy America needs and protect the environment.” We can see through their greenwashing.


Top oil companies spend $195 million a year on media campaigns touting their commitment to climate action, even as oil and natural gas extraction expands. After Joe Biden outlined his climate plans, the American Petroleum Institute spent an average of $24,000 a day targeting millennials on Facebook with ads portraying gas as a climate solution. The fossil fuel industry is funding disinformation campaigns across the country through dark money groups. The goal of all these strategies is the same: to trick us into thinking that fossil fuels are some sort of climate solution that will grow the economy. They aren’t, and they won’t.

Here’s the truth. Over the last decade, the industry drilled 85,000 wells, doing irreparable harm to our air and water and driving climate change. State officials sued the Biden administration over recent efforts to limit oil and natural gas leasing on public lands, even though gas and oil companies are sitting on millions of acres of leased unused land. This lawsuit was bought and paid for by fossil fuel companies: Louisiana Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, who led the lawsuit, has taken $739,182 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, gas and oil companies happily took billions in stimulus-related tax breaks and laid off 16% of their combined workforce.

As Congress continues to debate how to act on climate, we should expect disinformation campaigns to continue and lobbyists to do more dirty work behind the scenes. While the fossil fuel industry continues to say it supports climate goals such as those laid out in the Paris Agreement, Big Oil and Gas are sure to issue press statements and talking points to political allies threatening oil shortages if clean energy investments continue.

We should prepare to hear them cry foul in the media over public land leasing reforms that would cost us, the taxpayer, billions of dollars in lost royalties. We will hear them call clean energy tax incentives unfair as they continue to take billions in taxpayer-backed subsidies.

As extreme heat makes air quality worse, the American Petroleum Institute will say it’s an environmental justice advocate, even though pollution threatens communities of color far more than white communities. The upcoming rollout of clean car standards and electric vehicle investments means we should be ready for Big Oil to make big spends on misleading advertising about how the government is trying to take your car away.

These lies are dangerous, and if we choose to believe them, the United States will continue to be torn apart by drilling and pipelines, and the threat of climate change will only become more severe. We will miss the opportunity to lead, to reap the benefits of climate technologies and innovations, and to save the planet.

Tom Steyer is a climate activist and the founder of Farallon Capital Management and NextGen America.