The fossil fuel industry have always been experts when it comes to climate denial, obfuscation and misdirection.

But in recent years, as the climate crisis becomes increasingly impossible to ignore, there’s been a change in tactics.

This is how the fossil fuel industry lies to you now.

The power of social media

In a shifting communication landscape, a 2023 study decided to look into the ways the fossil fuel industry communicates directly to the public through social media presence. Acknowledging that oil and gas companies have made a strategic shift away from outright climate denial to more subtle strategies of climate delay, the study authors also recognised that social media is an under-analysed part of the fossil fuel industry’s strategy to delay a just transition.

Because these companies continue to lobby against ambitious climate policy while profiting from continued fossil fuel exploration and extraction, these seemingly positive claims and their promotion of renewables need to be examined carefully, particularly given the well-documented legacy of these companies strategic spreading of misinformation and aggressive policy interventions to slow down climate action. Recent research also suggests that there is a strategy shift in the oil and gas industry from outright climate denial to more nuanced “discourses of delay”, which includes public support and endorsement of climate action but in practice doing little and strategically delaying real change

The study analysed over 25000 tweets from Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and TotalEnergies, particularly examining how they talked about renewables. They noticed a rapid increase in tweets about renewables following 2015 – after the adoption of the Paris Agreement – with each company tweeting about their renewable projects (despite these projects making up very small amounts of investment from all four). TotalEnergies and BP focused mostly on solar, ExxonMobil on biofuels, and Shell on hydrogen.

However, the study also found something else, which turned out to be a lot more suspect.

The ‘natural gas’ myth

The study also found that renewables were frequently mentioned in tweets alongside natural gas, suggesting that both were essential to emissions reductions. They frequently highlighted the ‘social good’ of gas, presented gas as a fuel for a cleaner future and portrayed gas as a key fuel alongside wind and solar.

As the fossil fuel industry has shifted from outright denial to efforts to delay meaningful climate action, this is a clear part of this more subtle strategy.

The unexpected finding that natural gas is frequently mentioned together with renewables suggests that renewable messaging plays a role in rationalizing the development of natural gas and perpetuating fossil fuel reliance by the industry.

This finding builds on other scholarship which has examined the ways these powerful companies find ways to strategically downplay the urgent need for radical climate action. Twitter, as a way to directly talk to the public, becomes another mechanism to influence public opinion in order to oppose, weaken, delay and resist climate policy.

This backs up the conclusions of a 2022 study, which found a mismatch between oil and gas companies’ discourse and pledges vs their actions and investments. These large companies used a variety of communication strategies to portray an image of being environmentally friendly while perpetuating fossil fuel reliance, at once accepting the existence of climate change but justifying inaction or minimal effort to actually change. It concluded that no fossil fuel companies are currently on the way to a clean energy transition, and the increase in communication around renewables after 2015 likely doesn’t represent an increase in renewable investment. This climate delay strategy was named “all talk, little action”: pushing non-transformative ‘solutions’ that lead to climate delay over tangible action.

Strategic climate delay

The 2023 study was initially set up to examine how fossil fuel companies present themselves as a responsible part of the energy transition, through showcasing their small renewable projects online. Instead, the finding of natural gas mentioned in conjunction with renewables actually revealed how these companies strategically use discussion of renewable technologies as a way to reinforce the future of their core business, fossil fuels. These tweets perpetuate the idea that both are necessary. That, despite being a fossil fuel, natural gas is important for the future and is the ‘cleanest’ of all fossil fuel options. 

Essentially, they want to reinforce the status quo, and don’t intend to change their businesses at all.

This messaging also helps companies present fossil fuel extraction as a social good. The most prevalent topic of the natural gas tweets focuses on the role of natural gas in emissions reductions. This framing helps reinforce continued fossil fuel reliance and prevents an actual just transition, by implying that natural gas and renewables are equivalents, while actually continuing fossil fuel use that the world cannot afford.

It’s true that, of all fossil fuels, gas emits the lowest amount of CO2, so it’s technically cleaner than coal or oil. It is still, however, a polluting fossil fuel that we can’t keep using if we’re to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, and a future of climate justice.

When policymakers and companies refer to a “low-carbon economy”, they are recognizing that there will be some carbon, but it should be as low as possible. Similarly, the tweets from the oil and gas industry refer to natural gas using the phrase “cleaner fuel” not “clean fuel”. These are subtle but strategic distinctions that perpetuate nebulous or simplistic understanding among the general public about the risks and benefits of fossil fuels.

Promoting natural gas as beneficial for the energy transition reinforces carbon lock-in, which contributes to delaying the energy transition to renewables.

This study proved that social media becomes another tool used by powerful companies to strategically maintain a dominant narrative that downplays the need for urgent radical and systemic climate action. The authors described it as ‘strategically communicating about renewables to delay the energy transition and obstruct action on climate change.’

This is why it’s more important than ever that we don’t fall for these lies, and continue to push back.

business as usual for oil and gas companies is becoming more difficult. Presenting themselves as engaged renewable energy promoters through their public messaging provides another mechanism to delay more impactful regulatory measures that could restrict fossil fuel supply, end fossil fuel exploration, and lead to larger transformative changes in the fossil fuel industry.

Let’s make sure they don’t get away with it.