The American Oil and Gas Industry Is as Cynical as You Think

An Andeavor refinery in North Dakota. Andeavor was acquired by Marathon in October.
Photo: AP

Remember when the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era fuel economy standards and the auto industry’s response was basically, “Whoa, we didn’t actually want all that”? That was weird, if also revealing. Behind the scenes, Big Oil never wavered though, according to a new New York Times report, which details the industry’s gross campaign for higher profits.

One of the biggest villains in the story is Marathon, the country’s largest oil refiner by volume and, apparently, a company willing to do almost anything to stoke its bottom line. Those efforts began with early attempts for its CEO, Gary Heminger, to meet with former EPA chairman Scott Pruitt—the two eventually met twice, according to the Times. Marathon also funded a lobbying effort that showed just how the sausage is made in Washington.

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The lobbying effort, for example, included a letter of talking points distributed by “Marathon representatives,” exact phrases from which later found its way into letters to the Transportation Department from 19 lawmakers urging a rollback of the Obama fuel standards. Marathon did a pretty poor version of covering its tracks, per the NYT:

Over the summer, Marathon representatives also approached legislators about an industry talking-points letter, according to six people familiar with that effort. The file properties of a Microsoft Word version of one letter, provided by a Congressional delegation, show that it was last edited by a Marathon lobbyist, Michael J. Birsic, on June 11, 2018.

Mr. Rice of Marathon said the company did not write the letter, and the company declined to say who did. It did not offer an explanation for Mr. Birsic’s digital fingerprint on the document file.

But it wasn’t just Marathon, as a Facebook campaign perpetrated by Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Phillips 66 and others was waged. The campaign, among other messages, portrayed Obama as a huckster and urged Facebook users to support Trump’s “car freedom agenda.”

The Facebook ads linked to a website with a picture of a grinning Mr. Obama. It asked, “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” The site appears to have been so effective that a quarter of the 12,000 public comments received by the Department of Transportation can be traced to the petition, according to a Times analysis.

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The Facebook campaign also urged users to give public comments on the issue, with the Times tracing over a quarter of all public comments sent to the Transportation Department to the Facebook campaign, after finding that they contained language similar to what the Facebook ads were prompting users to write. The Facebook campaign was also not obviously the work of the oil industry, though the Times found it was largely funded by it.

The campaign was a product of the fuel and petrochemical manufacturers trade group, widely known as AFPM. However, neither the Facebook ads nor the site identified the industry group. Instead they name a group called Energy4US, which describes itself as “a coalition of consumers, businesses and workers” promoting affordable energy.

[...]

The AFPM board includes representatives from Exxon, Chevron, Phillips 66, Marathon and Koch Industries. The companies all referred queries to the group.

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To be sure, the rollback of the Obama-era rules aren’t official yet, but the Times report shows just how craven the oil and gas industry can be when it wants something from this administration, and, in many cases, just how pliable and amenable to their concerns lawmakers and the Trump administration could be.

And while the fuel economy rules rollback still may get clogged up in federal court or stopped in some other manner, the Marathon CEO doesn’t seem to think so, since, as late as last week, according to the Times, he was seen publicly outlining the potential gains.

On a conference call with investors last week, Mr. Heminger, the Marathon chief executive, was already counting the extra barrels of fuel a Trump rollback would mean for the industry: 350,000 to 400,000 barrels of gasoline per day, he said.

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Marathon had profits of $737 million in the third quarter of this year alone. Anyway, the whole Times story is infuriating and I recommend you read it here.

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About the author

Erik Shilling

News Editor at Jalopnik. 2008 Honda Fit Sport.