The silent looters

Big Oil's silence on racism during a nationwide civil rights crisis speaks volumes about who they serve.

We talk a lot about “Big Oil” here at the newsletter. But we don’t often talk about what that means.

“Big Oil” refers to the world’s six largest publicly-traded oil and gas companies: ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Total, and ConocoPhillips. It’s a term meant to convey these companies’ enormous power—both individually and combined—to influence the U.S. economy and political system.

This power stems from Big Oil’s money. Since 1990, those six companies have earned more than $2.4 trillion in combined profits, according to a Taxpayers for Common Sense analysis published in February. In 2019 alone, they reported in excess of $55 billion—making Big Oil “undoubtedly one of the most profitable [industries] in the world,” the analysis reads.

But Big Oil did not make its money alone. Everyday Americans have padded its pockets with massive subsidies and tax code write-offs. Combined, “these policies have padded industry’s profits by more than $100 billion over the last few decades, all at taxpayers’ expense,” according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. And taxpayer subsidies to Big Oil are only increasing under the Trump administration, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Big Oil also appears to be benefitting from federal COVID recovery funds.

Clearly, Big Oil has the money and power to change the course of history—money and power that it wouldn’t have without American taxpayers’ support. How is it using that money and power now, as protests demanding police reform and racial justice sweep the nation?

Pretty much not at all, an analysis of the six companies’ public statements and social media accounts shows.

Exxon: silent on George Floyd’s death, but not on climate

George Floyd died with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck on May 25, 2020. Protests began the next day and have not stopped.

Since then, Exxon—the most profitable company of the Big Oil six—has issued two press releases: one about its an annual shareholder meeting and the “unprecedented market challenges” from the COVID-19 crisis, and another announcing the retirement of one of its corporate executives. The company has refrained from posting on Instagram. It has tweeted seven times.

None of Exxon’s tweets since George Floyd’s death express solidarity with protesters or support for anti-racism. One tweet, however, notes how great Exxon is doing solving the climate crisis—a crisis that disproportionately harms communities of color.

ExxonMobil’s Global Diversity Framework states: “Our diversity and inclusion efforts are comprehensive. … Our diversity and inclusion record is one of which employees and shareholders can be proud, and we pledge to continue building a workforce that will ensure we remain a global company in every sense of the word.”

Exxon is a U.S.-based company.

Shell: silent on George Floyd’s death

Shell has issued one press release since George Floyd’s death, unrelated to the protests. It has tweeted twice, also unrelated. It has not posted on Instagram.

“We believe in creating an inclusive culture where you can thrive,” Shell’s Diversity and Inclusion page states. “An inclusive work environment is key to innovating, developing and retaining that talent.”

Shell is a Dutch company, but it has major operations in the United States.

BP: not silent on George Floyd’s death

BP is the only of the Big Oil six companies to have made an explicit statement on George Floyd’s death. BP is U.K.-based.

On Monday, BP CEO Bernard Looney posted on LinkedIn a “note to our people on racial injustice.” “The shocking videos of brutality are deeply upsetting, and the violence tearing up communities is disturbing,” the letter said. “I hope it goes without saying, I absolutely condemn racial injustice in all forms.”

The letter said BP was committed to doing three things: Acknowledging pain, talking about racial injustice, and helping the world “build back better.” On the third point, Looey cited BP’s recent pledge to go net zero emissions by 2050, and said BP was committed to “restarting the global economy in a fairer way, and in a way that is more inclusive, sustainable and resilient.”

It remains to be seen whether BP will walk its talk. A recent analysis from the Transition Pathway Initiative showed BP’s net zero pledge was not currently backed up by its actions.

Chevron: silent on George Floyd’s death

Chevron, a U.S.-based company, has made no public statements about George Floyd’s death or the protests sweeping the country. It has tweeted and posted on Instagram once since the protests began, on an unrelated topic. It has also issued one unrelated press release.

“Chevron is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion at all levels of our company,” its diversity page says. “It is a cornerstone of our corporate values of high performance, integrity, trust, partnership, and protecting people and the environment.”

Total: silent on George Floyd’s death

Total is a French company. It’s tweeting promises about climate change, but not about race.

ConocoPhillips: silent on George Floyd’s death

ConocoPhillips is a U.S.-based company. Since George Floyd’s death, it has tweeted about its conservation efforts, supporting veterans, and the retirement of one of its black employees.

It has not made a statement about George Floyd’s death or the protests sweeping the country.

The fossil fuel industry’s silence on racism during a nationwide civil rights crisis makes sense, given the industry’s utter inaction on climate change during a global climate crisis. Their current business models depend on the existence of both to thrive.

Hip Hop Caucus’s executive director Liz Havstad touched on this in our conversation earlier this week about why the climate change and racial justice fights are inseparable.

“The fossil fuel industry’s greed, unchecked corporate power, and unchecked exploitation of workers—all these issues intersect with racial justice and racial oppression,” she said. “That’s a clear and obvious linkage to racial justice.”

There’s a reason why not a lot of Black people have gotten rich off the oil boom. The vast fortune Big Oil has generated while creating the climate crisis has only gone to a very few, mostly white people. They got their wealth by robbing everyone else of their future on this planet. And once again, Black people will be the ones to suffer most from their looting.

Additional reading/resources


HOW IS BIG OIL USING ITS POWER? “Since President Donald Trump took office, in order to rig the system in its favor, the oil and gas industry has spent more than $220 million lobbying Congress … and in contributions to political campaigns,” according to a Center for American Progress analysis.

BIG OIL POLITICAL CONTRIBUTIONS BENEFIT CLIMATE DENIERS. A study published by Yale University researchers in March found that “The more a given member of Congress votes against environmental policies, the more contributions they receive from oil and gas companies supporting their reelection.”

TRUMP’S TAX PLAN WAS A BOON FOR BIG OIL. “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans in 2017 has disproportionately benefited corporate America—especially the oil industry.”

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