Last August, during the hottest summer in U.S. history, the Senate began debating the country’s most ambitious plan ever to fight the climate crisis: President Biden’s sweeping Build Back Better bill.
The next day, Big Oil swung into action against it. The industry knew exactly who to target: the voters of Sen. Joe Manchin, the all-powerful Democrat who infamously refused to support Build Back Better, and this week, declared the plan “dead.”
America’s top oil industry group, the American Petroleum Institute, unleashed a Facebook ad campaign urging residents of Manchin’s state of West Virginia to call his office and “thank” him for being a “champion” of U.S. energy. In total, those ads were seen more times in West Virginia than there are registered voters in the state, according to an estimate based on Facebook data made by the climate-focused, London-based think tank InfluenceMap and shared with VICE News.
Big Oil has spent millions promoting fossil fuels on Facebook in recent years, but the American Petroleum Institute—which is backed by oil majors including ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP—has been particularly blunt about its goal of killing or rolling back key climate and energy provisions of Build Back Better. The campaign included ads with the contact phone numbers for 47 members of Congress and urged Facebook users to call legislators and tell them not to raise taxes on natural gas. According to InfluenceMap estimates, the group spent the most on ads naming Manchin, and those spots got more than twice as many views as any other politician in the campaign.
"The fossil fuel industry has a well-known track record of pushing back against progressive climate policy,” Jake Carbone, Senior Data Analyst at InfluenceMap, told VICE News. “But what’s significant about the industry’s campaign against the Build Back Better plan is that it utilizes Facebook’s powerful targeting tools to pressure individual members of Congress to vote against it.”
On Dec. 19, Manchin staged a dramatic appearance on Fox News Sunday to declare that he could not vote for Build Back Better. Afterwards, the Facebook advertising campaign flipped off like a light switch, according to InfluenceMap data.
The American Petroleum Institute’s ads were viewed around 9.5 million times from August 11 to December 19, despite a total cost estimated by InfluenceMap to have been only about $164,000. The ads specifically focusing on Manchin may have cost as little as $14,700, according to the think tank, which specializes in monitoring how business interests impact the climate crisis.
Still, that amount allowed the oil group to run ads in West Virginia that racked up roughly 1,225,000 views, according to InfluenceMap, which estimates total ad impressions and their cost from an upper and lower range provided by Facebook’s ad library. The state only has 1,219,542 registered voters.
In a 50-50 Senate, the centrist Democrat has grabbed incredible power over U.S. climate policy—and therefore, over the future of the entire planet, according to some experts. One energy lobbyist, caught on video by Greenpeace, even called him a “kingmaker.”
Ads urging Facebook users to call Manchin were viewed twice as many times as the No. 2 politician in the campaign, Colorado Democrat Sen. John Hickenlooper, whose ads received an estimated 539,000 views, according to InfluenceMap. Hickenlooper had publicly called for adding a carbon tax to Build Back Better.
“Sen. Hickenlooper is voting to raise taxes on gas,” the text of one ad said. “Inflation is already skyrocketing, and now Sen. Hickenlooper wants to put our economy, national security, and environment at risk?”
The ad gave Hickenlooper’s office phone number in Denver, Colorado, and urged Facebook users to “Call now!”
Despite the ad’s suggestion that raising taxes on natural gas would put “environmental progress at risk,” many climate activists and experts say they favor putting a tax on greenhouse gas emissions and that rising natural gas production is becoming a significant driver of climate change.
Arizona’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat who has infuriated the left and her own former supporters by helping stymie Biden’s agenda, ranked ninth in the campaign, with ads that got an estimated 265,000 views, according to InfluenceMap.
The campaign was only one slice of a larger amount of ads promoting fossil fuels or the companies that deal in them on Facebook. InfluenceMap estimates that oil companies and groups spent a combined $22.2 million on Facebook ads in 2020 and 2021, including the likes of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Texas Oil and Gas Association. Those ads were seen around 739 million times over the past two years, according to InfluenceMap.
For its part, the American Petroleum Institute has been harshly criticized for its messaging around climate change. Critics have pointed out that the trade association works to stop Congress from advancing environmental legislation, while its members run ads promoting their clean-energy investments.
Still, the leadership of the American Petroleum Institute has been frank about the group’s aim to counter key climate and energy pieces of Build Back Better.
“We're leaving everything on the field here in terms of our opposition to anti-energy provisions,” Mike Sommers, the Institute’s president and CEO, said last October in an interview with CNN. “We're using every tool at our disposal to work against these proposals.”
In a comment to VICE News, a spokesperson for the group framed the ad-buys as an effort to promote American energy over foreign production. She said the group shares the goal of addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing global temperatures to rise.
“At a time of record inflation and rising geopolitical tensions, proposals to tax U.S. natural gas and restrict energy development run counter to our shared climate goals and would likely lead to higher energy costs and greater reliance on foreign energy from lower environmental standards,” American Petroleum Institute Senior Vice President of Communications Megan Bloomgren told VICE News in a statement.
“Our social media posts to inform the debate around energy and climate policy represent a small fraction of spending compared to the robust investments our companies make every day into breakthrough technologies aimed at capturing methane, advancing hydrogen and accelerating [carbon capture technology],” she wrote.
Build Back Never
Sommers singled out two provisions in the Build Back Better plan that he said his group wanted to push back on during his October interview with CNN.
One was a proposed fee on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The proposal, which would have charged some oil and gas production facilities for releasing methane above a certain threshold, would have been the first time the federal government had effectively slapped a tax on the emission of a greenhouse gas.
The group also took aim at the Clean Electricity Payment Program, which would have offered incentives to electricity providers to increase clean energy and punished those who didn’t. The goal was to ensure that 80% of U.S. electricity came from green sources by 2030.
The group has said it supports reducing methane emissions through federal regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, rather than taxation; that it supports putting a price on carbon; and that all of its messaging in the climate debate is based on government studies and independent analyses.
“Natural gas is the leading reason the U.S. has reduced CO2 emissions to generational lows, and exporting that progress abroad by enabling coal-reliant nations to turn to cleaner fuels is critical to reducing emissions globally,” Bloomgren wrote.
“Reducing methane emissions is a priority for our industry, and we are committed to advancing the development, testing, and utilization of new technologies and practices to better understand, detect, and further mitigate emissions,” Bloomgren continued. “The methane regulations currently underway at EPA are the most effective way to accelerate progress, and any new natural gas tax would be duplicative of those efforts and limit direct investments to reduce emissions. This is the wrong approach to our shared climate goals."
The recent Facebook campaign contrasts with a letter signed by two of the group’s members, Shell and BP, urging Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to finalize negotiations over Build Back Better, and praising the plan’s clean energy investments as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Facebook, for its part, has made numerous attempts to revise its handling of political ads, with limited success. For example, researchers found that 70,000 political ads slipped through a ban that was put in place around the time of the 2020 election. Facebook has also faced criticism for failing to do enough about climate change misinformation and denialism.
A spokesperson for Facebook’s parent company, Meta, pointed out that TV networks also play ads promoting fossil fuels, and pointed to its climate information initiative, which directs users towards scientifically-accurate information about climate change.
“While ads like these run across many platforms, including television, Facebook offers an extra layer of transparency by requiring them to be available to the public in our Ad Library,” the Meta spokesperson told VICE News. “We reject ads when one of our independent fact-checking partners rates them as false or misleading and take action against Pages, Groups, accounts, and websites that repeatedly share content rated false. Our Climate Science Information Center is also available in 150 countries across the globe.”
For now, Manchin’s refusal to offer his support in a 50-50 Senate appears to have doomed Build Back Better. Manchin has said that he’s open to working on an alternative climate plan, while cautioning that the country needs to be “realistic” about its options.
In the wake of the bill’s demise, some Democrats are urging the president to move ahead with the $555 billion in clean energy investments from Build Back Better as a standalone.
In a letter to Biden this week, legislators cited wildfires in western states and storm damage along the coasts to underscore the need for action.
“As the deadly and devastating consequences of the climate crisis made clear throughout 2021, the time for transformational climate action is right now,” they wrote.
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