Documents tabled in the US congress show Chevron plans to run its Gorgon gas plant in Western Australia until at least 2056, exploiting other companies’ transitions to cleaner energy. By Lyndal Rowlands.

Subpoenas reveal scale of Chevron’s Australian ambitions

A TV screen in a US Congress building shows a Caucasian man in his 60s with white hair, rectangular glasses and a striped tie who appears to be speaking. Below the TV are two people wearing masks and a television camera.
ExxonMobil chief executive Darren Woods testifies virtually to congress.
Credit: Tom Brenner / Reuters

A United States congressional committee investigating fossil fuel disinformation has published internal documents on a major Australian fossil fuel project – described by energy multinational Chevron as “an Australian icon” – in what has become the investigation’s final publication before Republicans took control of congress on Tuesday.

The second and final memo, released by the US house oversight and reform committee, includes information from internal documents subpoenaed by the committee about Chevron’s plans to extract gas from its Gorgon project on Barrow Island, off the coast of Western Australia, beyond 2056. The committee included Gorgon as an example of how the industry is “doubling down on long-term fossil fuel investments” while publicly claiming that gas is “merely a ‘bridge fuel’ ” to cleaner energy in spite of scientists’ “significant concerns about continued reliance on natural gas in a warming climate”.

The committee released memos in September and December last year, alongside thousands of pages of internal documents subpoenaed from BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute. A sixth subpoena issued to the American Chamber of Commerce did not result in any documents being provided.

The two memos include references to the Australian activities of three of the four big oil companies it investigated – BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil – however, the December 2022 memo includes a particularly detailed focus on the Gorgon project, a joint venture led by Chevron, with partners including Shell and ExxonMobil.

In total, more than 200 of the 589 pages of Chevron documents published by the committee in December relate to Chevron’s operations in Australia, although many are covered almost completely by black boxes. The documents include a heavily redacted 179-page binder provided to Chevron board members visiting Australia and the Gorgon project in 2016, including details ranging from cultural advice on how to order a flat white to information on Chevron’s long-term ambitions for what it is describing as the “largest single-resource development in Australia’s history”.

According to the committee, internal documents shared with the board by then chief executive John S. Watson “emphasize” Chevron’s “long-term intentions for [Gorgon], despite climate concerns” and “the profits Chevron predicts it will reap”.

The memo describes how Chevron extracted hundreds of millions of tonnes of oil from its so-called “billion-barrel oilfield” at Barrow Island since the project’s beginning in 1964. It transitioned to gas extraction in 2016. The company is now “poised to continue fossil fuel extraction at the sensitive Class A Nature Reserve on an even larger scale”, according to the memo.

The “2.6 billion barrels of oil equivalent” Chevron expects to yield from Gorgon over the coming decades is, as the committee’s memo observes, “eight times larger than the company’s total extraction of oil over 50 years at Barrow Island”. As a footnote in the memo notes, Chevron also has plans to produce 1.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent from the adjoining Wheatstone gas project.

The documents show Chevron’s plans for new “gas exploration campaigns” off Australia’s north-west coast, to keep its facilities operating “at capacity”.

Chevron’s Australian plans were included in the memo as examples of broader expansion strategies revealed by the internal documents. According to the committee, the documents reveal that Chevron “is prepared to swoop in and expand its own fossil fuel business … even if other companies ultimately agree to reduce oil and gas production or substantially diversify into non-emitting energy”.

For example, a presentation attributed to Chevron chief executive and chairman Mike Wirth, delivered to the Chevron board in July 2021, states that Chevron sees its “traditional energy business competitors retreating” from oil and gas, noting that “diverging strategies create opportunities”.

Of the unredacted pages related to Chevron’s Gorgon trip, some are less pertinent than others. A cultural information section explains how light mocking should be considered “friendly banter” and not “an insult”. A rare unredacted section of the agenda shows the executives, directors and spouses were scheduled to receive a two-hour overview of Australian politics from Peter van Onselen, who is introduced as contributing editor at The Australian.

The December 2022 memo was not the first time the Gorgon project attracted the committee’s attention. Its September 2022 memo noted a carbon capture and storage facility at Gorgon that had “repeatedly failed to meet its storage target by about 50%” as an example of problems with that technology.

Another Australian example included in the December memo relates to BP’s strategies towards working with regulators here. A 2016 email from a BP executive to John Mingé, chairman and president of BP America, compares the company’s mindset in engaging with regulators in countries including Australia, the US and Germany.

The email describes how BP had gained an “advantaged position” with the regulator of its Australian oil refinery by engaging “proactively”. According to the internal memo, BP documents provided to the committee “show BP executives acknowledging that the company’s actions are often obstructionist towards the development of climate policy”.

Overall, the internal documents, along with further scientific sources cited by the memo, reveal that many of the public claims made by fossil fuel companies have been intentionally misleading.

As the committee’s then chair, Carolyn Maloney, said at a hearing in February: the investigation revealed that ExxonMobil scientists knew about the dangers of fossil fuels in 1978, and in the decades since, the fossil fuel industry has “waged a multimillion-dollar disinformation campaign” to prevent climate action, “all to protect its bottom line”.

She said that information obtained by the committee during its investigation also shows that “big oil intends to continue its playbook from the last four decades, fighting meaningful efforts to fight climate change”.

On Tuesday, after Republicans regained their majority in congress, they wasted no time in removing the memo and other documents published by the previous committee from the website. It is understood these documents may later be republished in a new section of the site managed by the Democrat minority in congress.

The committee’s page now includes a December 9 press release from the incoming Republican chair of the committee, James Comer, describing the memo as “the grand finale of a partisan show designed to demonize America’s energy producers”.

The current uncertainty around the future of the committee’s investigation contrasts starkly with the spectacle of the investigation’s first hearing in October 2021, when, for the first time in history, the chief executives of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell testified before congress, under subpoena from the committee.

By February 2022, and again in March 2022, board members of these same companies declined to appear before the committee.

At hearings held in September 2022, the committee reached another milestone, hearing testimonies from people affected by climate-induced disasters, including hurricanes and wildfires.

Separately, the committee subpoenaed paperwork from BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute after finding it had many questions still unanswered by the chief executives’ testimonies. The companies complied, reportedly providing close to one million documents.

Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, a Washington, DC-based organisation that has been tracking the committee’s investigation, told The Saturday Paper that companies were trying “to bury the committee in documents”.

In the end, the committee’s small staff had little more than a year to sift through the documents before losing their majority in the house.

On December 25, journalist Amy Westervelt reported that, contrary to previous plans stated by the committee during its term, the December 9 memo may be the last document it publishes.

That same week, the new chair of the Democratic minority in the house oversight committee, Jamie Raskin, shared that he had been diagnosed with lymphoma.

The committee’s work being abruptly curtailed after only 18 months contrasts with the long-term time scales of the companies it is investigating, such as Chevron’s plans to secure profits beyond 2050. The Saturday Paper put a request for comment to Chevron but did not hear back before going to press.

Although the committee’s investigation is on hold, the US is significantly in front of Australia in its attempts to hold fossil fuel companies accountable.

Last month, Puerto Rico became the latest US jurisdiction to file climate accountability lawsuits against fossil fuel companies, joining dockets filed by seven US states and at least 35 municipal governments.

Puerto Rico – an unincorporated territory of the US in the Caribbean, where storms made worse by climate change have caused major recent disasters – is the first to use the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in its climate fraud case against Shell and other companies.

According to Wiles, it could be a “big loss” for these cases if the million pages held by the committee “never see the light of day”.

“The documents that have been released so far definitely provide new evidence on the side of the plaintiffs against the defendants.”

In Australia there are currently at least two court cases related to so-called greenwashing making their way through courts, including one case lodged by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

In 2022, two Australian regulators, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, announced plans to investigate greenwashing using existing laws.

Considering the memo’s revelation that BP has internally described its more proactive approach of working with regulators in Australia, it is unclear to what extent regulators alone can address the industry’s influence.

While Australia does have political avenues such as senate inquiries or royal commissions with similar investigative powers to the house oversight committee, to date these systems have not been used. The remit of Australian investigations such as the 2020 bushfires royal commission did not extend to the role of fossil fuel companies in climate change.

It’s currently unclear if the Democrat majority in the senate or the Biden White House will pick up the investigation as Democrats become a minority in congress.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 7, 2023 as "Subpoenas reveal scale of Chevron’s Australian ambitions ".

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