Big Oil Is Blocking Build Back Better—With Help From Manchin and Sinema

The big oil boys don’t care about the cost of Build Back Better or its social safety net advances. They’re single-minded: Kill the climate change provisions.

Protesters in 2015 call on the Commission on Human Rights to investigate fossil fuel companies. (AC Dimatatac / Flickr)

Hooray for the women of the U.S. House for exposing the men behind the curtain when it comes to opposition to President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) plan. While news outlets have been obsessed with much-touted infighting between factions of the Democratic party (most prominently so-called “moderate” Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema grandstanding daily about the plan’s cost), they’ve completely missed the real villains.

Big surprise: It’s big business—specifically big oil.

The big oil boys don’t care a fig about the cost of BBB, or whether it allows Medicare to negotiate drug prices, provide pre-kindergarten, paid family leave, help for caregivers, and other social safety net advances.

They’re single-minded: Kill the climate change provisions. But don’t do it openly—bad for business and bad for public image.

There’s a lot for big oil not to like. In addition to investing $27.5 billion to support the rapid deployment of low- and zero-emission technologies, BBB establishes a methane fee on pollution from the oil and gas industry above specific intensity thresholds. The fee builds on EPA’s existing Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, recognizes the cleanest performers, and holds individual companies responsible for their own leaks and excess methane pollution. It also invests $13.5 billion in electric vehicle infrastructure and development of a charging network to hasten the transition to zero emissions vehicles, including industrial and medium heavy duty vehicles like gasoline tank trucks.

In a recent landmark hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee chaired by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), it became crystal clear that big oil deserves a new name—big hypocrites. Ahead of the hearing, Maloney released a new staff analysis of fossil fuel industry lobbying data, showing that although the industry publicly pledges support for climate reforms, it devotes only a small fraction of lobbying resources to supporting climate measures. The industry actually spends billions to promote climate disinformation—primarily through lobbying they outsource to trade groups as a way to obscure their role in duping the public.

The fossil fuel industry spends billions to promote climate disinformation—primarily through lobbying, including against the Build Back Better plan.

The hearing laid bare the facts on just how much money big oil has already spent lobbying against BBB, specifically the climate change provisions. It exposed some large fossil fuel companies taking public stances in support of climate actions while privately investing overwhelmingly in fossil fuel extraction, supporting efforts to extend the life of those investments, and continuing to block reforms.

The committee included testimony from Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil; Michael Wirth, CEO of Chevron; David Lawler, CEO of BP America; and Gretchen Watkins, president of Shell Oil.

The oil execs were not short on chutzpah. While they did not dispute that climate change is a “code red for humanity,” they refused to take responsibility for decades of disinformation and would not pledge to end spending to block climate action.

A student protest against fossil fuel investments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in April 2014. (Joe Brusky / Flickr)

Under questioning from Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) who co-chaired the hearing, Exxon CEO Darren Woods admitted that statements made by Exxon’s CEO in 2002 that “science does not establish the linkage between fossil fuels and global warming” are scientifically inaccurate. However, he refused to apologize for this past disinformation, even though it contradicted the views expressed by Exxon scientists in internal communications to company executives.

Exxon CEO Darren Woods admitted that statements made by Exxon’s CEO in 2002 that “science does not establish the linkage between fossil fuels and global warming” are scientifically inaccurate.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a South Florida Democrat, compared alleged climate-disinformation campaigns through false advertising and front groups to the 1994 lies of tobacco execs who testified to Congress that nicotine in their cigarettes was not addictive.

“You work to crush good climate policies. … You’re no better than Big Tobacco,” Wasserman Schultz said at the hearing, accusing the oil executives of protecting their profits by derailing climate action that could have prevented chronic coastal flooding.

She took aim at other climate-change consequences hurting Florida property values, tourism and agriculture, adding, “I found that offensive, being from Ground Zero, where climate change is not a someday thing, it’s a right-now thing.”

It goes without saying that the women on Capitol Hill working hard to expose the gross duplicity of big oil are getting no help from the aforementioned Manchin and Sinema. Could it have less to do with their hand wringing over the cost of BBB—and more to do with the handouts they’re getting from big oil?

Sinema is No. 2 on the list of top recipients of Exxon’s largess compiled by the advocacy group Oil Change U.S. She raked in $70,800 in contributions from eight Exxon Mobil lobbyists, three of their lobbying firms, and the company PAC.

Manchin’s a hair lower at No. 4, scoring $64,864 from big oil.

Hypocrisy anyone?

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Martha Burk is money editor at Ms.