Continuing Tuesday, April 26 at 9 p.m.
This Earth Month, FRONTLINE will present The Power of Big Oil — an epic three-part documentary series investigating the decades-long failure to confront the threat and increasing impacts of climate change, and the role of the fossil fuel industry and one of its biggest players, ExxonMobil.
From a team of award-winning filmmakers and journalists, including Dan Edge, Jane McMullen, Gesbeen Mohammad, Robin Barnwell, Sara Obeidat, Emma Supple and Russell Gold, The Power of Big Oil offers a deeply researched investigation of what scientists, corporations and politicians have known about human-caused climate change for decades, and the missed opportunities to mitigate the problem.
The docuseries spans more than 40 years and multiple presidential administrations, drawing on newly uncovered documents and more than 100 interviews with key players, including scientists who worked inside and outside the industry, politicians, executives, and lobbyists — some speaking for the first time who express regret.
“I had misgivings about just telling half the story. … I wish I weren’t a part of that, looking back. I wish I weren’t a part of, of delaying action. You know, clearly on the wrong side of history,” says Paul Bernstein, former economic consultant for Charles River Associates, a firm that worked for the American Petroleum Institute.
The Power of Big Oil charts when the fossil fuel industry began researching climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects, and, as demand for and dependence on oil increased, investigates the lengths the industry went to cast doubt on the science, influence public perception, and block action from the 1980s to the present day.
“I’m 83 years old. Three or four decades ago, we predicted it,” says Martin Hoffert, a former NASA physicist who worked as a consultant for Exxon in the 1980s. “To have those predictions come true, that’s sort of the golden icon that you look for as a scientist. However, as a human being, and as an inhabitant of planet Earth, I’m horrified to watch the lack of response to this.”
Even as the evidence grew more certain about climate change in the new millennium, The Power of Big Oil examines the industry’s efforts to stall climate policy.
“The industry is a great lobbyist,” says former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman. “There was obviously no appetite for any mention of climate change. That was it. I mean, you just didn’t talk about it. And I just had had enough.”
ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies defended their records. “We have continued to maintain a position that has evolved with science and is today consistent with the science,” said Darren Woods, chair and CEO of ExxonMobil, in an October 2021 congressional hearing.
“What we now know about some of these large oil companies’ positions, and what they did know and they didn’t tell us or they didn’t recognize, they lied. And yes, I was misled,” says former U.S. senator and secretary of defense Chuck Hagel. “It would have put the United States and the world on a whole different track. And today we would have been so much further ahead than we are. It’s cost this country, and it cost the world.”
As the world’s leading climate scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issue new warnings about the dangers of climate change, and as the war on Ukraine highlights the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and Russia’s status as a top oil exporter, The Power of Big Oil examines the ongoing efforts to hold the industry accountable. It is an urgent and essential documentary series to help understand how we got here.