FRONTLINE’s new three-part series premiering this month, The Power of Big Oil, is a deeply researched investigation of what scientists, corporations, politicians and the public have known about climate change for decades and the many missed opportunities to mitigate the problem. The program airs Tuesdays—April 19 and 26 and May 3—at 10pm on GBH 2.
Spanning a half century and drawing on interviews with world leaders, oil industry scientists, whistleblowers, lobbyists and executives, as well as newly uncovered
internal documents, the films explore how industry was researching climate change as early as the 1970s, how it attempted to cast doubt on the science and how it exerted influence over public perception and policy.
Senior Producer Dan Edge gives us a glimpse into the series.
What compelled you to make these films?
Over the last few years, the effects of climate change have become our lived experience rather than something in the distant future. We wanted to answer a fairly simple question—how did we get here? What decisions were made, what opportunities were missed, what warnings were ignored that led us to this point? What did oil, gas and coal companies know about climate change, when did they know it, and what did they do with that knowledge?
What are the films’ important themes?
These films attempt to lay down in one place the decades-long history of groups and individuals who have attempted to block action and progress on climate change. We wanted to make films of record that will tell what many people regard to be the most important story on the planet right now.
What impact do you hope the series has?
One of our interviewees says: “You can’t understand where you are if you don’t know how you got there.” I think that’s been our guiding principle: Exploring the recent past to better understand the present. There has been a huge amount of misinformation about climate change over the past 30 years. I hope our series does a good job of explaining where that misinformation came from—and also of countering it.
What are your thoughts on the status of climate change science and public opinion about it?
The films explore how and when the science around climate change became certain. And it’s clear that any serious debate about human influence on the climate through fossil fuel combustion was really over and done with more than 20 years ago. The series explores how and why that basic truth was obfuscated—very successfully and very significantly—especially in the United States.
How did filming go during COVID?
I started developing the film five years ago, and we’ve been filming for about a year. We’ve interviewed more than 60 people in the U.S. and across Europe, with very strict COVID protocols. Travel logistics were extremely complex and difficult. But our filming teams spent months in the field and almost miraculously none of them got COVID.
What did you learn while researching and filming?
We have interviewed some fascinating scientists and engineers who worked for oil companies over the past four decades who are now reflecting back on their legacy. On the one hand, they spent their lives helping find oil and providing energy for the world. On the other, the product that they exploited and sold has caused climate change. And in some instances, the organizations that they were working for were deliberately spreading misinformation about climate change. Many of these interviewees are at the end of their lives now and struggling to reconcile these competing facts.
Watch the trailer here.