Anyone who watches television, browses the Web or reads print media is probably familiar with the feel-good ads touting the big oil companies as green and eager to lead the way to clean energy technology. Some are cute and animated; some tug at the heartstrings with scenes of natural beauty.
And all of them are what amounts to “greenwashing,” according to a report prepared in March by the Center for American Progress and posted in two parts on the Climate Progress blog beginning on May 27. The Center for American Progress (CAP) is a think tank with offices in Washington and California that says one of its four major goals this year is “Seizing the energy opportunity to create a clean, innovation-led economy that supports a sustainable environment.”
CAP’s analysis says that the green advertising campaigns were the oil companies’ attempt to bolster their image and blunt public criticism at a time when soaring gasoline prices were devastating household budgets and contributing to job losses. High oil prices in 2008 translated into huge profits for the oil companies, the report said. Even though oil prices dropped in the fourth quarter of 2008, the record-high profits through the first three quarters meant that the five biggest oil companies – BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, ExxonMobil and Shell – had combined profits of $100 billion for the year.
CAP said that the boom year of 2008 topped off a lucrative run for the big oil companies throughout the Bush administration. Their combined profits for the eight years were $656 billion, the report said. “Precious little” of that windfall was used for anything that would promote a greener and cleaner future, the report said.
Despite the millions the companies have spent on ads promoting their concern for the environment and their emphasis on innovative technology, the CAP analysis found that they actually were “very stingy with investments in renewable and low-carbon energy technologies and fuels that would reduce oil dependence.” The big five oil companies invested 4 percent of their near-record 2008 profits in such ventures, CAP reported.
Not only did the big oil companies invest little of their profits into real efforts to develop cleaner technologies and fuels, they also were actively working against such efforts through lobbying efforts and donations to groups and to politicians through political action committees.
ExxonMobil, for example, spent $100 million on advertising in 2007 (the most recent figure available), some of which talked about its efforts to combat global warming. At the same time, CAP reports, ExxonMobil was giving millions of dollars to organizations that were working to deny the reality of climate change and humans’ role in it.
While the individual companies spend millions on advertising to portray themselves as green, their combined lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute, has been buying ads arguing that oil is the best fuel for the future and urging support for more offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, CAP noted.
CAP reported that although ExxonMobil reaped the biggest profits of all the oil companies in 2008, it invested the least in renewable energy in both absolute dollars and percentage of earnings – less than 1 percent.
The other big oil companies don’t look much better when CAP compares their environmentally friendly ads to their actual environmental efforts. Chevron, for example, has a major “I Will” campaign urging Americans to join it in efforts to cut energy use, but Chevron invested only 5 percent of its $23.9 billion profits in 2008 to renewable and alternative energy projects. Chevron’s reports also show that it does not plan to reduce its own greenhouse-gas emissions, CAP said.
BP has a division devoted to “alternative energy,” and it says that it plans to invest $8 billion over 10 years to alternative and renewable energy techniques. CAP said that the $800 million a year is “a paltry sum” in light of the $125 billion BP earned during the Bush years. It also said that BP has recently laid off workers and canceled clean-energy projects in the United Kingdom but forged ahead with a project to extract oil from tar sands in Canada, an expensive and environmentally damaging process. BP has cheery animated “green” commercials and uses a green-and-yellow flower as its symbol.
Shell Oil, similarly, has abandoned many of its solar projects in recent years, has announced a moratorium on new investments in wind and solar energy, and is pursuing tar sand projects in Canada, CAP said. It also noted that one of Shell’s “greenwashing” ads in 2007 was so outrageous that it caused a controversy in Europe and was banned in Britain. Shell has a major Web advertising campaign focusing on its technology and innovation, the report said, but much of that is actually aimed not at cleaner fuels but at ways to extract oil from difficult sources.
ConocoPhillips has been emphasizing biofuels, the report said. It lumps them and all other renewable and alternative projects into its “emerging businesses” segment, which also includes new products based on petroleum and technologies to make liquid fuels from coal.
The CAP report said that the oil companies’ green advertising campaigns were designed to convince the public that “they were part of the energy solution, instead of part of the energy problem.” But its analysis finds that the companies’ investments and actions do not support that message.
Linda Brinson retired in November as the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. She is a member of First Baptist Church in Madison, N.C.