Pacific Sun, "The Greenwashing of Black Gold."
The Pacific Sun
Upfront: The greenwashing of black gold
Industry's oil-is-good campaign would even impress Don Draper...
On one side of a split screen an earnest
African-American eighth-grader looks into the camera proudly and
demonstrates how a robotic arm he made can raise a cup. "Isn't that
cool?" he says with a wide smile. On the other side a Chevron geologist
says, "A high school science teacher made me what I am today. Now I get
to help science teachers. Isn't that cool?"
The TV ad is part of a Chevron campaign called We
Agree. The geologist says that during the last three years his company
has "put over $100 million into American education. That's thousands of
kids learning to love science." The ad is crafted with the same kind of
dedication Don Draper uses in his Mad Men marketing to push booze and cigarettes.
The Chevron TV ad is greenwashing. And it's just
one spot in a series that features a sympathy-inducing member of the
public followed by a Chevron employee pushing a greenwashing finish. Oil
shale gas needs to be good for everyone states one spot. I agree, says a
company representative. The campaign even includes an ad that touts
Chevron's work in Nigeria sending people into local communities to teach
residents about HIV/AIDS.
Chevron isn't the only oil and gas company using a
modern melding of advertisement and public service spots to demonstrate
inherent goodness. ExxonMobil runs messages with sweet graphics and a
soothing voice-over encouraging people to join the company and "inspire
teachers." Oil and gas companies are spending millions to convince
people there's some goodness in what many environmentalists and
sustainability proponents see as the heart of darkness.
Why spend all that money on marketing campaigns of
persuasion? According to oil industry expert and activist Antonia
Juhasz, author of Black Tide, The Tyranny of Oil and The Bush Agenda,
"The advertising serves two functions." Juhasz has appeared on many TV
and radio shows and holds various positions at a number of
nongovernmental organizations; she also worked as a legislative
assistant to representatives John Conyers, D-Mich., and Elijah Cummings,
D-Md. She says the We Agree campaign taps into a kind of perverse wish
fulfillment worthy of the most masterful advertising executives selling
an inherently unpleasant product.
"Nobody likes the oil industry," Juhasz says.
"Nobody thinks they're a nice industry. But [people] are willing to
believe that it's doing the best that it can and is helping" to deal
with problems people around the world face. "I don't think the ads
convince people that the oil industry is a clean, safe, humane
industry." But the ads "convince people that they can sort of turn away
and worry about other issues. The industry convinces people that it's as
good as it's going to get. The oil industry hopes we will ignore it and
let it go about its business."
The more the industry can portray itself as
caring, says Juhasz, the more it can convince people that although the
oil and gas industry might not be humanitarian, it isn't "a pillager."
The sophistication in the copywriting, casting, lighting, photography
and all the other pieces of the advertising toolbox on display in the We
Agree campaign is an overwhelmingly persuasive force. Don Draper knows
the power of persuasion. So do Chevron and British Petroleum and the
other multinational oil companies.
Juhasz sees another tactic that makes a regular
appearance on TV screens these days. Ad campaigns to convince people
about the inherent goodness of hydraulic fracturing and so-called clean
coal require an alternate marketing route to convince and persuade.
"When [the industry] talks about issues the American public doesn't have
a lot of information about, like fracking and clean coal," it uses
tactics similar to how it framed the debate over climate change.
"The industry sought not to convince us that there
wasn't a problem, but rather that there was a debate among experts."
The goal in the climate change marketing scheme, says Juhasz, was to
convince the public that ordinary people couldn't possibly understand
the complexities of climate change if scientists were still debating the
issue. "If they show us some commercials that fracking and coal are
clean and safe, and they provide jobs, then a public that has a lot of
other things to worry about will just agree that the experts will have
to figure things out, and when they do, then we will form our opinion."
The strategy is the same as the We Agree campaign: "to get us to ignore
them and let them go about their business."
The power of persuasion demonstrated in the We
Agree campaign is echoed in the British Petroleum ads telling people how
wonderfully the Gulf has recovered after the worst maritime
environmental disaster—caused by deep-well drilling—in the country's
history. The BP spots also use warm and cuddly people to convince.
Company spokespeople make a point of saying how BP is investing in local
communities. The ads don't mention that the investment is part of a
legal requirement BP must fulfill.
The BP strategy aims to blunt and deflect what
should be a serious move to hold the oil company accountable, says
Juhasz. "It's misrepresenting the conditions of the Gulf, and it's
misrepresenting them so the American public won't [demand] the
Department of Justice hold [BP] to the full account of the law." The ads
try to ensure that "we won't take the very specific actions that we can
take." Juhasz says people have the power to call on the Justice
Department and elected officials and ask that they do what should be
done under law: make BP deliver full restitution and full restoration
and address full economic harm. The industry "would very much like us
not to do that."
The warm and fuzzy ads have a hard-edge intent
that skirts rules regulating greenwashing. Although the federal
government as well as state governments can have laws that prohibit
out-and-out lies in company commercials touting green attributes,
there's a paucity of action taken against violators. And the oil
companies know how far they can go in their feel-good campaigns.
"Chevron actually does make token investments in
Angola," for instance, says Juhasz, "and they make an advertisement
saying they do. But if I made an advertisement showing the oil spills,
the support from a brutal regime, worker injustices, that also would be a
true commercial." The BP situation in the Gulf is similar. "BP is
making investments in the Gulf." But, says Juhasz, the company is
walking a fine line when it says in its commercials that everything is
clean and safe. "That is absolutely not true. But you can find a beach
on any given day that is clean; you also can find a beach on any given
day that has oil on it."
The power of the oil industry greenwashing
campaigns is being replicated on a grand scale in ad campaigns designed
to convince the public that hydraulic fracturing is a clean and safe
extraction method. But scientific evidence has mounted that it's not
clean and safe. The industry certainly has misgivings about letting the
public know what materials it uses to fracture rock and how it disposes
of the materials after using them. Much of the debate over fracking has
focused on gas recovery in New York and other states. North Carolina
recently approved fracking regulations and opened the door to
Most Californians are unaware that companies have
been fracking in the state for a long time. According to a report
compiled by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), at least six counties
in the state—Kern, Los Angeles, Monterey, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and
Ventura—have been the site of fracking operations for decades. In
California, the extraction method brings up oil rather than gas, but the
same concerns exist. EWG, a nongovernmental nonprofit organization,
reported that the number of fracked wells is uncertain, but the number
likely is in the thousands. The exact number and the true nature of the
materials used in the process are unclear because the oil industry wants
it that way. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that
chemicals used in fracking in Wyoming had infiltrated the groundwater.
And according to numerous studies, chemicals used in fracking operations
are carcinogenic and otherwise toxic.
The industry prevented a bill in California aimed
at tightening fracking regulations in the state from proceeding. But
just last month legislators in Sacramento took action that might
eventually lead to tougher fracking standards here. The Assembly
Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation approved the governor's
request to add 18 positions in the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal
Resources. The governor's goal is to expedite drilling permits, many of
which are now stuck in a backlog. Legislators said OK, but they called
for adding new guidelines for fracking. The language of the deal gives
regulators until 2014 to fashion new regulations.
Fracking opponents have raised concern that in the
end the oil industry will succeed in protecting information regarding
the exact nature of materials and chemicals it uses to frack wells. The
industry has claimed that information is proprietary, frustrating
efforts to collect data.
"The oil industry says there's still debate" about
possible harmful effects of fracking, says Juhasz. "That's not my
reading. They have stressed that even if it has been unsafe in the past,
they now know how to do it better. But all the evidence that I have
read shows the contrary. They are well aware of the dangers associated
with fracking. They think the benefits outweigh the costs."
The oil and gas industry views the money spent on
ads pushing greenwashing as a wise investment that will help them
maintain business as usual. That business receives massive public
subsidies every year in the United States and around the world. And that
in a time of record profits. An organization called the Oil Change
International estimates that subsidies in this country range between $10
billion and $52 billion annually. The high estimate takes into account
the cost of protecting foreign investment and engaging in a Mideast war.
The inability to excise the oil subsidies from the federal budget is a
testament to the political power the industry has bought, especially in
the Republican Party through campaign contributions. It's also a
testament to the effectiveness of greenwash marketing that lulls the
public into accepting an unsustainable oil-based status quo.
But Juhasz sees the possibility of change. Here
and around the world people and organizations are uniting to break oil
subsidy bonds. "I see the [effort] building. You can see 350.org and the
Sierra Club for the first time launching campaigns targeted at the oil
industry and subsidies. They are joining other environmental groups that
have been working for some time but who have needed a lot more support.
"I think the American public has started to see
that just because the oil industry is as wealthy and powerful as it is,
it doesn't always get what it wants." As proof, Juhasz points to the
work in progress to block the Keystone Pipeline and the 2008
presidential election. The oil industry poured record amounts of money
into the unsuccessful attempt to elect the "Drill, Baby, Drill" team of
McCain and Palin.
But the struggle to convince never ends, for the
oil industry and for those who call on it to act in the better interests
of society and the environment—minus the greenwashing.
Contact the writer at email@example.com.