Bob Ridge wants to talk.
In fact, the VP of health, safety, and environment at ConocoPhillips says it’s been too long. You know, we should have sat down sooner — like before the American public began ranking his industry beneath tobacco peddlers.
Bob says that’s why his company is reaching out to “thought leaders and the public,” to “reestablish trust and relationship.”
I’m bobbing my head agreeably, already embarrassed by the dirty things I’ve said about the oil barons and their henchmen.
His sincerity, part fallen Dog the Bounty Hunter and part Burl Ives, punctures me like a diamond-studded drill bit. I want to leap up and tell Bob that I got here as quickly as I could, you know, but with traffic and work, and I only got the invitation last week and I was hoping ... It’s too much. I don’t know where to begin.
Wait a minute. Thought leaders? Relationship?
Of course, Ridge isn’t speaking to me, not personally. His scripted address is intended for all of us, this 150-odd crowd gathered at the University of Texas at San Antonio campus, and the millions beyond. The public-relations maneuver, billed as a “Conversation on Energy,” has Bob on a 33-city tour. We in San Antonio are stop 32.
Bob and ConocoPhillips are not alone in their foray into the cynical American wilds. Ever since Americans were forced to juxtapose the devastation of New Orleans with the record-breaking oil-industry profits that followed, companies like British Petroleum, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron have ramped their advertising campaigns into overdrive.
The Power of Human Energy.
And ConocoPhillips’s less-memorable Energy for Tomorrow.
Until this most recent wave struck, the most effective Big Oil redux came from Ogilvy Public Relations World Wide. In 1999, British Petroleum had just merged with Amoco and the then-conjoined twins proceeded to gobble up Arco and Burmah Castrol. While British Petroleum had been criticized in the past for claiming the environmental high ground while actively working to prevent new pollution-limiting regulations, its potentially criminal behaviors in Apartheid South Africa and terror-scorched Colombia had done a number on its reputation. The mass merger was an opportunity if not for redemption then at least reinvention. The next year “Beyond Petroleum” was born.
The “reformed sinner” approach, as one key public-relations expert cast it, worked — for a time. The vibrant green-and-yellow signs suggested something holistic, a many-petaled lotus of spiritual kinetics. It suggested something other than the crude combustion of petrol that remains the company’s principal product. Activist consumers awaited news of major new renewable investments. It was a wait in vain.
BP’s new-bought luster was already fading when the company’s Texas City refinery exploded in 2005, leaving 15 dead and as many as 100 injured. Then came inevitable questions about mismanagement that later carried over to the company’s repeated, major oil-pipeline ruptures that leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons into Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay and the Arctic Ocean.
Texas City was all but forgotten five months later when Katrina roared in from the Gulf, tearing up offshore oilfield equipment and land-based refineries before breaching the New Orleans levies. The whole world was watching.
“There was so much more attention to rebuilding the oil facilities as opposed to people’s homes,” said Diane Farsetta, senior researcher at the Center for Media & Democracy, a non-profit organization that monitors the active intersection of public relations and the media. “At the same time, we were hearing about these record-breaking profits that the oil companies were making. Ever since then it seems like we’ve been hearing about these campaigns.”
Record-high pump prices met record-high industry profits. The public was not amused. John Hofmeister hadn’t been president of Houston-based Shell Oil but a few months when the nightmare PR scenario began. It was a period of “intolerant debate” he would later say.
Exxon, in an attempt to explain how it could embrace historic profits while a neglected diaspora of survivors limped deeper into the Interior, launched a series of talks called “Energy Outlook.”
Chevron’s massive Human Energy advertising campaign soon followed, asking consumers to “join us.”
Interestingly, most of these efforts didn’t get underway until after voters turned Congress over to the Democrats in what was widely interpreted as an anti-war vote. (Voter surveys also turned up anger over the influence of Big Oil in politics.) Then Capitol Hill began to question the industry’s subsidies and, more recently, talk has turned to regulating carbon-dioxide emissions via taxes or a cap-and-trade system.
Things were getting serious.
Of course, the companies literally had decades to get ready for growing public and governmental interest in post-oil economies. Shrinking oil and gas reserves, rising world populations, health concerns linked to air and water pollution, and a growing body of scientific evidence about Global Warming were all open secrets more than 30 years ago.
Instead of leading in a new direction, the response of Big Oil has been Big Lobbying.
The company with zero investment in renewable energy technologies is the top spender.
ExxonMobil doused Washington during the 2006 election year with $14.5 million-worth of lobbyists and $833,000 in political donations, with a telling 90 percent going to Republicans. This year, the company spent $6.4 million on lobbyists.
By comparison, the other majors have spent more modestly, averaging around $2.5 million each this year and $3.8 million in ’06.
Meanwhile, the investments made by Chevron and ConocoPhillips in renewable technologies that could potentially break America’s oil “addiction,” as President Bush has termed it, is still less than one percent of their annual profits (.3 and .2, respectively), according to recent news reports. BP and Shell invest a fraction more. And ExxonMobil, of course, is NA.
“The bottom line is that for all these companies it’s about oil,” said Steve Kretzmann, executive director of D.C.-based Oil Change International. “Any attempt to sell themselves as anything other than oil companies is disingenuous.”
It becomes obvious fast that Bob isn’t in San Antonio to make any great promises about fighting Global Warming or significantly greening his company. He tells our group straightaway that the next 30 years belong to oil, natural gas, and coal. In the meantime, ConocoPhillips will be “keeping a watch on global climate change and our water resources.”
Even when it comes to research and development, two-thirds of the company’s research money still targets oil and gas rather than non-polluting renewable sources, we’re told. Internationally, this is expressed in ConocoPhillips’s multi-billion-dollar investment in the ecological disaster that is the Canadian tar sands. While the massive strip mines in Alberta, Canada, are believed to hold the highest petroleum reserves outside Saudi Arabia, removing them is considered the most polluting and energy-intensive form of petroleum extraction.
When I get my chance at the mic, I launch after the panel’s lone “environmentalist,” who used his three-minute intro to suggest that, yes, we need to protect our air, land, and water, but it is “disingenuous” (there’s that word again) “to blame the oil companies for Global Warming.”
Maybe, I say, but I wasn’t around when the Majors got mass transit removed from so many American cities almost a century ago, or all the years they colluded with the automotive industry to keep the pumps flowing, or these recent decades of fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain billions in subsidies even as the Earth overheated.
Am I rambling? Why does the master of ceremonies, this smiling Hispanic Chamber rep “AJ,” keep motioning for the mic back?
While my diatribe inspires a college prof on the panel to ask Bob directly if his company “greenwashes” to a predictable response, the gallery is not perceptively moved by my tirade.
It is only as I exit and a PR flack asks for our “surveys,” that it strikes me.
Surveys? I think. We didn’t get a survey.
She is gesturing toward to the paper in my hand. The one reading:
YES! I am interested in being more
involved in the Conversation on Energy.
n Serve on a local Conversation on Energy advisory committee through which your awareness and understanding of energy issues will be used to inform others in your community.
n Help inform ConocoPhillips about energy issues and events in my community through their website,
n Participate in online Conversation on Energy discussions.
n Communicate with local groups, organizations, officials, and media regarding Conversation on Energy news and issues.
Bob is not here to find out what we think about his company. What he wants is permission to function through us. Or, barring that, to delay or diffuse potentially damaging outbursts to our representatives in Congress. At least until the new Energy Bill is wrapped up next month, proposed Renewable Portfolio Standards are minimized, and the industry’s billions in subsidies are safe.
As Farsetta explains to my naïve self, efforts like the “Conversation” seek to “erase the perceived distinction of you as an individual and this huge oil company.” To suggest we are truly in this thing together on equal footing.
On this moonless night they came as Bob.
And, you know, he wasn’t a wanton, manipulative, power-mongering, multi-tentacled beast at all. He just happens to work for one. •
Truly Low Down
Big Oil’s percent of gross annual profits spent on …
*Companies sometimes buy up shares in their own companies to enhance the value of their stock by taking more shares off the market. This, in turn, can increase stockholder wealth.
Oil’s Pending Dread
Energy Bill of 2007: Could follow bold House measures or a weaker Senate version. House version would reduce O&G subsidies, raise auto mileage, and require the oil companies to invest in massive amounts of clean, renewable sources.
America’s Climate Security Act: This breakthrough bill taking aim at Global Warming would create a world where carbon credits are bought, sold, and traded by polluting industries. Drawbacks of the Lieberman-Warner bill include auto industry subsidies sans strings and a failure to assist truly clean energy development.
Chevron’s suspect device
Think running an Oil Major is so easy? Chevron challenges you to run power policy for just one city (willyoujoinus.com). Of course, establishment assumptions are hardwired in this Simms-style distraction. I immediately set strict conservation goals for Gangstaland and drag and drop as much solar and wind as allowed. Of course, nothing really gets started until I plant that offshore refinery.
Gaming for score exposes my hypocrisies. While I accidentally haul out a dastardly nuclear plant, I’m giddy when a national dump opens ahead of schedule. Not only do I now have somewhere to cart my deadly waste, but my score improves immediately. Growth is a given here, and solar typically isn’t viable until 2015. Most importantly, the true environmental costs of traditional energy development don’t come calling here. One can only hope that 2.0 includes a truer impact of militarized oilfields halfway around the world; Climate Change’s food-scarcity recipe and sea-level rise; and global health and wealth inequities. In the time it takes the world to gobble up another 880,000 barrels, I score 24,949th out of a supposed 661.7 million players.
My takeaway? Time for Chevron to quit making stupid PR games. Time for the rest of us to quit playing along.
— Greg Harman