Challenging Another Year of Oil Company Promises

December 15, 2021

WatchDog Opinion: Challenging Another Year of Oil Company Promises


EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2022 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

By Joseph A. Davis

Disinformation kills. And in the coming year, we are likely to see more of it.

There has long been plenty of disinformation on the environment beat. It’s as harmful as the censorship we decry — but much tougher to spot and remedy under deadline pressure.

Portion of a 2017 oil industry print ad touting the use of petroleum makeup and fragrances. Image: American Petroleum Institute. Click to enlarge.

For many years, much of the disinformation was about tobacco, from the industry which virtually wrote the disinformation playbook. But since then, a similar struggle for hearts and minds (and headlines) has continued for decades over the harmful health effects of pesticides and other chemicals.

And today, disinformation-driven ideological resistance to science on COVID-19 vaccines and masks is killing people in large numbers.

Disinformation, by intent, deprives people of access to true and cogent information that they need in order to decide on and act in their own best interests and those of their neighbors, families and co-workers.

Because disinformation is subtle, deceptive, nearly invisible and worse, often subjective, we journalists don’t gripe about it very often.


Decades-old war over climate change perceptions

The role of public relations firms in climate change politics was made clear with a spate of stories in December that picked up on a peer-reviewed paper in the journal Climatic Change by Brown University researchers that extensively cataloged the firms’ work and its emphasis on delaying government action.


Journalists might well want to

ask themselves whether they have been

falling for such  “fake news” and how

they can protect their readers from it.


It should be a sobering moment for journalists, who might well want to ask themselves whether they have been falling for such “fake news” and how they can protect their readers from it.

It was news, but it wasn’t really news, since it merely marked the latest dispatch from a war of perceptions that had been going on for decades.

The scale of the PR war on climate is huge. The American Petroleum Institute spent at least $439.7 million at PR firm Edelman since 2008 — and there are many other fossil fuel industry organizations hiring many other PR firms. That’s what will produce scads of disinformation in 2022.

The fact that it was news at all betrayed the sad fact that many in the news media were not sufficiently aware of it. Worse yet, a look at the coverage in recent years suggests the news media have not been sufficiently skeptical of the narratives woven by fossil fuel industries and their PR firms.

The best hope of less disinformation in 2022 will come if media start publishing less of it and debunking more of it.


Watch the wording

In the last several years, we have seen a parade of corporations (not just fossil fuel companies) loudly and publicly announcing pledges to address climate — typically to achieve “net zero” by some date years off.


We have seen many news media reporting

these pledges almost stenographically, without

much offsetting doubt. Instead, we need to

watch the wording of these pledges carefully.


We have also seen many news media reporting these pledges almost stenographically, without much offsetting doubt. Instead, we need to watch the wording of these pledges carefully.

For example, last year Exxon said it “plans to reduce the intensity of operated upstream greenhouse gas emissions by 15 to 20 percent by 2025, compared to 2016 levels.” Start with the words intensity and upstream. They essentially mean that Exxon will emit less greenhouse gas at the wellhead while continuing to produce the same number of barrels of oil. Somebody will buy and burn those barrels — producing carbon dioxide — but Exxon doesn’t want to be blamed for it.

Today, one gimmick you see often in the TV ads is an emphasis on the natural gas (fossil methane) that petroleum companies produce instead of crude oil. Today, they call their business “gas and oil” instead of “oil and gas.”

It is actually true that electric generating plants in the U.S. have been shifting from coal as a fuel to natural gas, and thus emitting less carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated. But they are still emitting carbon dioxide — as opposed to less carbon-intensive renewables like solar and wind.

DeSmog, a publication that has tried to cut through the PR haze, has analyzed and debunked many petroleum industry claims. Of course, the big tip-off comes when companies stop selling oil and gas and start selling “energy” in ads like this.


Hype over ‘net-zero’?

Another term found often in corporate claims is “net-zero.” It can mean lots of things — or almost nothing — but often suggests that carbon dioxide emissions will be negated by buying offsets, such as credits for planting or preserving trees.

The offsets market (like many kinds of promises) is often overhyped. Journalist Lisa Song has documented how carbon credits often don’t reduce pollution as much as they claim to or are often quickly reversed.

The PR industry often emphasizes that the fossil fuel industry is pushing forward with technology to counter climate change. Never mind that we already have plenty of technology, in the form of wind and solar, that will do the job.

Oil companies like to brag about their ventures into carbon capture and storage, or CCS, which isn’t actually new. CCS is more expensive than switching to renewables, may not work at scale and helps oil companies pump even more oil for polluters to burn.

The climate disinformation problems are so severe that they have begun to spark turmoil (may require subscription) in the image-conscious PR industry itself.

Of course, that’s the PR industry’s own problem. The part that journalists can do something about is their own reporting. We may be doing nobody a favor by just relaying uncritically and unskeptically the endless train of pledges from fossil fuel companies about how committed they are to tackling climate change … someday, somehow.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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