Exxon defends its corner on climate change with TV adverts

Oil giant ExxonMobil has launched a series of TV and print advertising centred around the slogan "taking on the world's toughest energy challenges". Yet Exxon is still only "taking on" climate change where investments give the same financial yield as dirtier alternatives - leading to the accusation of "blatant greenwash" from campaign group StopEsso.

ExxonMobil's stance on climate change has left it highly exposed to campaigners who are intent on damaging its reputation.

The StopEsso campaign - run by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and student group People & Planet - is trying to force ExxonMobil into investing in renewables, and to stop backing the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol (ENDS Report 330, pp 25-28 ).

In February, FoE called on ExxonMobil to set aside a segregated fund to meet legal claims against it for damage caused by climate change. FoE estimates that the company is responsible for over 5% of carbon dioxide emissions over the last 120 years (ENDS Report 349, p 7 ).

Against this backdrop of negative publicity Esso has launched a campaign of four TV and print advertisements highlighting how the company is addressing the twin challenges of satisfying rising demand for energy and tackling greenhouse gas emissions.1 External affairs manager Howard Forti insists that ExxonMobil did not run the adverts as a response to the campaigns.

But, pointed out campaigner Cindy Baxter, the three countries where they are being shown - Germany, the UK and the US - have been the main targets for StopEsso. "Its quite a victory for the campaign that Exxon has had to explain itself through the adverts."

The common theme of the four adverts is technological development, with the main emphasis on a more efficient use of fossil fuels:

  • 3D seismic mapping: ExxonMobil pioneered this technique for finding new oil reserves and the whole industry now uses it.

  • Energy efficiency: Efficiency improvements in ExxonMobil's global operations have saved greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking a million cars off the road every year. The company has over 80 combined heat and power plants and is currently investing $850 million on increasing capacity.

  • Future fuels: The group's European business Esso is working on improving the internal combustion engine and on cleaner burning fuels that could make it work more efficiently.

    "Even a small improvement to the internal combustion engine now could make a significant difference to emissions sooner than alternatives," the advert reads.

    Esso is also exploring "a variety of different ways" to power cars in the future - including the use of hydrogen in fuel cells. However, StopEsso points out that Esso is developing onboard reformers to produce hydrogen from petrol - which will continue dependence on oil.

  • Research: "The world needs more energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions - and only one kind of power can deliver both," one advert says, displaying an image of an incandescent brain. "That's why Esso spends more on research than any other energy company."

    ExxonMobil is contributing $100 million to a $225 million research programme at Stanford University. Topics include generation of hydrogen from micro-organisms, CO2 capture and storage, "next generation coal", nuclear energy and renewables.

    Despite this research, ExxonMobil is still refusing to invest in renewables deployment.

    "In our view, current renewable technologies do not offer near-term promise for profitable investment relative to attractive opportunities that we see in our core business," the company says in a February report.2 Natural gas remains "a more attractive investment option," ExxonMobil believes. Even though gas use will grow more slowly than renewables until 2020, the absolute growth will still be 25 times higher, it claims. For the last five years ExxonMobil's return on capital was higher than its rivals Shell, BP or Chevron-Texaco.

    StopEsso dismisses the adverts as "blatant greenwash". "Using cleaner forms of fossil fuels is not enough. All Esso is doing is prolonging the shelf-life of their core business - oil."

    "Whilst giving lip service to the issue of climate change, Esso continues to try to stop the world from taking meaningful action to tackle the problem. Esso funds climate sceptic lobby groups and, unlike Shell and BP, is a staunch opponent of the Kyoto Protocol."

    The group has launched a new website listing organisations which it claims that ExxonMobil has funded.3 ExxonMobil maintains that this misrepresents their position: "We don't make any secret of the fact that we don't think that Kyoto is the right approach," Mr Forti said. "It is too short term and doesn't adequately address emissions from developing nations".

    But this opposition should not be interpreted as the company not taking climate change seriously, he said. The adverts were designed to show how Esso is addressing greenhouse gas abatement in the context of increasing demand for energy.

    "We're not advocating that society does nothing [about climate change] but that we take sensible steps to address it. Our role is to provide the energy the world needs. In so doing we have to act responsibly, including sound environmental practice".