February 11, 2020

Time to Wake Up: Bad Ads

As-prepared for delivery.

Mr./Mdm. President, I am here again as the Senate returns to its regular business, to call us to respond to the threat of climate change.

Here on the floor today, things seem back to normal. The floor is empty. The quorum calls descend between speakers. Our new pages are figuring out the routine.

Mr./Mdm. President, things are anything but normal.

The threat of climate change worsens by the minute. Carbon emissions continue to rise globally. We hurtle toward calamity. And yet we do not act.

What’s stopping us?

The biggest, most powerful, most motivated force preventing climate action is the fossil fuel industry. Of course it would be. The fossil fuel industry reaps the biggest subsidy in the history of the planet. The IMF estimates the global subsidy in the trillions every year.

In the United States alone, the fossil fuel industry got a $650 billion dollar subsidy in 2015, according to the most recent report from the IMF. That’s about $2,000 from every woman, man and child in the country.

To maintain its grip on that subsidy, fossil fuel companies deploy lots of propaganda on the American people. They swamp us in advertising. The game isn’t just to sell you their gas; it’s much bigger than that.

Professor Robert Brulle of Drexel University — now in Rhode Island at Brown University — and his coauthors wrote a recent article, “Corporate Promotion and Climate Change,” looking at oil companies’ carefully crafted public relations campaigns deployed since legendary muckraker Ida Tarbell chronicled the greed and cruelty of the Standard Oil Company.

To offset a reputation for greed and nastiness, “fossil fuel companies have attempted to burnish their image in various ways,” Brulle and his colleagues write, “from employee welfare programs in the early 1900s, through wartime industrial ‘statesmanship,’ and into contemporary multimedia promotional campaigns . . . to project the corporation as a positive, responsible, and legitimate social actor.”

As the public began to catch on to the harms of industrial pollution in the 1960s and 70s, Big Oil deployed public relations campaigns to stem the public opinion tide.

Brulle uses Mobil Oil, forerunner to ExxonMobil, as a prime example. In 1970, the oil giant began buying space on the opinion page of the New York Times, “advertorials” that ran in the same section as real Times opinion pieces. Every Thursday, those ads promoted Mobil’s image as a good corporate citizen and boosted its public policy priorities, like reduced regulation of its operations.

Meanwhile, Mobil worked hard to place rosy “earned media” stories on airwaves and in print. “Between 1975 and 1977 alone, Mobil representatives appeared on 365 TV shows, 211 radio shows, and gave 80 newspaper interviews,” the study authors observe. “The company also supported speakers’ programs, wrote bylined articles, and recorded ‘electronic news releases’ (a precursor to . . . video news releases) to distribute nationally to radio stations.” The company also sponsored sports events.

I will pause to note that just recently, The Guardian announced it will no longer accept advertising that props up fossil fuel-based goods like oil and coal. The Guardian also urged its colleagues in the media to do the same. Acting Chief Executive Anna Bateson and the Chief Revenue Officer Hamish Nicklin said in a statement, “Our decision is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.” They’ve done that with dark money; they’ve done that with raw political muscle; they’ve done that through fake science; and they’ve done it through advertising campaigns.

Bravo to The Guardian. I hope American outlets follow suit.

Brulle then turns to recent decades. Using spending figures from 1986 to 2015, the scientists find that corporate promotional spending for the five major oil companies in the United States — ExxonMobil, Shell, ChevronTexaco, BP, and ConocoPhillips — totaled nearly $3.6 billion. That’s an average of $120 million per year.

The trend is upwards. After $35 million in spending in 1996, from 1997 to 2004 annual spending rose to an average of $102 million per year. Then, Brulle and his team write, spending averages leaped again between 2008 and 2016, to an average of $217 million per year.

These spending figures themselves are eye-popping, but what’s really important is the patterns of spending. Brulle and his co-authors write,

The bulk of this spending . . . corresponds to the increased public and congressional attention to climate change in recent years. Not unexpected, the major oil companies spent $315 million in 2010 alone, which is when the highest possibility of binding climate legislation occurred. . . .

That’s no coincidence. Here in this building something occurred that the fossil fuel industry saw as a threat. Brulle and his colleagues continue,

This high level of corporate promotional spending took place in response to the legislative battle from 2009 to 2010 over the House of Representatives’ passage of the Waxman-Markey climate bill and the subsequent Senate consideration of the Kerry-Lieberman climate legislation.

This pattern shows Big Oil’s purpose: to block action in Congress. PR spending helped the industry block serious climate legislation like Waxman-Markey and obstruct action to solve the climate crisis.

Another study by Professor Brulle, just last month, chronicled the full sweep of the fossil fuel industry’s fight against climate action. He describes how this polluting industry used ads, webs of phony front groups, bogus science, and massive political and PR artillery to fend off any meaningful action by Congress. Professor Brulle describes the process as:

(1) Shaping the direction of research efforts into non-threatening areas;

(2) Concealing information about the harmful aspects of a corporate product;

(3) Attacking scientific findings and the scientists who produce research that threatens corporate interests;

(4) Packaging their own carefully constructed interpretations of the science to appear legitimate; and

(5) Aggressive efforts at spinning the media to promulgate favorable press

A typical example of the first tactic is oil company ads touting research and investments in alternative low carbon fuels or renewable energy. For instance, we’ve seen ExxonMobil ads touting its research into algae biofuels. Or BP ads touting renewable energy under its label “beyond petroleum.”

Really? How much do these renewable investments represent? According to Reuters, Exxon will spend roughly $30 billion this year in capital expenditures. Investments in green technologies round to zero percent of Exxon’s 2020 capital expenditures.

BP will spend more than $15 billion in capital expenditures. Green technologies represent roughly three percent of that.

I challenge Exxon to disprove that it spends more on ads touting its renewable investments than it does on the investments themselves. The investments are a PR Potemkin village, built for show.

For decades, ads blared, phony articles hit newspapers, paid-for pundits populated talk shows, and fossil fuel companies polluted our atmosphere.

While they did this, these companies knew better than anyone what they were causing. In 1982, Exxon projected that by 2019, atmospheric CO2 would reach between 390 and 420 parts per million. Sure enough, as 2019 drew to a close, carbon dioxide in our atmosphere had crossed 410 parts per million. They predicted this, in 1992.

Not only did Big Oil correctly model the increase in CO2 in our atmosphere, it understood the implications of this increase: hotter temperatures, melting ice sheets, rising seas, and massive damage that these phenomena would cause. Exxon knew its business was ultimately toxic to our planet.

Why this great expenditure? The reason Big Oil spends billions on ads is to implant favorable perceptions of fossil fuels into the “collective unconscious”; to support its other great influence project. Its other influence project is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying and elections in order to ensure that Republicans block any serious efforts to limit their carbon pollution. It is a scheme that will live in infamy.

And it’s a scheme being perpetrated as I speak, today. Right now, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry, has a seven-figure ad campaign called “We’re on it.” These ads — on the internet, TV, and billboards (they happen to be all over the Washington airport) — are designed to fool the public and policymakers that the oil and gas industry is “on its” carbon and methane emissions problem.

Here’s one in the Washington Post’s “Energy 202” newsletter last week: “Let’s create climate solutions together.” Seriously?! API, the same trade association that is furiously lobbying against efforts to control methane pollution from oil and gas facilities, for efforts to expand offshore drilling, and against a price on carbon, pretends it’s interested in creating climate solutions? Unreal.

In 2006, U.S. district court judge Gladys Kessler, in a long and commanding opinion that was upheld by the U.S. court of appeals, found tobacco companies’ fraudulent PR campaign to have amounted to racketeering. In her ruling, she found that the tobacco industry “coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of a shared objective — to . . . maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public.”

Swap out “cigarettes” with “fossil fuel” and you’ve described exactly what big oil companies do: coordinate their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of a shared objective — to maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for fossil fuel through a scheme to deceive the public. What the fossil fuel industry is doing is precisely the conduct that was racketeering activity in the hand of the tobacco industry. But don’t expect Bill Barr’s Department of Justice to pursue this. The fix is in.

This is all rotten. It’s gross. It’s banana republic stuff — not what we expect here in the United States of America. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the power to shake off the malign influence of a desperate and greedy industry and tackle the defining issue of our time.

Let’s have a real debate on a climate change bill, and pass something big and bold. Let’s wake up to the threat of climate change.

I yield the floor.