Green slime

Posted 10/12/22

I feel like I’m drowning in greenwash, those empty promises and distracting technological detours designed to lull us into the illusion that we can go on doing the same things but get a different climate result.

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Green slime


I feel like I’m drowning in greenwash, those empty promises and distracting technological detours designed to lull us into the illusion that we can go on doing the same things but get a different climate result. 

News about the fossil fuel industry’s failures and deceptions usually comes out in dribs and drabs; released in studies read by geeks like me, but seldom covered by the mainstream media. Could it be that those news outlets are too dependent on revenue from the touchy-feely commercials the industry spends millions to produce?  

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform is investigating the fossil fuel industry’s longstanding campaign to suppress evidence about climate change, and derail attempts to address it. It issued a comprehensive memorandum on September 14 that presents its findings to date, based upon a trove of internal communications obtained through subpoena, as well as on committee testimony by industry executives. 

This interim report documents the shift from outright climate denial to a policy of greenwashing, concealment, gaslighting, questionable technology and misleading, unenforceable and largely unattainable climate pledges. 

For example, companies like Exxon, Shell, Chevron and British Petroleum publicly tout carbon-capture research as a pathway to reduce emissions and transition away from fossil fuels. Internal documents secured by the House Committee show that privately the industry views carbon capture as a ticket to perpetuating fossil fuel use, and that the carbon captured through the processes they are developing will be used to boost the productivity of oil fields, not sequestered underground to reduce emissions. “In reality,” the Committee’s memorandum states, “nearly all the carbon dioxide Exxon has captured through CCS [carbon capture and storage] has been sold to other fossil fuel companies to inject into their depleted oil fields to help extract even more oil. As a result, the carbon captured by Exxon through CCS technology likely has not meaningfully reduced total carbon emissions.”

In internal messaging guidance documents, company executives are cautioned to be careful how they characterize carbon reduction ambitions to avoid the appearance of firm promises or indications that new technologies are actually feasible. 

Most recently, Shell executives were overtly warned to parse the company’s climate claims as “aspirational” when speaking with shareholders, since such climate goals do not actually figure in the company’s business plans. Similarly, Exxon’s $68 million advertising campaign touting algae biofuels was accompanied by internal memoranda reminding executives that the technology is decades away from meaningful deployment. 

Many of these internal communications express deep contempt for climate scientists and environmental activists; what might come as a surprise are the frank expressions of contempt for the American people.

Creative accounting is another greenwashing ploy, useful when oil and gas corporations and their major investors want to create the impression that they are complying with calls for transparent disclosure of their climate change risks. The Carlisle Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, with $376 billion in global assets, was called out last month for issuing a voluntary portfolio-wide analysis that simply left out its largest oil and gas investment. The NGP Group accounted for more than 20 percent of Carlisle’s total revenues and 49 percent of its profits in the first half of 2022. 

Citing a “different business model,” Carlisle justified its omission of a huge climate liability while touting its virtue for releasing what many labelled a misleading report. 

In a more optimistic vein, the NYC comptroller has asked BlackRock to produce a detailed plan and timetable for reaching its stated portfolio-wide net-zero goals. That includes a full accounting of emissions from all assets and a plan for phasing out high-emitting assets, full transparency about its lobbying efforts and a plan for ending all lending to new fossil fuel projects. With $43 billion in pension funds invested through BlackRock, the city may have the clout to make these changes happen. 

The war in Ukraine seems to have redoubled the determination of the European Union to speed the transition to renewable energy. But in the U.S., those events have rekindled a different argument from the fossil fuel industry—that the situation in Europe makes it necessary that we forego our climate goals and roll back environmental regulations under the guise of national security concerns.  

Once again, the much-touted energy revolution is to be postponed and derailed, trapped in a perpetual “transition” that exists only in slogans and PR campaigns.

What would it look like if fossil fuel companies told the truth about their “green” intentions? Movie writer and director Adam McKay, whose films include the Academy-Award-winning 2015 feature The Big Short—about the subprime mortgage crisis and the 2008 recession—has posted a fake “Chevron” commercial that shows us just how simultaneously hilarious and infuriating such honesty would be (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2XTGteritE&t=18s). 

Beautifully produced, the ad skewers the industry’s use of emotionally evocative nature imagery, heroic music and vague promises to sell the illusion of genuine commitment. 

I give you fair warning—there is some profanity in the ad—but the message is powerful: this industry’s goal is to induce a state of complacency and false assurance that is slowly killing us. 

fossil fuels, natural gases, environment


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