August 2010

The Nation Reviewed


By Guy Pearse
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Next time you fly, grab your in-flight magazine or newspaper, carefully rip out a few pages, jot a few words on each, smile knowingly to those seated next to you and stash them away. Upon arrival, use your phone to photograph some billboards in the terminal with the same care you’d give family portraits. If you spot hybrid taxis or rental cars outside emblazoned with the companies’ environmental credentials, take more pictures. Give anyone looking at you strangely a mildly ex-cited shake of the head. These are among the quirky rituals of the “greenwash collector”, hoarding for future reference the ads companies use to concoct phoney environmental credentials today.

Having carefully designed my life to avoid advertising, I reluctantly began collecting three years ago. What got me in was the contrast between spiralling greenhouse pollution and an explosion in ads for “climate-friendly” products and services. Corporations communicate with us via ads, so comparing them over time against corporate environmental performance made sense. Because ads are as fleeting as they are pervasive, they must be collected or else greenwash that might damn companies tomorrow wraps fish and chips before the day is out. Some of the finest specimens in my growing collection come from the oil industry: Shell ads featuring CO2 molecules being caught with butterfly nets and smokestacks emitting flowers, Chevron explaining they’re powered by “human energy” (apparently not by fossil fuels). Still, the overall winner is BP’s all-encompassing “beyond petroleum” branding, especially in light of recent events.

BP adopted the tagline “beyond petroleum” in 2000, with the Helios sunburst logo depicting energy in all its forms. Three years earlier, BP had pulled out of the Global Climate Coalition, a big polluter alliance then running ads denying any fossil fuels–climate change link. Now BP declared it time for action: cleaner natural gas constituted almost 40% of its energy portfolio, and it would cut its emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by 2010. In 2005, BP pledged to spend US$8 billion by 2015 on alternative energy. “It’s a start,” claimed the ads; the “best way out of the energy fix is an ‘energy mix’,” they said, with imagery implying a mix with renewables such as wind, solar and biofuels at least as important as fossil fuels. In California, Arnold Schwarzenegger stood in front of the “beyond petroleum” branding and spruiked BP’s support for hydrogen-powered transport.

Here in Australia, BP made much of 2 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions offset by customers through its Global Choice program, and promoted its support for biofuels and its 25-year history supplying solar energy. It linked arms with the Australian Conservation Foundation and Clean Up Australia to promote emissions trading, ambitious national environmental targets and its “cleaner fuels”. Until just a few weeks ago, it ran a “talk stopped long ago” ad campaign and website, showcasing as evidence of its sustainability commitment everything from solar panels on service stations to its use of “100% fairtrade-certified” coffee beans.

So persuasive was the “beyond petroleum” branding, BP won a Gold Medal from the American Marketing Association and became many consumers’ least-worst oil company. When BP met its greenhouse reduction target eight years early it truly seemed, just as its ads claimed, “a little better”. So when the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion opened a seemingly unpluggable leak from hell, killing 11 people and eclipsing the Exxon Valdez disaster, it looked to many like incredibly bad luck for a well-meaning company. The truth behind the “beyond petroleum” brand was different.

The emissions targets BP met “years early” covered its operations, not what comes from its 50,000 oil and gas wells. BP boasts the world’s largest and deepest floating oil rigs – able to produce 250,000 barrels of oil per day and drill down deeper than Everest is high. The company’s latest figures indicate that it produces the equivalent of 4 million barrels of oil daily, 24% more than when its “beyond petroleum” campaign started. This adds about 1.7 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere daily. By contrast, BP claims its efficiency measures have saved 7.9 million tonnes of CO2 in total since 2002. In other words, emissions savings that took eight years to accumulate and promote are erased by BP’s normal production every five days. Every 30 hours, BP wipes out the emissions savings that thousands of its customers voluntarily made via the company’s offset programs over the past decade. By digging deeper, BP says its exploration has replaced its reserves for 17 years running – not quite what you expect from a company moving beyond petroleum. Having met its targets, BP’s operational emissions are now roughly the same as New Zealand’s.

BP’s much-promoted alternative energy investments include carbon capture and storage, which, aside from propping up coal use, helps to extract more oil from depleted wells, ultimately adding to vehicle exhaust emissions. Renewable capacity sold annually by BP is miniscule: less than 1000 megawatts of wind and solar energy worldwide. The emissions saving roughly equates to closing down one coal-fired power station every third day. The company recently closed down solar manufacturing plants in Australia, Spain and the US. As for biofuel, current estimates suggest BP is blending less ethanol per day into American fuels than it is blending crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

BP’s green halo hid all this from most people, but can’t hide what’s still unfolding in the US. Imagine if every second Australian poured a litre of oil into the sea today, tomorrow and every day for months. In the face of a mess that big, BP’s true colours were on show. CEO Tony Hayward claimed that “it wasn’t our accident”, called the spill “relatively tiny” compared with the ocean, and predicted the environmental impacts would be “very, very modest”. He scraped the bottom of the PR barrel by infamously escaping on a corporate yachting jaunt and declaring, “I’d like my life back.”

Ironically, though, BP may help the world move beyond petroleum a little faster, only not how it planned. Already being dubbed “Obama’s Katrina”, the catastrophe that has cost the Gulf communities and environment so dearly is sparking a rethink in the world’s biggest gas-guzzling nation. Citing footage of seabirds drenched in crude oil, Schwarzenegger recently dumped plans he previously championed for drilling offshore California. Americans are now uncomfortable relying on oil from deeper, dirtier and more dangerous sources, and BP’s pledge to “clean up every drop” is treated with the same contempt as their “beyond petroleum” branding.

BP’s survival now hangs in the balance – its value halved, its liabilities mounting – amid calls for a consumer-led boycott to “remove it from the economy”. Moving “beyond BP” would satisfy palpable anger, but its assets would be eagerly snapped up by firms whose own climate-friendly marketing is similarly inconsistent with their continued fossil fuel addiction and token renewables investment. Conventional oil is scarcer and more expensive, but BP’s circling rivals fancy their chances of producing petrol and diesel for many more decades from sufficiently abundant tar sands, coal and other “unconventional oils”. As the gap grows between what’s masked by greenwash and what’s demanded by the science, we must ponder what lies behind award-winning environmental advertising more often. The more of us willing to start collecting greenwash, even if it means suffering occasional strange looks, the better.

Guy Pearse
Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, a former political adviser, lobbyist and speechwriter, and the author of High & Dry and Quarterly Essay 33, ‘Quarry Vision’.

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