This week a peer-reviewed study confirmed what many have suspected for years: major oil companies are not fully backing up their clean energy talk with action. Now the PR and advertising firms that have been creating the industry’s greenwashing strategies for decades face a reckoning over whether they will continue serving big oil.
The study compared the rhetoric and actions on climate and clean energy from 2009 to 2020 from the world’s four largest oil companies – ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP. Writing in the journal Plos One, researchers from Tohoku University and Kyoto University in Japan conclude that the companies are not, in fact, transitioning their business models to clean energy.
“The magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse,” they write. “Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.”
Although this isn’t the first time that oil companies have been accused of overstating their climate bona fides, it has never been set out quite so comprehensively, according to environmental sociologist Dr Robert Brulle at Brown University. “This is the first robust, empirical, peer-reviewed analysis of the activities–of the speech, business plans, and the actual investment patterns of the major oil companies regarding their support or opposition to the transition to a sustainable society,” he says.
Brulle says PR firms and advertising agencies that have created campaigns around the oil firms’ net-zero claims are now on notice. “There’s no plausible deniability that they are unaware of the activities of these companies after this paper has been published,” he says. “This paper clearly shows that these companies aren’t walking the talk.”
That forces the hand of PR firms such as Edelman – which made headlines late last year for making big climate pledges while also working for oil majors like Exxon and Shell – and trade groups such as the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, which have a reputation for blocking climate policy. At a company meeting in December, the firm’s chief executive Richard Edelman told employees that the company would not walk away from fossil-fuel clients, but that it would “reject projects that delay progress toward a future with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions”. In the face of this week’s report, it would be hard to say that any oil major meets that standard.
Casey Norton, a spokesperson for Exxon, said: “ExxonMobil has long acknowledged that climate change is real and poses serious risks. In addition to our substantial investments in next generation technologies, ExxonMobil also advocates for responsible climate-related policies.”
“These claims of investments in clean energy are yet another case of words not matching actions,” Gregory Trencher, one of the study’s authors, says. Trencher notes that Exxon invested only 0.23% of its total capital expenditure in low-carbon energy production and development from 2010 to 2018, and that the company stated in an April 2021 energy and carbon summary report that it does not invest in renewables. As for acknowledging climate science, Trencher says that makes up “only a small part of our study–specifically, it is but one of 25 indicators studied”.
Edelman did not reply to a request for comment by press time. Neither did the PR firm WPP, which has done extensive work for BP and Chevron. The New York Times’ T Brand Studio, which has created campaigns for both Exxon and Shell amplifying their net-zero claims, also declined to comment on how this study might play into that work. The Washington Post also declined to respond to questions about whether its WP Creative Group would continue to create campaigns for Chevron, Shell or the American Petroleum Institute, in light of such extensive documentation that previous campaigns were misleading.
According to Brulle, it’s unlikely that PR and advertising firms will be able to serve the fossil-fuel industry as they have in the past. “It doesn’t seem to me that they have the room to do that any more,” he said. “They would have to basically engage in bad-faith advertising and greenwashing to continue to support these organizations as actually engaging in climate action.”
The greenwashing study comes just a week after House Democrats Katie Porter and Raúl Grijalva sent letters to six PR firms asking for more details on their work for fossil fuel companies, particularly with respect to campaigns that misled the public on climate change. The House oversight committee has indicated that it will also question PR firms as part of its investigation into climate disinformation.
Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is due back in court in Massachusetts early next month to fight charges that it defrauded residents of that state on climate. Similar fraud charges have been leveled at all of the oil majors via an ever-growing list of cases, including those filed in Minnesota, DC, Delaware, and Vermont.
But Christine Arena, a former Edelman vice-president who now runs her own social impact production company Generous Films, says climate fraud can’t happen without the help of the PR and advertising industry.
“PR and ad firms are central players in what we look at as the influence industry,” she says. “There’s a lot of money spent, and emphasis on external facing advertising, marketing, and promotion that helps prop up the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate and give the world a sense that, to quote API, ‘We’re on it.’ We don’t need regulation. We’re good corporate actors.”
Brulle says the media should also take note of this study, especially when an oil company chief executive makes a claim around their company’s climate commitments. “Good, critical reporting would have to challenge the statements of these fossil fuel companies,” he says.