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Inside the oil PR playbook

January 06, 2024
topic:Divestment
tags:#oil companies, #COP28, #fossil fuels, #climate change, #greenwashing
located:United Arab Emirates
by:Nour Ghantous
Here are three ways oil industry PR efforts are shaping the global climate action landscape.

Several delegates, except those with vested interests in oil and gas, were enraged at the last-minute scrapping of a phase-out of fossil fuels from the COP28 draft deal, replaced with an ambiguous agreement to "phase-down" fossil fuels. Echoes of "this was their goal all along" were prominent within the conference walls and across social media.

"The UAE has spent a fortune on US and EU public relations (PR) firms to help make this happen, carefully crafting the fiction that they want to lead on climate action," wrote investigative climate journalist Amy Westervelt on LinkedIn.

In the lead-up to the major annual climate conference, this time held in Dubai, the presidency of Sultan Al Jaber was contentious, given he is also the CEO of Adnoc, the UAE’s biggest oil producer. The fear was a conflict of interest; the UNFCCC says the world cannot achieve its global target to limit warming to 1.5C without phasing out fossil fuels, which are Adnoc's (and Dubai’s) primary sources of income.

The debate surrounding the role of oil industry representatives in decision-making has two sides: one advocating for their inclusion to facilitate potentially constructive conversation and the other arguing for their exclusion to not let decision-making power fall into the hands of those without the best interest of the climate and people at heart.

The COP28 result appears to lend weight to the latter perspective, demonstrating the risks associated with allowing oil industry figures to influence crucial climate decisions. But this isn't the first time that the oil industry’s public relations efforts have successfully shaped climate policy and public discourse in its favour.

As the aftermath of COP28 unfolds, it serves as a stark reminder of the need to critically evaluate the involvement of individuals with vested interests in fossil fuels in climate decision-making processes.

Below are three ways oil industry PR efforts have had significant influence, demonstrating the industry's impact on shaping the global climate action landscape.

Funding climate denial and climate ‘doomism’

The oil industry's public relations efforts have wielded influence through funding campaigns that propagate climate denial and 'doomism.' By financing groups that spread misinformation about the realities of climate change, oil companies sow doubt and confusion among the public. 

Experts point out that this strategic manipulation of public opinion impedes the urgency for climate action. It perpetuates a sense of helplessness or inevitability, discouraging proactive measures, according to Michael E. Mann, author of The New Climate War. "Doom-mongering has overtaken denial as a threat and as a tactic," he told the Guardian in 2021.

"Inactivists," as Mann calls them, understand that convincing people there is nothing they can do leads to disengagement. Unbeknownst to many, this unwittingly aligns individuals with fossil fuel interests, as they give up on the notion of effecting change. Mann highlights the insidious nature of this manipulation, particularly as it seeks to co-opt environmental progressives who, with good intentions and goodwill, find themselves disillusioned and falling into despair. 

A peer-reviewed study published late 2021 in the journal Climatic Change was the first to comprehensively document the role that PR firms have played in helping the world’s most profitable oil and gas companies improve their environmental image and block climate action. 

It shows that energy giants have relied on PR firms and ad agencies to finesse their public messaging for over three decades. 

Lobbying policymakers directly

Oil industry PR campaigns have strategically targeted policymakers, leveraging their influence in decision-making processes during crucial events like COP conferences. Through lobbying, campaign contributions, and direct engagement, the industry ensures its voices resonate within legislative corridors, posing a considerable obstacle to the necessary strides for effective climate action.

To solidify their sway, oil companies invest heavily in influencing political decision-makers, relying on PR firms to refine their public image and indirectly affect policymakers. This calculated approach positions the oil industry as a formidable force capable of moulding legislative landscapes to align with its interests.

Conflicts of interest extend to legislative bodies, as seen in the UK's House of Lords. A 2021 analysis by The Ferret revealed that 43 members of the House of Lords have investments totalling millions in oil and gas companies, prompting accusations of "unethical" conflicts of interest. 

Thirty-three peers were found to hold shares worth a minimum of GBP 50,000 in 19 oil and gas companies, while an additional ten peers chair, direct or advise 15 fossil fuel firms. 

Adding another layer to this web of influence, a 2019 Guardian analysis discovered that the oil industry (oil companies, petrostates, climate contrarian think tanks, businessmen and unions) had contributed at least £5 million to British MPs over the past decade. These contributions take various forms, including donations, expenses-paid trips, salaries, and gifts. 

State-owned enterprises (SOEs) further complicate the transition to renewables. In Indonesia, the state-owned energy utility PLN resisted regulatory directives to increase renewable electricity despite the country's shift away from coal. 

PLN's conflicts of interest, rooted in selling fuel for generators and owning a significant share of the country's coal-based electricity supply, appear to hinder progress. 

Globally, resource-rich nations' support for private firms and SOEs in fossil fuel projects through subsidies such as tax breaks and price caps on coal sales creates a competitive disadvantage for renewable energy sources, impeding the transition to a sustainable energy landscape.

Green(washed) Technologies: Investing in Carbon Capture

The oil industry's PR investments are, according to some environmental experts, essentially greenwashing attempts, portraying an environmentally responsible image while simultaneously engaging in harmful practices. 

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), designed to capture carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use, is controversial for its potential to be exploited by oil companies as another form of greenwashing, notably justifying ongoing fossil fuel extraction.

By emphasising technological solutions, the industry deflects attention from the pressing need to stop using fossil fuels entirely. There are 15 CCS projects operating in the US today, and thirteen of them use the captured carbon to pump more oil out of the ground through a process called "enhanced oil recovery." However, the US expects a boom in new CCS projects with new taxpayer subsidies via the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Australian policy analyst Ben Oquist, writing for think tank The Australia Institute in 2022, warns of the danger that the 'net' in net zero could become a get-out-of-jail-free card for those advocating fossil fuel expansion globally. As the aftermath of a COP that once again failed to mandate a reduction in fossil fuels unfolds, Oquist's concerns may be materialising into reality.

Image by Malcolm Lightbody.

Article written by:
6CD29B1A-B356-4274-B875-1585B2211EEE
Nour Ghantous
Associate Editor
United Arab Emirates
Embed from Getty Images
“The UAE has spent a fortune on US and EU public relations (PR) firms to help make this happen, carefully crafting the fiction that they want to lead on climate action,” wrote investigative climate journalist Amy Westervelt on LinkedIn.
Embed from Getty Images
The fear was a conflict of interest; the UNFCCC says the world cannot achieve its global target to limit warming to 1.5C without phasing out fossil fuels, which are Adnoc's (and Dubai’s) primary sources of income.
Embed from Getty Images
Through lobbying, campaign contributions and direct engagement, the industry ensures its voices resonate within legislative corridors, posing a considerable obstacle to the necessary strides for effective climate action.
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