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Dear Big Oil: Stop Acting Like Big Tobacco

The following is the beginning of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: the Key to Winning Hearts and Minds”—my soon-to-be published manifesto on how fossil fuel companies can neutralize attackers, turn non-supporters into supporters, and supporters into champions. I’ve been been circulating it among our clients.

If you know someone in the industry who would benefit from this, please share it with them.

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Imagine that you are talking to the CEO of a tobacco company. He is trying to deal with the endless political and legal attacks on his industry. He tells you that he can win back the hearts and minds of the public by doing the following:

  • “We need to stress to the public that we are an economically important industry that creates jobs and tax revenues.”
  • “We need to link the industry to our national identity.”
  • “We also need to stress to the public that we are addressing our attackers’ concerns—by lowering our emissions.”
  • “We need to do all this using the best ad agencies, polling firms, and media gurus, so we can make our case in the most wide-reaching and most emotionally compelling way.”

What would your response be?

I’m guessing you would say that there’s no way this will work—because none of these address the fact that the public views their core product as a self-destructive addiction. The industry, accordingly, is viewed as an inherently immoral industry. So long as that is the case, all other communications efforts can only accomplish so much.

For example, critics would ask, in response to the industry’s communications tactics: Do we want economic growth tied to poison? Do we want more jobs where the workers are doing harmful things? Do we want our national identity to continue being associated with something we now know is destructive? Do we want to settle for making a deadly product 20% less deadly? Obviously not.

Everything above applies exactly to your industry, the oil industry. Your attackers portray your core product as a self-destructive addiction, and you as a fundamentally immoral industry. They’re wrong—but you wouldn’t know it from the public discussion of oil and, indeed, the entire fossil fuel industry.

U.S. President Barack Obama has described the oil industry as a “tyranny.” Just as alarmingly, “pro-oil” ex-President Bush coined the expression “America’s addiction to oil”! There is far more public hostility to the oil industry than to the tobacco industry. And it is accused of being far more damaging. As Keystone XL opposition leader Bill McKibben put it to widespread acclaim, the fossil fuel industry is “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”

In this manifesto I will argue that the root cause of the fossil fuel industry’s communications problems is this: environmentalist leaders have made a powerful and false-but-unanswered moral case against the fossil fuel industry by arguing that it is fundamentally “dirty” and “unsustainable.”

Instead of refuting this case and putting forward a positive alternative, the industry has conceded that it is “dirty” and “unsustainable” by promising to become less dirty and unsustainable—or by trying to sidestep the issue with talk of jobs and economics. The industry’s most effective argument is that, for some time, it is impractical to completely transition to the ideal, often called a “low-carbon future.”

In failing to counter the moral case against it, the industry has positioned itself in the unenviable position of being a necessary evil.

So long as this is the underlying moral understanding of your industry you will not win hearts and minds. No amount of talent and money spent on communications can work if the idea being communicated is self-incriminating.

The widespread opposition to development logically follows from the public’s uncontested moral understanding. If you are really a necessary evil, then the goal should be to do everything imaginable to get off the addiction as soon as possible—not engage in enormous new development projects, which is the goal of oil companies.

Fortunately, there is good news—there is a moral case for the fossil fuel industry and, when made properly, it wins over intelligent, passionate followers no matter what the medium or issue.

That is the subject of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Key to Winning Hearts and Minds”–coming next week. For more information, sign up for our mailing list.

Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, debater, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress. Email him here.

 

6 comments

1 Kevin Lohse { 10.10.13 at 1:18 am }

I admit to a failing memory, but I don’t remember Big Tobacco pouring millions into supporting ASH and developing nicotine alternatives.

2 Robert S { 10.11.13 at 10:40 am }

It sounds that you are setting up a strawman: namely that the goal is “to completely transition” away from oil & gas is “impractical” “for some time.”

First, I’m not aware of anyone proposing that we eliminate all use of fossil fuels. There are applications where there are no good alternatives, e.g. as a feedstock for plastics, and where the use of fossil fuels doesn’t greatly impact GHG.

Second, we need to define “impractical.” Does this mean technically hard, or merely expensive? And how do we balance costs taken today to shift away from a BAU carbon case versus potential costs in the future to adapt to the potential consequences of higher CO2 concentrations?

Third, what do you mean by “for some time”? It is undeniable that we are using fossil fuels at a faster rate than they are being created, so there will necessarily be some point in the future when we must transition from fossil fuels to some alternative. But, as Sheik Yamana noted, “the Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” What specific obstacles are there to transitioning now? And are we pursuing policies that are working to overcome these obstacles or, instead, raising them?

I agree with your general premise that oil & gas will be an important part of the energy picture for several decades. There is simply too much capital deployed that is premised on abundant oil and no costs associated with GHG emissions, such as the hundreds of millions of automobiles currently on American roads. I will be interested in seeing how you sketch a trajectory for the industry, though: business as usual for our lifetimes, or some transition as we can deploy new capital that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.

3 John DeFayette { 10.12.13 at 3:20 am }

Robert S is a shining example of where rational, itelligent minds go when the entire premise you’re referring to is false. The point which was largely missed is that fossil fuels are to be celebrated as the giver of life that they are. We are indeed addicted to fossil fuels–just like we are addicted to food, oxygen and water! The sooner we get that TRUE message into the heads of our brainwashed public the sooner we can move on from this stupid phase of eco-misanthropy.

4 Daublin { 10.12.13 at 9:00 am }

I encourage everyone to read the linked article and not get too hung up on the title of this blog post.

It’s an important point. Oil is assumed to be inherently dirty. On the contrary, energy usage–which mainly derives from oil and other fossil fuels–has transformed the human condition. It also, if you look at the net effects, improved the environment that we live in.

5 Russell Cook { 10.12.13 at 12:08 pm }

There’s one more thing I’d add to this pile: the nearly 20 year-old accusation that ‘big oil’ funds skeptic climate scientists for the explicit purpose to lie about global warming is not only completely baseless, it funnels back to a single individual who consolidated it into a successful accusation, when it was otherwise getting no media traction, having roots in Al Gore’s 1991-2 Senate office. See: http://gelbspanfiles.com/

6 Victor { 10.17.13 at 5:41 am }

This is so true. Even within the industry, practically all are apologetic of their work. Ridiculous! I can not name a single resource that has improved so many lives as fossil fuels have. Somewhere along the line we went from fossil fuels being a positive thing, with negative side effects, to an essentially negative thing with some positive side effects. This is bs, to feed the people of planet Earth and to provide the energy to people to shape their dreams and to break through the Malthusian plateau, fossil fuels are absolutely essential. Sure, there are negative side effects, which are serious, and should be addressed, but please don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.

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