“Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has not refuted the moral case against fossil fuels. In fact, the vast majority of its communications reinforce the moral case against oil, gas, and coal.”
There is only one way to defeat the environmentalists’ moral case against fossil fuels—refute its central idea that fossil fuels destroy the planet. Because if we don’t refute that idea, we accept it. And if we accept that fossil fuels are destroying the planet, the only logical conclusion is to cease new development and slow down existing development as much as possible.
Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry has not refuted the moral case against fossil fuels. In fact, the vast majority of its communications reinforce the moral case against oil, gas, and coal.
For example, take the common practice of publicly endorsing “renewables” as the ideal. Fossil fuel companies, particularly oil and gas companies, proudly feature windmills on webpages and annual reports, even though these are trivial to their bottom line and wildly uneconomic. This obviously implies that “renewables” are the goal—with oil and gas as just a temporarily necessary evil.
Don’t think it’s just the BPs, Shells, and Chevrons of the world who do this. Here’s a concession of “renewables’” moral superiority by the most overtly pro-fossil-fuel trade organization I know of, the Western Energy Alliance (WEA):
Natural gas doesn’t compete with renewable energy; in fact, it helps make the vision a reality. Greater electricity production from intermittent sources of power such as wind and solar is possible because natural gas electric generation is available to fill in during the large gaps of time when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Translation: solar and wind are superior, “sustainable,” “renewable” forms of energy—a “vision” we should make “a reality.” And natural gas is justified, not as a great source of power that deserves to exist because it is great, but as a necessary means to a “renewable” future. It’s clear that ideally we wouldn’t want natural gas, but unfortunately we need it now.
Another way in which the fossil fuel industry reinforces the moral case against itself is by bragging that it is less destructive of the planet than it used to be.
For example, this last September, practically every oil and gas association enthusiastically printed news that the oil and gas industry “invested” between $80 billion and $160 billion in “GHG mitigation technologies” from 2000 to 2012, which contributed to a minor decline in U.S. CO2 emissions during that period.
By endorsing [lower] greenhouse gas emissions as a fundamental benchmark of environmental health, the industry is conceding that it is causing catastrophic global warming—and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a moral imperative.
But if you support that goal, you have to know that the “official” targets for emissions reductions are more than 85% worldwide—which would mean the demolition of your industry. If greenhouse gas reductions are obligatory, then it is obligatory to get away from fossil fuels as soon as possible.
Still another way in which the fossil fuel industry reinforces the moral case against itself is by trying to sidestep the issue with talk of jobs or economics or patriotism. While these are important issues, it makes no sense to pursue them via fossil fuels if they are destroying our planet.
Which is why environmentalists compellingly respond with arguments such as: Do we want economic growth tied to poison? Do we want more jobs where the workers are causing harm? Do we want our national identity to continue to be associated with something we now know is destructive?
There are many, many more forms of conceding the environmentalists’ moral case and giving them the high ground. Here are half a dozen more just to give you a sense of the scope of the problem. (When I work with companies, one of the first objectives is to ferret out and eliminate all forms of conceding the moral case against fossil fuels.)
· Not mentioning the word “oil” on homepages (this has at times been true of ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron). This implies that you’re ashamed of what you do, and that your critics are right that oil is a self-destructive addiction.
· Focusing attention on everything but your core product—community service initiatives, charitable contributions, etc. This implies that you’re ashamed of your core product.
· Praising your attackers as “idealistic.” This implies that those who want your destruction are pursuing a legitimate ideal.
· Apologizing for your “environmental footprint.” This implies that there’s something wrong with the industrial development that is inherent in energy production.
· Spending most of your time on the defensive. This implies that you don’t have something positive to champion.
· Criticizing your opponents primarily for getting their facts wrong without refuting their basic moral argument. This implies that the argument is right, your opponents just need to identify your evils more precisely.
The industry’s position amounts to: “our product isn’t moral, but it’s something that we will need for some time as we transition to the ideal fossil-free future.” What you’re telling the world is that you are a necessary evil. And since the environmentalists also agree that it will take some time to transition to a fossil-free future, the argument amounts to a debate over an expiration date.
Environmentalists will argue that fossil fuels are necessary for a shorter time, and you’ll argue that they’re necessary for a longer time. They’ll always sound optimistic and idealistic, and you’ll always sound cynical and pessimistic and self-serving.
So long as you concede that your product is a self-destructive addiction, you will not win hearts and minds—and you will not deserve to.