A woman in a gas mask holds a placard reading "Greenwashng hides Shell's crimes"

Opinion: As protests disrupt ‘Oscars of Oil’, greenwashing wins Best Support Act

The gas and oil industry have long been the masters of secrecy and misdirection, like the magician pulling a rabbit out of a tophat while they quietly slip the watch from your wrist. And, as Greta Thunberg was carried into the back of a police van and charged with public order offences this week, the future of the planet was being discussed behind closed doors, ticket price £3,600.

Oil A-listers are convening in London for a glitzy three-day extravaganza that has become known as “the Oscars of Oil”.  The Oil & Money Conference has rebranded itself as the Energy Intelligence Forum (EIF), something that can be held in a 5 star London hotel instead of, say, a hollowed out volcano lair.  The EIF understands all too well the need to change the perception of their business model whilst doing the bare minimum to pivot their actual business practices. 

To achieve this herculean task, oil giants suffering an identity crisis turn to advertising agencies to resurrect their reputations, greenwash their activities, and prolong profit margins to the bitterest of ends.

The power of advertising cannot be underestimated. Oil companies spend many millions each year to tell citizens, financial institutions, and policymakers that ‘energy companies’ are doing everything in their power to safeguard the planet for future generations. Cast your mind back to the last energy advertisement that included images of refineries, drilling rigs, smog and geysers of oil.  

Instead we are inundated with ads full of windmills, nature, smiling children frollicking in green pastures, promises of a greener brighter future brought about through untested technologies. Greenwashing is a subtle art, cultivated over many decades. If advertising had not consistently proven an effective tool for spinning a convincing (but false) green narrative, oil companies’ financiers would have moved their considerable resources elsewhere.

Just this week, EIF delegate Repsol’s “renewable hydrogen” advert was banned by the UK ad watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), for misleading citizens and investors over the proportion of Repsol’s business interests that are in lower-carbon activities. The regulator noted that Repsol does not yet produce renewable hydrogen, despite the advertising campaign solely promoting this fuel type, and that contrary to the impression given in the advert (which the ASA explicitly noted would target investors), “large-scale global oil and gas investment and exploration formed the vast majority of Repsol’s business interests”. Repsol’s expenditure on renewable hydrogen is just 0.1% of their capex. 

Repsol’s advert, described as “a new neon shade of greenwashing” is in fact the second Repsol ad to be banned this year alone.  The ASA’s rare action to ban these ads can be considered a win against the pernicious greenwashing of a major oil company but the frequency of infractions speaks to a larger problem, that a slap on the wrist or two minutes on the naughty step are insufficient to meet the moment.  In the absence of a regulator with legal or financial teeth, energy companies and their advertising agencies will continue to greenwash, adjust misleading statements, swap one word and nature-themed image for another and give it another go.

A mere 2.4% of adverts reported to the ASA over environmental concerns lead to any action being taken. Advert regulation is too little, too late, with a limited remit and rulings that can take up to a year, after the damage has already been done.  As Mark Twain noted “a lie can travel halfway round the world, while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. 

Recent history has confirmed that the oil and gas industry are determined to continue with their brazen campaign of misinformation, and, in UN Secretary-General’s António Guterres’ words, “the massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny” is not slowing down. With little risk to their bottom line posed by regulation or emerging advertising industry conscience, the only logical solution is to cut off polluters’ ability to disseminate false, misleading, distracting and self-destructive messages to the wider world, by placing a tobacco-style ban on high-carbon advertising. The gas and oil industry must be prevented from putting their sizable thumb on the scales, influencing our attitudes to their business practices, fabricating a narrative that they are committed to a green transition, and manipulating public discourse to ensure continued investment in earth destruction. 

The EIF website boasts of “unlimited debate” and “high-level networking with decision makers”. As CEOs from Shell, BP, Repsol, Equinor,Total and their financial backers gather inside, you can be sure they aren’t in attendance for the canapés any more than Greta Thunberg is in town for fish and chips and a ride on the London Eye. If the oil majors attending EIF are the magicians pulling off the Great Deceit, then the advertising industry is its less than lovely assistant. 

Photos in this blog: credit Angela Christofilou

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