Effects without evidence: How greenwashing ads can be terrible for the environment
The energy sector is the largest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions, and Smruthi Nadig investigates a new report linking BP’s greenwashing social media ads to climate change.
he energy sector is the primary contributor to the increase in carbon dioxide emissions, and global energy demand is only expected to rise further in the coming decades as populations and economies grow, according to global energy consumption data. Since 1965, the data shows that 20 fossil fuel companies have been responsible for 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane emissions worldwide.
This trend has continued in recent years. Since 2000, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels and industry have increased significantly, reaching a record 36.7 billion tonnes in 2019.
Chevron is the leading oil and gas emitter, followed by Exxon, BP and Shell. Since 1965, the products of these four companies have accounted for more than 10% of global carbon emissions.
Attempts to limit global warming to 1.5°C require a transition to net-zero emissions energy systems by 2050. However, evidence suggests some of the world’s biggest polluters are talking about net-zero but not minimising their own carbon emissions.
Multiple studies document how oil majors have spread misinformation and obstructed progress on climate action. ExxonMobil denied climate change and propagated disinformation to mislead the public for over 20 years.
Greenwashing social media ads
Now, a new investigation by Thomas Lewton, an independent science journalist, for the Guardian and Eco.bot, a network-based performance services firm, in August 2022 has revealed that this year, BP has spent more than $944,956 (£800,000) on social media ads in the UK to promote the company's green energy investments.
Just before the company announced its $8.28bn (£7bn) 14-year high profit for the second quarter of 2022, it paid around $673,281 (£570,000) to Facebook and Instagram for ads that reached tens of millions of people in the UK.
The ads began two days after the opposition Labour Party proposed a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas in January 2022, emphasising BP's contributions to UK energy security.
The Eco.Bot investigation uncovered that BP's spending on these ads increased in the weeks leading up to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and would-be British prime minister Rishi Sunak's announcement of an "energy profits levy" on 26 May 2022.
“If BP’s renewable energy investments [are considered], they make up one share of a portfolio that is still dominated by fossil fuels,” says Gregory Trencher, an energy policy and sustainability transitions researcher at Kyoto University. “Furthermore, though pledging to reduce its fossil fuel production by 40% leading to 2030, BP plans to increase its sales of fossil fuels produced by third parties.”
Shifting responsibility from company to consumer
Several corporations have attempted to shift responsibility for climate change from themselves to consumers. One example is BP's promotion of lowering individual carbon footprints, some research suggests.
In the 1980s, BP first promoted and helped popularise the term "carbon footprint." In 2004, the company unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator”, which allowed users to assess how everyday activities, like going to work, buying food and travelling, contributed significantly to climate change. A decade and a half later, the term "carbon footprint" was widespread.
Major American and European corporations have spent millions of dollars lobbying to delay or weaken climate policy. A recent investigation found oil companies use social media advertising to influence public opinion.
Fossil fuel companies are among the top spenders on Google ads that look like search engine results, which campaign groups label ‘endemic greenwashing’.
Fossil fuel companies are among the top spenders on Google ads that look like search engine results, which campaign groups label “endemic greenwashing”. In a 2020 survey, more than half of customers said they couldn't identify the difference between a paid-for listing and a regular Google result.
In 2021, BP hired a public relations firm to promote the narrative that climate change is the fault of people, not an oil giant.
"This industry has a proven track record of communicating strategically to confuse the public and undermine action,” Geoffrey Supran, a science historian at Harvard University, told Mashable in 2021.
“We need to pay attention”
“Society, investors, and politicians expect this [green investments], and the young generation that principally uses social media are becoming [increasingly] sensitive to the carbon intensity of many industries, not just oil,” says Gregory.
“Furthermore, there have been increasing claims from Europe and the US that oil majors are greenwashing, and they are increasingly villainised as major contributors to climate change,” says Gregory. “In such a context, it is more important than ever that the oil majors convey an image of transitioning to clean energy.”
“We need to pay attention,” adds Nikita Shiel-Rolle, a climate justice activist in the Bahamas.
According to a 2009 survey, 80% of marketers planned to increase spending on green marketing to target more environmentally responsible consumers.
The European oil majors have repeatedly recognised climate science, taken part in industry climate action initiatives, implemented internal carbon pricing, spent and pledged more on clean energy, and set net-zero transition and energy product decarbonisation goals.
However, an analysis by NGO Oil Change International found that BP’s plans are far from sufficient to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris Agreement.
Improving corporate image
“Corporate interests have used advertising for many years to improve their reputation,” Laura Edelson, a researcher in online political communication at New York University, told the Guardian. “When it comes to corporate taxes, reputation matters to politicians.”
BP’s ads promote its plan to "transition to net-zero" by gradually reducing oil and gas production and investing more in "low carbon" and renewable energy sources.
“Targeting the younger generation, who are more sensitive to climate change, is the objective of the social media marketing strategy,” Gregory says.
“As consumers, we must be clear about what we're consuming and develop that critical eye [to understand what’s wrong],” says Shiel-Rolle. “[That] requires exposure and [more] money into that type of educational development.”
As consumers, we must be clear about what we're consuming and develop that critical eye to understand what’s wrong.
Meta’s ad library, which was the basis for the Guardian/Eco.bot investigation, disclosed data about ad spending and reach for social issues, and political advertising, and only for those ads that remained visible in its archives.
Meta had removed Shell ads for violating its transparency policy, for example, the investigation found that dozens of other, similar ads running without any kind of disclaimer about who paid for the ads, for over a month seemed completely unnoticed by Meta's moderation process.
It is unrealistic to expect corporations to eliminate their environmental footprint overnight. To get to a more sustainable economy, it can be beneficial to celebrate even minor achievements. However, those achievements must be truthfully communicated.
Main image: Oil and gas worked. Credit: seksan Mongkhonkhamsao via Getty Images
US and the Gulf of Mexico
The number of active drilling rigs in the lower 48 states of the US, excluding the Gulf of Mexico, stood at 753 in February. This fell to 738 in March, before reaching a four-year low of 572 in April, the lowest since May 2016. As of 8 May 2020, the Lower 48 land rig count reached 355 rigs, according to Baker Hughes’ data.
When it comes to the sought-after oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico, production is estimated to remain relatively flat. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts an average of 1.9 million bpd over 2020 and 2021, almost unchanged from its 2019 average.
The administration said that it does not expect any cancellations to Gulf of Mexico projects announced in 2020 and 2021.
Before the oil price crisis in the first half of 2020, Shell had awarded a contract to Sembcorp Marine for construction of the topsides and hull of a floating production unit for the Whale exploration project in the US Gulf of Mexico. Later this year, uncertain economic conditions forced Shell to postpone the project to 2021.
Regarding crude oil production in Alaska, the EIA predicted that it would remain relatively stable, at an average of 460,000 b/d in 2020, and that it will slightly rise in 2021.
Oil companies operating in Norway, Western Europe’s largest petroleum producer, drilled just 30 exploration wells off the coast of Norway by the end of 2020. This marked the lowest level in 14 years, as announced by the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD) in October.
The search for new oil and gas reserves has also decreased from 57 drilled wells in 2019 and falls behind previous projections of about 50 wells.
The NPD said in a statement: "The decline in demand for oil and lower prices have led oil companies to reduce their exploration budgets for the year and postpone a number of exploration wells.”
Companies including Equinor, Aker BP, and Lundin Energy announced considerable cost cuts in the early phases of the Covid-19 crisis, attempting to preserve capital and weather the storm.
In response, NPD director of exploration Torgeir Stordal expressed concerns over the near future of the industry: "Without new discoveries, oil and gas production could decline rapidly after 2030."
In the meantime, Norway still believes that there are significant resources to be found beneath its seabed, which are projected at around 3.9 billion cubic meters (bcm), a slight decrease from 4 bcm two years ago, the NPD said.
The Brazilian oil and gas industry has been deeply influenced by the unusual events of 2020.
In November 2019, Petrobras announced its 2020–24 investment plan, with a new budget of approximately $75.7bn (84.94% allocated to exploration and production). Despite the challenges, the company has not reported massive obstacles.
It also continued with its divestment programme of some upstream, midstream, and downstream assets, opening new opportunities for foreign investment.
During the Covid-19 outbreak, Petrobras and other oil companies shifted focus from their own projects onto divesting in ancillary projects, which helped reduce their expenses while generating income for the sale of such non-core assets.
November’s bidding rounds by the National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (ANP), showed that the usual interest in Brazil’s offshore upstream rounds has plunged, which led to the suspension of the Brazil Round 17 for exploratory blocks under the concession regime.
Despite the hardships, the ANP managed to keep the First Cycle of the permanent offer, which involves a continuous offer of fields returned and exploratory blocks offered in previous tenders that were not acquired or returned to the agency.
The UK Continental Shelf
British consultancy Westwood Global estimated in September 2020 that the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) was on course to reach a record low of offshore exploration wells this year, its lowest since companies started exploring the North Sea for oil in the 1960s.
In May 2020, along with the publication of its annual review of global exploration activity and outlook for 2020 and beyond, the consultancy said that while dealing with the immediate Covid-19 crisis, “societal pressure is building for a rapid transition to a low-carbon future”.
In September, Alyson Harding, technical manager at Westwood, said in Energy Voice that the company predicts only five exploration wells will be drilled in 2020, one less than in 2018. By comparison, 14 exploration wells were drilled last year with only one becoming commercial.
According to Westwood’s early estimations from February, the UKCS was predicted to reach 17 wells by the end of the year, but the pandemic hampered these plans. So far, Chrysaor’s and Apache’s Solar well and Total’s Isabella well are commercially viable.
While the Oil and Gas Authority offered 113 licence areas over 259 blocks or part-blocks to 65 companies in early September, it is not certain that operations will take advantage of this opportunity because of current market instability.
Looking ahead, Harding said in a company webinar that the firm has been given indications from companies that 23 exploration and 10 appraisals wells could be drilled in the UKCS next year, depending on the impact of Covid-19 in 2021.
Mozambique’s untapped oil and gas potential was first revealed by initial exploratory drilling in 2007.
Later, natural gas became part of Mozambique’s oil and gas strategy to help industrialise the northern provinces of the country. However, after some recent project cancellations, Mozambique’s Council of Ministers is now planning to transport the north’s oil and gas to the better developed south.
In a tender process run in 2017, Shell was given the right to build a gas-to-liquids plant that would convert gas to synthetic diesel, naphtha, and kerosene; Norwegian chemical company Yara International was allowed to build a fertiliser plant to power the northern town of Palma using domestic market gas; and Kenyan power company Great Lakes Africa Energy was allocated gas to build a 250MW power plant in the north-eastern city of Nacala.
However, whether influenced by the Covid-19 crisis or rising environmental scrutiny in the country, it appears that only the Nacala power plant will take place. Yara has cancelled its fertiliser project and Shell’s CEO has been giving indications that the company does not expect to develop any new greenfield gas-to-liquids projects.