Feb 1 2010

Newsweek Greenwashes the Oil Lobby for Real

Boosting fossil-fuel profits as a sign of eco-friendliness

Photo Credit: The Daily Beast

Photo Credit: The Daily Beast

Green energy advocates, environmentalists and anyone concerned with climate change can breathe a deep sigh of relief—the battle against the oil barons has been won. At least, that’s what Newsweek would have its readers believe.

Under the provocative headline “Big Oil Goes Green for Real” (Newsweek.com, 9/19/09), Newsweek International senior editor Rana Foroohar argued that the world’s biggest oil producers have had a change of heart:

Companies are actually beginning to think about alternatives not just as a tool for greenwashing (throw up a few solar panels here, sponsor a conference on wind energy there) but as real businesses that might one day turn real profits—or at least help make fossil-fuel production more profitable.

Foroohar’s thesis statement actually contradicted the headline: If Big Oil’s objective in developing green energy is to reap greater profits from fossil fuels—the consumption of which is humanity’s primary contribution to climate change—it can hardly be said to be going “green for real.” Moreover, the case for the oil industry’s commitment to being eco-friendlier is based on the frailest of evidence, a “spate of new green announcements” from these companies. The list included ExxonMobil cultivating green algae, Chevron sequestering carbon and the fact that oil producers now control 7 percent of ethanol in the U.S. “The list goes on,” enthused Foroohar. “And this time it’s the real deal.”

What differentiates these projects, and this round of public relations, from the “greenwashing” of the past is entirely unclear. In fact, Foroohar even noted later in the article that “companies like BP and Shell are cutting back on commercial projects in wind and solar” and focusing on “how they might be used to increase efficiency internally, or to free up increasingly profitable fossil fuels, like natural gas, for commercial sale.” In short, it seems that nothing has changed: Big Oil is continuing on its current path of increasing oil production while pandering disingenuous environmental messages to receptive media—in this case, to Newsweek.

Take ethanol: As demonstrated by Foroohar, the biofuel continues to be lauded as a source of green energy by many in the mainstream press. This should come as little surprise, because, as she points out (citing a former Chevron exec), “Big Oil’s key assets—giant pipes, huge swaths of land with existing industrial-use permits, geo-engineering expertise and extremely deep pockets—are ‘tailor-made for developing and delivering biofuels.’” Ethanol is such a good fit for oil and gas giant Shell that it gutted “all other investment in renewables to focus on biofuels.”

There is one pesky fact, however, omitted by Newsweek: Biofuels currently produce even more greenhouse gases than conventional fuels (New York Times, 2/8/08). Scientists and environmentalists have abandoned corn and cane alcohol as viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Growing plants to brew biofuel involves clearing new tracts of land—read deforestation—and requires converting an increasing amount of arable land from food production to fuel production. Moreover, making biofuel requires major inputs of fossil fuel for fertilizers, pesticides, farming, transportation and conversion of the crop into ethanol, not to mention copious quantities of fresh water.

The green claims of biofuels were thoroughly debunked in two well-publicized studies last year (Science Express, 2/7/08; Science, 2/29/08). Timothy Searchinger, author of one of the studies, told the New York Times (2/8/08): “Most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially.” Newsweek nevertheless cited biofuel programs as one of the key signs of a new era of environmental stewardship for Big Oil.

Even including corn ethanol, the industry’s investment in energy alternatives remains paltry; Foroohar herself notes it accounts for a mere 4 percent of total profits. And oil producers have recently done as much to slow their green energy programs as to invest in them. In June, BP “shut down its alternative energy headquarters in London, accepted the resignation of its clean energy boss and imposed budget cuts in moves likely to be seen by environmental critics as further signs of the oil group moving ‘back to petroleum’” (Guardian, 6/29/09). While it was paring back on renewables, BP continued to invest heavily in the Canadian tar sands, “the most expensive form of crude oil to produce” that can “cause as much as five times the greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional crude oil” (Climate Progress, 5/29/09). The Canadian Globe and Mail (12/7/09) called the tar sands one of the “single biggest sources of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.”

Tar sand mining operation in Alberta, Canada

Tar sand mining operation in Alberta, Canada


Shell, meanwhile, “provoked a furious backlash from campaigners yesterday when it announced plans to scale back its renewable energy business and focus purely on oil, gas and biofuels,” reported the London Times Online (3/18/09). Shell was “planning to drop all new investment in wind, solar and hydrogen energy.” The green efforts of oil producers cannot hope to make a dent in the environmental cost of oil. And, in truth, these companies don’t seem to be trying very hard, either.

At the same time as they talk big about going green, the oil barons have waged highly organized disinformation campaigns going back decades to prevent legislative efforts to combat climate change (Mother Jones, 5-6/05). This fall, blogger Zachary Roth (TPMMuckraker, 11/4/09) noted that the American Petroleum Institute “has been a key opponent of serious efforts to address climate change, spending over $3 million lobbying on the Waxman-Markey climate change bill this year.”

In a memo leaked this summer from the Institute to its members, which its website boasts range from “the largest major oil company to the smallest of independents,” the trade organization’s CEO urged “oil companies to recruit their employees for events that will ‘put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy,’ and will urge senators to ‘avoid the mistakes embodied in the House climate bill.’” TPMMuckraker (8/14/09) noted that the events “appear aimed at passing off industry employees as independent citizens.” Newsweek covered the scandal “as an example of ‘how astroturfing is taking over local activism’” (Newsweek.com, 8/20/09; TPMMuckraker, 11/4/09).

The news magazine, it would seem, is aware of front groups, corporate lobbying power, disinformation campaigns and the effect of these oil-funded schemes on true grassroots organizing. It also appears that the magazine is aware of the biofuels swindle. In the wake of the reports published in Science, Newsweek.com (2/11/08) ran an interview with an author of one of the studies. Why then, does it continue to publish fallacious stories like “Big Oil Goes Green for Real”?

Look to the cozy relationship between business and political elites and the corporate press. In the wake of Foroohar’s story, the magazine sent out invitations to policymakers and stakeholders in the oil industry to be part of a December event called “Climate and Energy Policy: Moving?,” co-hosted by none other than the American Petroleum Institute. When Roth broke the story (TPMMuckraker, 11/4/09), he noted that the oil lobbying group and the magazine have a history of joint ventures. This includes a 2008 panel discussion on globalization and competition for resources and an event held on Capitol Hill in 2009 called “Energy Policy Perspectives for a New Congress and Administration.”

Newsweek’s public relations director told TPMMuckraker that the publication has hosted five such events with the API. When asked if environmentalists would be invited to speak, he said the magazine “‘would definitely consider that opportunity,’ if there were a high-profile environmentalist who might be appropriate. But he said that because members of Congress would likely also participate, time constraints might dictate against it.” While the newsweekly may claim it maintains “very strict church and state policies that have to be followed,” the dearth of opposition voices, or even representatives of the scientific consensus, leaves this nominal separation without teeth.

Newsweek’s parent company, the Washington Post Co., is certainly no stranger to the muddied journalistic ethics of bringing together industry and politicians sans dissenters. As noted in Extra! (9/09), Post publisher Katharine Weymouth had planned to host “salons” at her home that would include journalists, politicians and corporations—those who could afford to underwrite the $25,000 soirees—to talk policy. It promised to bring “together those powerful few in business and policymaking who are forwarding, legislating and reporting on the issues.”

As FAIR has reported for years, these kind of gatherings are common throughout the corporate press. They serve to highlight the close relationship of journalists to the politicians and businesses they are charged with watchdogging. These events also go a long way towards explaining why corporate propaganda continues to grace the nation’s headlines long after the claims have been debunked. When the opposition can’t afford a seat at the table, is it any wonder that journalists scrub the image of the most polluting companies on earth until they are squeaky clean?

Candice O’Grady is a freelance writer and former FAIR intern.


It’s Easy Being Green

At Newsweek, the bar for green leadership seems to be quite low. An article published last summer (7/27/09) found a “sinister reason” behind Germany’s lack of enthusiasm for biotechnology: “a powerful coalition of environmental activists, church leaders, politicians and journalists” who “mobilized fears against medical biotechnology as a dangerous meddling with nature, an attack on human dignity reminiscent of Nazi eugenics.” In this long diatribe against “green technophobia” in Germany and Europe—perish the thought that the people of any country may want to weigh scientific progress against environmental degradation—reporter Stefan Theil concluded:

Someday, Germans could take their cue from environmentalists like Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore, who has changed his mind about nukes and GMOs, arguing that by cutting emissions and creating better biofuels, both help fight global warming. Already, a small but rising majority of Germans say the decision to shut down nuclear power was wrong. That is, perhaps, a sign that Germans may be letting go of their old technological anxieties at last.

As noted in Extra! (1-2/08), Patrick Moore is a paid spokesperson of the Nuclear Energy Institute. According to a report published by the Center for Media and Democracy’s Diane Farsetta (PRWatch.org, 3/14/07), Moore “has now spent more time working as a PR consultant to the logging, mining, biotech, nuclear and other industries…than he did as an environmental activist.”