Big Oil "Hearts Clean Air"...Or Not

Sierra Club materials (above) are being imitated by the American Petroleum Institute

“I Heart Clean Air and Jobs,” read batches of stickers handed out Friday at an Environmental Protection Agency listening session on pollution standards for the oil industry. You might assume this slogan was crafted by an environmental group, and indeed the stickers looked remarkably similar to those given out by the Sierra Club at similar events. You’d probably be surprised to learn they were actually printed by the American Petroleum Institute, as part of misinformation campaign designed to confuse the public and policymakers about the impacts of the oil industry.

What, you might ask, do oil companies have to gain by saying they support clean air? After all oil refineries in the US pollute nearby communities with toxins that contribute to asthma, emphysema, birth defects, and other illnesses. That’s on top of pollution from automobile tailpipes that occurs when gasoline is burned for fuel. As for jobs? Oil and gas extraction is heavily reliant on machinery and far less likely to add new jobs in than the renewable energy industries. What jobs there are in the oil industry are also becoming increasingly dangerous as oil companies venture further out to sea and into more treacherous areas to suck the last drops of petroleum from the ground.

It seems puzzling that a polluting industry which provides relatively few jobs would draw attention to air quality and job creation in its advertising—unless you fully understand the logic of the American Petroleum Institute’s PR campaign. Oil companies know they aren’t much liked by the public: ExxonMobil and BP aren’t ever going to win a popularity contest. Yet the next best thing to actually being accepted as a creator of jobs and guardian of public health is to give yourself the appearance of being popular. In this context it makes sense to station employees outside public hearing and hand out stickers with your slogan. If people who pick up a sticker and slap it on their jackets never realize they’ve become spokespersons for the oil industry, that’s all to the good for BP.

Nowhere on the “I Heart Clean Air and Jobs” stickers does the term “oil” or “American Petroleum Institute” appear. The only clue wearers are offered about where their sticker came from is the URL to a web site, vaguely titled “Energy Tomorrow.org.” Most people putting on a sticker would assume they were displaying their support for clean energy. Yet if you go to the “Energy Tomorrow” web site, it turns out to be an online pulpit for the oil and gas industries. The site advocates environmentally disastrous practices like processing the Canadian tar sands for oil, and natural gas “hydrofracking.”

As polluting industries become increasingly self-conscious about their unpopularity, you can expect to see more American Petroleum Institute-style campaigns that seek to imitate the messaging of environmental groups. Whether you’re an entrepreneur seeking to sign your business onto a responsible trade group, and individual looking to join an organization, or a policymaker with a letter on your desk that promises having “energy tomorrow,” be sure to research the true goals and financial backing of any organization before pledging your support. In the age of corporate misinformation, you might find a group which claims to “heart” “clean air and jobs” actually does anything but.

Photo credit: Sierra Club