Here’s a quick elections quiz: Which candidate do the big oil and coal companies hope to see winning on November 6th? My guess is that 99 out of 100 people that would answer Mitt Romney immediately. 1 out of 100 would think about it for a minute and only then will say – Mitt Romney.
While this might not be that surprising given Romney’s policies, you might still be surprised to hear that big oil outspend cleantech by four to one when it comes to TV ads. According to an analysis by The New York Times, of 138 ads on energy issues broadcast this year by different parties, fossil fuel supporters spent around $153 million, while clean energy advocates spent only $41 million. Another surprising element in the Times’ analysis was how the situation has changed since 2008. Back then, “green ads greatly outnumbered those for fossil fuels, $152 million to $109 million.”
So what caused this change in the balance between green-fossil fuel ads? Does it really make a difference for voters? And no less important – if big oil fights to put Romney in the Oval Office, will President Obama still acts in their favor in his ‘all of the above’ energy strategy?
First, what caused the change between 2008 and 2012.
Remember climate change? That was part of the agenda during the 2008 elections. More importantly, it was viewed by both sides from a very pragmatic perspective. Some elders may even remember back then you could be a Republican nominee and promote solutions to global warming, including solar and wind energy. Four years later, you have a united front against global warming on one side with a nominee that believes that “we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” Big oil took notice of that.
In addition, in the last four years, Solyndra went bankrupt and made cleantech more unpopular than ever, legislators failed to pass a climate bill, the attention of the public has shifted to the economy and the President framed the debate in terms of energy independence, advocating, for example, for further exploration of offshore oil and gas. Big oil couldn’t ask for more.
It’s not that oil companies don’t take green action. On Shell’s last sustainability report you could read how the company is combating CO2 emissions in several fronts, while reminding readers that “climate change is likely to intensify the stresses.” In addition, the company explained that “at Shell we believe that responsibly delivering cleaner, more reliable and affordable energy is the best contribution we can make today to a more stable world where economies can thrive.”
Here’s one example – as ThinkProgress reported, Romney’s economic plan proposes cutting the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. “That could provide a combined tax cut of at least $2.3 billion annually to the five largest publicly owned oil companies, according to an analysis of their 2011 public financial statements.”
On the other hand President Obama declares in his acceptance speech that “unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers.“ If you’re oil, gas or coal (or all of the above) company, the choice between these two options seems a no brainer.
While the TV ads from organizations like the American Petroleum Institute (“I’m an energy voter”), which is backed by the nation’s largest oil and gas companies, don’t explicitly say “vote for Romney,” the message is clear. “They clearly echo policy stands taken by Mr. Romney and the Republicans: opposing regulations that might slow down drilling and denouncing Mr. Obama’s proposal to eliminate oil industry subsidies,” explains the New York Times.
Will these ads make any difference to voters? Apparently not.
When you look at polls, especially in swing states, you see that among likely voters, energy is far from being an important issue, nevermind climate change. It’s true that telling people that “new energy taxes could hurt drivers and families, better to produce more energy here, like oil and natural gas. That will help the economy. That’s good for everyone,” as one ad says, might sound persuasive, but apparently people know better. A USA Today/Gallup poll found last month that Obama is leading Mitt Romney by 13 points on energy issues (53 to 40). Anyway, as I mentioned, for most people in the swing states it’s not really an issue.
And finally, if big oil tries to beat Obama, why does he still hug them with his “all of the above” energy policy?
Obama, as a pragmatist, sees it as the best compromise available, even if it makes many of his green allies upset. Still, even with such a friendly hug, big oil might find that a re-elected President doesn’t forget so quickly who paid for the ads trying to unseat him.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development.