A new public relations strategy has been taking shape as the fossil fuel industry attempts to push back against criticism for its role in climate change and other forms of environmental degradation. That strategy can be seen in the 2012 ExxonMobil Corporate Citizenship Report, combined with remarks that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson made during the annual shareholders' meeting last week.
The new argument is that fossil fuels are the most effective pathway for improving the quality of life for emerging economies around the globe, or, as Tillerson is reported to have said at the meeting, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
As for why a new strategy is necessary, consider that the conventional argument of jobs vs. the environment has been used with great success to sway public opinion in the U.S. in favor of controversial domestic energy projects for a long time now, but that argument is beginning to lose its edge as the renewable energy sector emerges as a rival job-creating powerhouse with fewer public health drawbacks.
Let's note first off that a "corporate citizen report" is not the same thing as a sustainability report on the order of a common reporting standard such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI). However, ExxonMobil does claim that the report "cross references" GRI G3.1 guidelines along with industry-specific reporting standards developed by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association and the American Petroleum Institute Oil and Gas Industry Guidance on Sustainability Reporting.
Visual cues being essential, let's also note that the report's signature image is a field of yellow flowers seemingly coexisting in peace with a large natural gas drilling rig parked in the background.
If you are familiar with ExxonMobil's 2011 report, the 2012 report strikes a similar note in that it does cover problem areas inherent in the oil and gas industry, at least insofar as ExxonMobil has made progress in addressing them.
Based on a 2002 benchmark, that includes a significant reduction in land and water spills.
The report also lists ExxonMobil's various charitable efforts, highlighted by an anti-malaria campaign that has totaled about $106 million since 2002, encompassing 17 countries in Asia and Africa.
In the coming decades, society will continue to face complex challenges related to a growing world population, economic growth, climate change, food security and public health...We must recognize that none of the challenges we face can be addressed without reliable and affordable access to energy. Energy powers our offices and schools. It runs life-saving medical equipment and operating rooms. It manufactures vaccines and transports medical personnel.
As far as general public awareness is concerned, that's an effective strategy given the reputation that natural gas has as a cleaner-burning fuel than petroleum and, especially, coal. Though public awareness of the impacts of natural gas "fracking" is beginning to grow, natural gas is generally perceived as an environmentally safe fossil fuel.
ExxonMobil has been encouraging that point of view with, for example, the recent release of a study purporting to show that natural gas obtained through fracking (a drilling method that involves pumping chemical brine underground) has significantly less lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than coal.
The 2012 report also identifies building "community trust around the development of unconventional natural gas," meaning gas obtained through fracking, as a key goal for the company.
However, other studies suggest that fracked natural gas has little or no advantage over coal in terms of greenhouse gas management, while local impacts of fracking include air pollution and water contamination as well as a documented link between earthquakes and the disposal of fracking wastewater in injection wells.
Shareholders have also become increasingly suspicious. For example, the organization As You Sow and other partners have mounted their fourth annual shareholder campaign to force oil and gas companies toward more disclosure of the risks and impacts of fracking. They have met with some success but have run into a brick wall with Exxon.
As reported by Reuters last week, about 30 percent of Exxon shareholders backed the fracking disclosure campaign. That's a respectable figure but far short of a convincing one, and it demonstrates that public awareness about fracking has a long way to go.
The distraction is clearly needed in light of the concerns raised by the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, which were exacerbated this spring with ExxonMobil's Pegasus Pipeline spill in Arkansas, which sent diluted tar sands oil into the suburban community of Mayflower and the adjacent Lake Conway last month, prompting the evacuation of residents.
As of this week, Mayflower residents are reporting significant health problems and have filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil.
That brings us full circle to Tillerson's "humanity suffers" argument in favor of continued fossil fuel exploitation, particularly regarding the anti-malaria campaign, since the company's own fossil fuel activities could significantly undercut its own anti-malaria efforts. As described in a recent malaria and climate change study, although increased drought in some areas may lead to dry conditions inhibiting malaria, in general, a warming climate and increased precipitation could favor malaria and introduce it into new regions.
In other words, new Corporate Citizenship Report, same ExxonMobil, which in its previous iteration as Exxon has a long history of climate change denial and obfuscation campaigns.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.