First Person

My case against fossil-fuel advertising

December 13, 2022
Pete Markham

In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed a bill banishing cigarette advertising from television and radio, citing the risk to public health. The time has come to do something similar for fossil fuels.

I have reported on energy and climate change off and on for more than a decade, first for the Wall Street Journal and more recently for a new outlet, Semafor.

A few things are critical to know about the present moment in the clean-energy transition. Never has the need for clear-eyed, scientifically based action to end the world’s use of fossil fuels been greater. For that same reason, never has the fossil fuel industry’s determination to thwart and slow that effort, to muddy the waters of rational action, been greater. And rarely has the industry had the sort of fulsome profits garnered of late to put toward this goal. 

Advertising—in all its various forms, across the many platforms on which we encounter it every day—is one of the fossil fuel industry’s biggest tools in this campaign to undermine the transition away from fossil fuels. One investigation put the total industry advertising budget at $1.4 billion between 2008 and 2017. By another reckoning, the industry spent almost $10 million on more than 25,000 Facebook ads alone in 2020. 

The problem is that this money goes toward protecting and promoting a fundamentally unhealthy product, much like tobacco. Except fossil fuels are unhealthy in a far more serious way: our need to combust them to fuel our lives is the primary cause of global warming, which is now seriously threatening the whole of the world we live in.

I experienced this firsthand in my most recent role, writing a newsletter about climate change and energy transition for Semafor, a startup news organization that launched a few months ago. Chevron, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, was among the biggest advertisers.

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I felt  the ads were inappropriate for a newsletter devoted to solving the very problem fossil fuels are causing—as a spate of criticism from outside the organization when the ads first appeared echoed. 

Why would Chevron want its name associated with coverage about a problem its primary product is causing? The first answer is Chevron was often touting endeavors of its own that the company claims to be clean solutions. In the case of the ads in my stories, the project was one where the company produces natural gas from cow manure.

Now, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, however it’s produced, and even if getting it from cow manure is better for the environment than drilling in the ground for it. Also, these “green” initiatives represent a very tiny part of what Chevron really does—which almost exclusively is extract oil and gas from underground for combustion in the production of energy. The rest of the time, on other platforms, Chevron spends its money promoting oil and gas. This includes spending on organizations and lobbying that flat-out try to slow and discredit renewable energy, our main alternative to fossil fuels. 

For the ads that didn’t tout anything other than Chevron’s name and logo—no mention of oil or gas—the answer is that the company simply wants the audience to associate its name with whatever good work was going in that space addressing the global-warming problem. It’s image-burnishment by association.

InfluenceMap, a climate think tank that tracks the communications of the five biggest oil companies, said that in 2021, 60 percent of the companies’ public messages contain “green” claims, while 23 percent promote oil and gas. Meanwhile, in the real world, the companies are spending only an average of 12 percent of their capital budgets on “low carbon” investments this year, the group said. 

Semafor removed the ads from the newsletter. But to my distress, they continued to appear in my climate stories when readers found them on the Semafor website, shared them from the newsletter, or posted them on social media. The ads even appeared when I posted the stories in my own social media feeds.

I’ve since parted ways with Semafor. I expressed my misgivings, and didn’t see a way for me to continue if the fossil fuel advertisements stayed. 

None of this is to say phasing out fossil fuels will be simple—indeed, if anything, my experience at Semafor underscored for me how complicated this task really is. And I’m hardly the first to propose the idea of an advertising ban. This petition has gathered some 6,700 signatures asking the New York Times to stop accepting fossil fuel ads. Climate activists have campaigned against corporate greenwashing for many years. 

What I can say as a climate journalist is that the time for an ad ban has come. The energy transition is gaining traction rapidly. The Biden administration’s policies—the recent massive climate law, a huge infrastructure package earlier in the year, and the historic semiconductor manufacturing support bill—will pour funds into the effort. Europe’s energy crisis is spurring a tumultuous turnover in energy infrastructure in a hurry. The global climate diplomatic process run by the United Nations just completed a conference in Egypt—cop27—that seriously, if only briefly, contemplated giving the official stamp to phasing out all fossil fuels. 

Saudi Arabia and Russia killed that effort for now. Even the US, the largest producer of fossil fuels in the world, would go only so far as proposing to phase out all fossil fuel use that isn’t accompanied by technologies removing the carbon before it gets into the atmosphere. That’s a pipe dream for the endgame.

The many decisions to be made in the next five years will determine whether we succeed or fail in the existential task of curbing global warming. We must keep our eye on the ball: eliminating fossil fuel use as much and as quickly as possible. 

The fossil fuel industry does not share this goal, to say the least. But none of this is to say that the fossil fuel industry shouldn’t have any say in the transition to clean energy, or that fossil fuels won’t play an important role in the transition. It should, and they will. The problem so far is that the fossil fuel industry isn’t interested in phasing out fossil fuels, at least on a timeline resembling what’s necessary.

We need to move fast. At least until fossil fuel companies and their allies demonstrably reposition themselves in the energy markets, we should be very wary of their involvement. That means limiting their ability to advertise.

Regulation is not a bad place to start. Laws restricting fossil fuel advertising, or perhaps requiring the inclusion of hazards or side effects as required on cigarette packages or alongside prescription drug ads would be a good thing. France implemented a law earlier this year barring ads that promote coal, oil, and, starting next year, natural gas. The UK’s advertising watchdog, in a first, recently banned two sustainability advertisements from HSBC bank as misleading because they didn’t mention its fossil fuel projects and links to deforestation. 

But in these days of fragmented and omnipresent advertising, those would barely scratch the surface of a problem that extends far beyond the government’s legitimate reach. From there, we’ll all have to tap our inner Nixon (for these ends only, please!).

A first, easy step for serious news organizations not doing this already: remove fossil fuel advertisers from their climate and energy transition coverage. The fossil fuel industry seeks to leverage these channels, especially, as venues to disingenuously burnish their image. At this moment of crisis, this coverage shouldn’t become, essentially, a container for greenwashing. For the news organizations themselves, the ads also raise the specter of conflict of interest, perceived and real. They’re accepting huge sums from an industry with a long record of guiding public debate about climate change and energy transition away from the rational and science-based.

But it’s also time for all media—and the consumers of that media, too—to view fossil fuels for what they are: a deleterious product, unhealthy for ourselves and for the planet, one that shouldn’t be blithely promoted just like any other product. 

We won’t be able to get ourselves off this bad habit right away and without great effort. But we shouldn’t be providing a platform for an industry trying to convince us this stuff’s not bad for us.

Bill Spindle is a former Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow and Wall Street Journal bureau chief in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Most recently he was the climate and energy editor at Semafor.