Oil Propaganda Wars

In November 1999, the High Court in London ruled that the UK government
had failed to uphold the EU Habitats Directive when it awarded offshore
oil licenses in British waters of the North Atlantic. Wildlife and ecosystems
were being put at risk in this “Atlantic Frontier.” But now the island
of St. Kilda, the UK’s only natural World Heritage site, is safe—for the
moment. Greenpeace UK, who took the government to court, has won a landmark
victory. The oil industry’s response to the court decision was to raise
the spectre of lost jobs—the usual corporate hogwash when profits are perceived
to be threatened.

Oil companies have a long history of waging propaganda wars. School children
are not exempt from the battle zone. That was the reality that confronted
me as a climate scientist last year when I took part in a lively conference
for senior school pupils on the topic of “Resources from the Sea.” The
event was supported by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA), a consortium of oil and gas companies operating in British waters.
It opened with a fast-cut, loud advertising video extolling the virtues
of hydrocarbons, with only a cursory nod to climate change and the 1997
Kyoto Summit. It was at Kyoto where developed countries had agreed to an
overall 5 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.

The motivation behind UKOOA’s involvement in the conference was “to provide
balance to the debate about the oil industry in the wake of Brent Spar.”
Lest we forget, Brent Spar was the retired North Sea oil-storage buoy that
Shell UK had planned to dump in the North Atlantic until citizen protests
around Europe forced a dramatic U-turn in 1995.

Oil company support for school science events is just one part of a much
bigger picture of corporate involvement in education. According to Sharon Beder, an environmentalist at the University of Wollongong in Australia
and author of the 1997 book, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism,
big business is infiltrating school lessons “to get them while they’re
young.” Beder continues, “Teachers are being overwhelmed with free and
unsolicited curriculum material from public relations firms, corporations
and industry associations. In most cases, the [material] gives students
a distorted picture of environmental issues and other problems, social
choices and tradeoffs.”

In the United States, McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza are giving schools
a percentage of profits from fast food sales, encouraging children to coerce
parents into buying pizzas and hamburgers in order to raise money. Industries
in the U.S., Canada, and Australia are taking advantage of schools short
on funds by feeding them “educational material,” filled with company logos
that are designed to encourage youngsters to buy company products.

The oil industry’s message, through science events like the one I attended,
is that modern civilization is dependent on the hydrocarbon business. The
industry can only survive so long as it propagates this myth. A related
misperception is that environmentalists are anti-science/technology. Supporters
of people-centered, environmentally sustainable development are the real
progressives. New advanced technologies which conserve resources and reduce
pollution, and which enable individuals, local communities, and developing
countries to become more self-reliant, are crucial.

Nick Milton, formerly a Greenpeace campaigner, explains, “The skills of
the oil industry could easily be converted to exploiting the UK’s rich
potential for renewable energy, and create a net gain in jobs into the
bargain.” A recent report produced for Greenpeace showed that the Northeast
of England, with its long history of heavy manufacturing and offshore work,
provides an ideal site to develop a successful offshore wind industry.
Milton continues, “Over 30,000 new jobs could be created if the UK government
committed to an initial, readily achievable target of just 10 percent of
our electricity from offshore wind in the next ten years. Denmark is already
investing over U.S.$1 billion in offshore wind as part of a strategy to
boost its wind-driven electricity generation, from today’s eight per cent,
to as much as 50 per cent by 2030.”

American journalist Ross Gelbspan reports that a renewable energy study
in the United States shows that “for every million dollars spent on oil
and gas exploration, only 1.5 jobs are created. But for every million spent
on making solar water heaters, 14 jobs are created. For manufacturing solar
electricity panels, 17 jobs. For electricity from biomass and waste, 23
jobs. Renewable energy is a win-win resource: good for the environment
and good for employment.” Renewable campaigners say that this is the kind
of business enterprise, rather than the oil industry “dinosaur,” that we
should be selling to the next generation of schoolchildren.

Last, and most definitely not least, there is the question of greenhouse
gas emissions. Using figures from the 2,500-scientist Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change, it can be shown that we can afford to burn no
more than one quarter of existing fossil fuel reserves without causing
significant ecological damage, including major food production losses in
vulnerable parts of the world. And as emissions continue to rise, there
is an increasing incidence of extreme climate-related events, such as severe
droughts and devastating wind storms, like the cyclone which swept through
Orissa, India towards the end of 1999, with the loss of up to 10,000 lives.

Sadly, the Climate Talks in Bonn last November were not infused with any
commensurate sense of urgency. American big business is still attempting
to buy its way out of making real cuts at home, in a country where 4 percent
of the world’s population are responsible for around 25 percent of emissions.
The news media carry reports of the possible climatic impacts—more flooding,
more frequent and severe storms, even the possible shutdown of the Atlantic
Ocean “conveyor belt,” plunging western Europe into a new ice age. We hear
considerably less about the corporations determined to prevent a shift
from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable energy.

Instead of unfounded fears of oil industry job losses, the question we
should be asking is, “how will the oil industry compensate those hundreds
of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are at risk from fossil
fuel-generated climate change?”                   Z

David Cromwell is a physical oceanographer and writer. His first book,
Private Planet, is due to be published by Jon Carpenter later this year.