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The Great Gasoline Greenwash
Tate Hausman, Original to AlterNet


Now that your brain isn't melting out of your ears, you've probably noticed that we're nearing the end of a damn hot summer. So hot, in fact, that over 1,000 people roasted to death, hundreds of record highs were set and one of the worst droughts in history decimated crops across the country. After congratulating yourself on surviving the heat, you might start to wonder, did this summer sizzle because of Nature alone? Or is something more human -- something like our excessive burning of fossil fuels -- causing global warming?

While scientists can't conclusively pin 1999's heat waves on fossil fuel consumption, they do agree that our present reliance on burning coal, oil and gas will eventually heat up the planet. Depending on how much the mercury rises, the effects could be severe: more droughts, fires and floods, more hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons, coastal cities obliterated by rising sea levels, fragile ecosystems destroyed by weather changes, even worldwide crop failures. Not a pretty picture. Of course, scientists aren't the only ones who know that the planet might heat up because we burn too much oil. Most Americans know it. And, of course, oil companies know that we know it. They know that if the threat of global warming gets scary enough, Americans might turn against the oil industry. Maybe we'll boycott gas stations. Maybe we'll demand stricter regulations. Maybe we'll sue oil companies, like we're suing the tobacco and gun industries. Whatever happens, it'll be a public relations disaster. And you can bet your last drop of crude that the oil corporations are working to prevent that.

Take the latest public relations campaign from British Petroleum (BP), which they call "Plug in the Sun." BP -- which also owns Amoco and ARCO, making it the second largest oil conglomerate in the world -- has put solar panels on top of filling stations in about 20 cities around the globe. On sunny days these solar panels power the station's gas pumps and mini-marts, which reduces their reliance on the public grid. BP now proudly claims, "We fill you up by sunshine."

Sounds nice, but as the online magazine Corporate Watch points out, it's a misleading load of bull. Even at the most solar-friendly BP stations, cars are still filling their tanks with gasoline, a leading contributor to global warming. Putting solar panels on its filling stations may garner good publicity, but it won't reduce the amount of gas BP sells. If anything, BP will sell more gas to enviro-conscious drivers impressed by the "Plug in the Sun" stunt. More gas equals more emissions -- which equals more global warming. Noting this blatant hypocrisy, Corporate Watch recently named BP as the unwilling recipient of a satirical award -- the "Summer 1999 Greenwash Award."

The term "greenwash," unknown twenty years ago, has become so prevalent that the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary now includes a definition of the term:

greenwash (n): Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.

In less technical terms, a greenwash is what happens when an environmentally irresponsible corporation poses as a friend of the Earth, either through expensive ad campaigns, non-profit corporate front groups or publicity stunts such as BP's "Plug in the Sun." While rarely filled with flat-out lies, greenwashes rely on misleading, distracting information that masks a corporation's real impact the environment -- which is usually negative.

"Greenwashing has been around since the early '70s," says Josh Karliner, executive director of the Transnational Resource & Action Center, which publishes Corporate Watch. "Ever since the success of the first Earth Day, corporations realized that people wouldn't put up with environmentally destructive companies. Of course, those companies didn't want to change their business, even if it was hurting the environment, so instead they started greenwashing."

And in the oil industry, they never stopped. While BP eventually won the Greenwash Award, four other oil companies were close runners-up: Chevron, for its "People Do" ads; Exxon, for its "Save the Tiger" fund; Mobil, for its op-ed ads in the New York Times; and Shell, for its "Profits or Principles" campaign. With such accomplished greenwashing in the industry, how did BP surpass its competitors to win the award?

Kenny Bruno, author of a book called Greenwash: The Reality of Corporate Environmentalism and long-time TRAC adviser, points out a number of other factors that added to selecting BP for the award.

"At the same time as BP announced its solar program, it was in the process of buying ARCO for $26.5 billion," notes Bruno. "The few million spent to add solar panels to filling stations means nothing to BP. Meanwhile, in Alaska alone, BP Amoco will spend $5 billion in the next five years on oil exploration and production. Fossil fuels remains at the heart of BP's business. Everything else is window dressing."

Of course, the window dressing often makes the longest-lasting impression. According to Karliner, greenwash campaigns are quite effective when aimed at a specific, influential audience. For example, Chevron's "People Do" ad campaign, which portrays the company as a virtual eco-savior, has been running successfully for more than 12 years. The ads appear predominantly in Texas, Louisiana, California and Washington, DC. The first three are states in which Chevron has most of its refineries, and therefore where the corporation is most heavily regulated and taxed. And Washington is where many of those regulations and taxes -- or deregulations and tax breaks, if the greenwashing is effective -- originate.

"Greenwash campaigns target decision makers -- regulators, public figures and politicians -- and the constituencies that will influence those decision makers," says Karliner. "The 'People Do' ads were so effective that Chevron executives bragged about them in advertising trade magazines."

BP has not publicly responded to the Greenwash Award, except to tell Corporate Watch reporters who asked for BP promotional material that Plug in the Sun is "not a greenwash campaign." Which was a comment that didn't surprise Karliner.

"Of course they're going to defend their intentions," he says. "But if BP was serious about saving the environment they would invest more than a pittance in solar and alternative fuels, and they'd cut back oil, coal and gas production."

When asked what else oil giants could do to go beyond greenwashing, Karliner laughs.
"Ideally, BP would get out of the oil business altogether," he says. "But we all know that's not going to happen."

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