Dear Big Oil: Stop Acting Like Big Tobacco

[Reprinted from Alex Epstein’s latest post at the Master Resource blog.] The following is the beginning of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: the Key to Winning Hearts and Minds”—my soon-to-be published manifesto on how fossil fuel companies can neutralize attackers, turn non-supporters into supporters, and supporters into champions. I’ve been been circulating it among our clients. If you know someone in the industry who would benefit from this, please share it with them. _________________________________________________________________________ Imagine that you are talking to the CEO of a tobacco company. He is trying to deal with the endless political and legal attacks on his industry. He tells you that he can win back the hearts and minds of the public by doing the following:

  • “We need to stress to the public that we are an economically important industry that creates jobs and tax revenues.”
  • “We need to link the industry to our national identity.”
  • “We also need to stress to the public that we are addressing our attackers’ concerns—by lowering our emissions.”
  • “We need to do all this using the best ad agencies, polling firms, and media gurus, so we can make our case in the most wide-reaching and most emotionally compelling way.”

What would your response be? I’m guessing you would say that there’s no way this will work—because none of these address the fact that the public views their core product as a self-destructive addiction. The industry, accordingly, is viewed as an inherently immoral industry. So long as that is the case, all other communications efforts can only accomplish so much. For example, critics would ask, in response to the industry’s communications tactics: Do we want economic growth tied to poison? Do we want more jobs where the workers are doing harmful things? Do we want our national identity to continue being associated with something we now know is destructive? Do we want to settle for making a deadly product 20% less deadly? Obviously not. Everything above applies exactly to your industry, the oil industry. Your attackers portray your core product as a self-destructive addiction, and you as a fundamentally immoral industry. They’re wrong—but you wouldn’t know it from the public discussion of oil and, indeed, the entire fossil fuel industry. U.S. President Barack Obama has described the oil industry as a “tyranny.” Just as alarmingly, “pro-oil” ex-President Bush coined the expression “America’s addiction to oil”! There is far more public hostility to the oil industry than to the tobacco industry. And it is accused of being far more damaging. As Keystone XL opposition leader Bill McKibben put it to widespread acclaim, the fossil fuel industry is “Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.” In this manifesto I will argue that the root cause of the fossil fuel industry’s communications problems is this: environmentalist leaders have made a powerful and false-but-unanswered moral case against the fossil fuel industry by arguing that it is fundamentally “dirty” and “unsustainable.” Instead of refuting this case

and putting forward a positive alternative, the industry has conceded that it is “dirty” and “unsustainable” by promising to become less dirty and unsustainable—or by trying to sidestep the issue with talk of jobs and economics. The industry’s most effective argument is that, for some time, it is impractical to completely transition to the ideal, often called a “low-carbon future.” In failing to counter the moral case against it, the industry has positioned itself in the unenviable position of being a necessary evil. So long as this is the underlying moral understanding of your industry you will not win hearts and minds. No amount of talent and money spent on communications can work if the idea being communicated is self-incriminating. The widespread opposition to development logically follows from the public’s uncontested moral understanding. If you are really a necessary evil, then the goal should be to do everything imaginable to get off the addiction as soon as possible—not engage in enormous new development projects, which is the goal of oil companies. Fortunately, there is good news—there is a moral case for the fossil fuel industry and, when made properly, it wins over intelligent, passionate followers no matter what the medium or issue. That is the subject of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels: The Key to Winning Hearts and Minds”–coming next week. For more information, sign up for our mailing list. Alex Epstein, an energy philosopher, debater, and communications consultant, is Founder and President of the Center for Industrial Progress. Email him here.   //