May 13, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Study finds Exxon's subtle PR shifts aim to sway public on inevitability of fossil fuel economy

Exxon's optimistic climate plans
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

ExxonMobil Corp. has switched their public relations tactics from outright denial of human-caused global warming to more subtle ways of portraying a fossil fuel-based economy as driven by consumer demand and inevitable, a new study finds.

Why it matters: The new study, published Thursday in the journal One Earth, analyzes Exxon's internal and external communications to identify and characterize the use of language through machine learning and matches them up with narratives about climate change.

  • The study is the latest work by a team of Harvard researchers — Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes — who have spent years exposing the oil industry's deceptive communications on climate science, with a particular focus on ExxonMobil.

How it works: The study uses machine learning algorithms to examine 180 ExxonMobil climate change communications, including peer-reviewing research from company scientists, internal company documents revealed unearthed through investigative journalism, and advertorials published in the New York Times.

  • The linguistics research zeroes in on the framing the U.S. oil and gas major uses to shape climate policy debates and public conversations.

What they found: Supran and Oreskes found the company has emphasized climate "risk" and consumer energy "demand" in ways that makes it seem inevitable that oil and gas will be used for decades to come due to increasing consumer energy demands, while downplaying the risks from global warming.

  • "One of our key findings is that ExxonMobil’s public communications have shifted responsibility for climate change away from itself and onto consumers by publicly fixating on consumer energy 'demand' rather than the fossil fuels that the company supplies," Supran tells Axios.
  • "This is important and problematic because what we have here is a fossil fuel supply company presenting climate change as primarily a problem caused by demand, and to be solved by consumers," he said.

Yes, but: Most independent analyses of long-term energy use and demand show oil and natural gas remaining large sources of energy for decades is a consensus position, even in a world that begins implementing much more aggressive climate policies that significantly cut long-term demand.

The study, along with previous research and reporting from Inside Climate News and other publications, also finds that Exxon and other fossil fuel companies have continued to follow the playbook of big tobacco companies in trying to fend off legal liability for contributing to climate change.

  • The study found that ExxonMobil's newspaper advertorials, for example, have touted their investments in new energy technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration, that could one day lower greenhouse gas emissions.
  • "It’s gaslighting-101: to insist as fact that consumers are responsible, then present the company as a trustworthy innovator we should rely on to make things better," Supran said.

The other side: "This research is clearly part of a litigation strategy against ExxonMobil and other energy companies," ExxonMobil spokesman Casey Norton said in a statement.

  • He also said ExxonMobil supports the Paris climate agreement and is working to cut its emissions, help customers reduce theirs, and "working on new lower-emission technologies and advocating for effective policies."
  • In addition, Norton pointed to the company's investments in carbon capture, citing the recent establishment of the ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions division and proposal for an expansive industry-government collaboration to deploy the technology.

Of note: Norton also alleged that Naomi Oreskes, the lead author of the study, is on retainer at a law firm, Sher Edling, which is pursuing litigation against the company.

  • In an email to Axios, Oreskes rejected that accusation, saying that in 2017, she "reviewed materials for a brief filed by that firm, for historical accuracy" and billed them for 3.5 hours of work. Neither she nor Supran are on retainer there, she said.

What to watch: The new study could be incorporated into lawsuits pending in the U.S. and abroad, which allege that the fossil fuel industry in general, including ExxonMobil, was deceptive for understanding the risks their products pose, but then embarking on campaigns to portray climate science as uncertain.

  • In addition, new activist campaigns are taking aim at public relations firms to try to get them to halt work for oil and gas companies.
  • "There appears to be a growing desire among the public for the curtains to be pulled back on Big Oil’s propaganda. Our study begins to do just that," Supran said.

Ben Geman contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with Exxon's response to the paper.

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