A few weeks ago, we published an article exposing a serious piece of greenwash that ran in the Washington Post in early June. Southern Company, a notoriously high carbon dioxide emitter and avid opponent of clean energy solutions, ran this half-page advertisement, promoting the idea of “clean coal.”
We analyzed the advertisement, its falsities, as well as its long history of promoting unsustainable, environmental practices.
After becoming familiar with this ad’s little cartoon sketch and the message that it is “common sense” not to eliminate coal, when we discovered ads with similar features, we knew that they were additions to this company’s greenwashing archive.
Wrapped around the most recent July/August edition of Smithsonian Magazine was a two-page pamphlet with four Southern Company advertisements. At the top of the first page, the Smithsonian masthead is printed, so that the wrapper actually resembles a part of the magazine. Three of the ads are different versions of the original that we first saw in the Post, which was also re-printed in the wrapper as well.
They all have similar cartoon illustrations, and their messages are also based around the idea of “common sense.
The wrapper reveals that the one ad we caught in the Post is actually linked to a series of greenwashing advertisements and an entire campaign constructed by the company. See here for more information.
While all of these advertisements in the Smithsonian wrapper make a variety of different claims, one of the four is highlighted below.
Similar to the first ad in the Post, here Southern Company again states that it is working on the first zero-emissions coal-fired generating plant and writes that “common sense says to reduce our dependence on foreign energy” we must “use what’s under our own feet.” To complement and emphasize this statement, the picture shows a figure plugging a cord into an outlet situated on a map of the United States. Under the illustration is the statement, “The United States has a 200-year supply of coal.”
With this ad, the company sends the message that we should use America’s coal supply, (under our feet,) to power the country, and makes claims that using coal could become a zero-emissions process.
But their message is clearly false and irresponsible. Clean coal is only a myth: an idea created by industry. The fact is that coal is actually the largest source of mercury pollution in the United States and has left both air and water across the country irreversibly damaged and polluted.
Additionally, the statement that the U.S. has a 200-year supply of coal, further demonstrates that it is not a long-term or sustainable solution for the future. It will run out, and it will destroy the environment everyday until it does.
Another advertisement in the wrapper promotes the idea of using multiple energy sources. It’s text reads: “Common sense says don’t use just one,” and the illustration now shows the figure pushing a wheelbarrow full of symbols used to represent wind, nuclear, coal and switchgrass. Southern Company says that it has conducted $400 million in research on these different sources.
However, when considering the fact that the company serves approximately 4.3 million customers on nearly only coal, it’s hard to believe that it would truly be focusing on renewable or clean sources.
Additionally, Southern Company shows its support for nuclear power in this advertisement, a practice that will never be safe or clean; a practice that puts both the environment and human health at serious risk.
It’s clear that Southern Company has been working hard to get the public to believe that they care about the future of energy in this country. In fact, advertising in the Smithsonian magazine in particular, was probably strategic.
The company wants its message to reach the elite; people with power; people who can support the company and it’s endeavors; people like the readership of Smithsonian Magazine. According to the magazine’s 2010 Reader Profile, most of its readers are professionals and managers, wealthy, own a home, are married and college educated. The median household income of a 2010 Smithsonian reader is $71,917. Thirty five percent of the audience holds a professional or managerial position and 80% own a home.
Additionally, the advertising wrapper went out to only the DC market of the magazine, a place where the most influential subscribers would most likely live. According to an advertising representative from Smithsonian, the wrapper cost the company approximately $150,000.
Southern Company’s advertising strategy was not at all random. They were clearly targeting certain individuals that they believed would have power.
But implementing a clever and catchy campaign that includes cute illustrations doesn’t make their intentions or claims valid and/or truthful. After learning about who this company really is, “common sense says” they shouldn’t be trusted.
When I opened nytimes.com last week, I thought that I was on the wrong site. The page I had known with everyday (as it is my homepage) was suddenly foreign to me. At 7 a.m., this threw me. I sat back for a second, wondering what I was looking at; wondering why it wasn’t familiar.
Instead of headlines and a usually captivating example of photojournalism, the New York Times masthead was sandwiched between the Shell logo on one side and the words “A new energy future is dawning. The world will be on the road to sustainable mobility” on the other. Below was a giant, interactive advertisement with a timeline showing energy milestones throughout history. Below the timeline it says, “A new energy future is dawning. The world will be on the road to sustainable mobility.”
The ad is literally so large that no news stories or their headlines can be seen without scrolling down. It is so dominating that it seems like a parodied version of the New York Times site; almost a joke on the “power” of advertising. For a second, I thought that Shell might have actually purchased the newspaper overnight.
But the bigger joke is that Shell is the one sponsoring this monstrosity; that the company that drills for oil across the world is probably paying for this “sustainable energy” ad with money tied to fossil fuels. Both the price tag of New York Times advertising as well as the costs to the environment to get the money for this advertisement is high.
Although this example is an extreme one, Shell has a history of this behavior. In fact, on SourceWatch, Shell and greenwashing is the first category under a search of the company. They have greenwashed in both UK and American media. In 2008, they were found guilty by the British Advertising Standards Authority for false advertising concerning their operations in the tar sands.
At the top of the most recent advertisement on the New York Times, the company wrote, “Long-term energy demand will continue to soar. Shell is pushing the frontiers of energy exploration and squeezing more from existing resources to unlock new energy for the future.”
It is true. They are “squeezing” and depleting resources every day that they drill across the world, while also taking a risk at the expense of the environment. They are pushing it. They are willing to take risks like drilling in deep water (Shell currently owns The Perdido Spar, the deepest oil rig in the world, located in the Gulf of Mexico) and they are well known for operating unsafe wells and causing oil spills in Nigeria.
But they certainly aren’t exploring for new or sustainable energy. They are exploring for what the company has always made profit from: oil.
In any field, there are major players who stand out. Each industry has certain companies that everyone simply knows by name. They are often the largest or wealthiest, and they almost always dominate the rest. Considering this, when it comes to coal, Southern Company is infamous. It is the eighth largest utility company in the world and the second largest in the United States, getting the majority of its energy supply from coal. But the company also gets a significant amount of its notoriety from its many other crooked practices. Greenpeace has long investigated Southern Company for funding Senators like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has worked to overturn the EPA’s authority on the Clean Air Act, and the company’s legacy of dedicating effort and money to prevent other clean energy futures as well.
See here for Greenpeace’s effort to publicize Lisa Murkowski’s connections to companies such as Southern Company, Exxon and Chevron.
Southern Company is among the top five highest carbon dioxide emitting power companies in the world, according to Carbon Monitoring for Action. In 2006, one of the company’s subsidiaries was sued for violating the Clean Air Act and another of it’s plants in Georgia is facing environmental justice issues for being too close to residencies.
Given these facts, when we saw that Southern Company had bought a half page ad in the Washington Post earlier this month depicting a cartoon figure holding a chunk of green colored coal, it seemed a little suspicious. It seemed like greenwashing. The ad claims that Southern Company is “working toward building the world’s first zero-emissions, coal-fired generating plant” and “is spending $3.9 billion over the next three years to lower coal emissions.” But the message is hard to believe when considering the true nature of this company. In fact, it’s a 360-degree turn around from what has traditionally defined the company.
One underlying message clearly depicted in the ad is the idea of Carbon, Capture and Storage to create the so-called “zero emissions” plant. CCS is a process of capturing and then storing CO2 from point sources, such as coal-fired power plants, underground. The company alludes to this process in the advertisement with the statement, “..if you’re looking for the best energy solution, start with what’s under your feet.”
But CCS is not any kind of proven solution to take care of CO2. In fact, Greenpeace believes it actually fosters the dependence on fossil fuels.
Another prominent theme in this ad is “common sense.” It states at the top, “Common sense says don’t eliminate what you can make cleaner,” and toward the bottom reads “powered by common sense.” However, knowing about this company’s history and the science behind coal, it seems more sensible to say that there isn’t any truth to this ad.
The background of this company makes this advertisement a perfect example of greenwashing and any efforts they claim to have toward clean energy null and void. They are a coal company and revolve around something that will never be clean or safe.
Green coal will always exist only in the mind of a sketch artist; Never in reality and especially not from a group like Southern Company.
For the last month, I have opened my computer each morning with a sigh and often a cringe. It’s the way that I have been starting my day for weeks now.
Scouring the homepages of news web sites is pat of my morning routine, as regular as my cup of coffee. Being informed is a human natured comfort; something that leaves you a little more prepared to tackle the day ahead.
Lately however, I have grown afraid of what the headlines at the top of each web page read. I know one or more of them will be an update on the oil spill and I have grown accustom to being afraid of what will come next. I cringe to see the latest estimate of gallons, how an attempt to cap the leak has failed, another insensitive quote from Tony Hayward, or photos of white birds with wings and bodies slicked in burnt orange. Beginning my days with these things has made the desire to be informed somewhat of a burden.
I am usually a mess by 10 a.m.
Weary. Tired. Hopeless. Nervous.
Yesterday, the latest main headline scrolled across many news organization’s web sites announced that BP was indeed moving forward to burn large amounts of oil. Immediately, I am flooded with mixed emotions. This time it’s anger, curiosity and fear. Is this really the best option? Can we not devise any other alternative? Is it safe for the environment or others in the Gulf? Is this a half-baked idea, decided under overwhelming pressure and haste?
According to an Associated Press story, BP will devise a burning rig and use a device called the EverGreen Burner to turn the flow of oil into a vapor and then is burned. Perhaps if this was exactly how it occurred, it was safe and environmentally friendly, I would feel more comfortable about this being a possible solution.
But there are a lot of risks to consider.
The first are the environmental effects of this process. What will be the consequences of vaporizing the crude oil that has already made people sick and killed animals? Documents from Total E&P, a multinational energy company, said that the burning oil that would release sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and methane would pose a “moderate risk to the environment.”
Moderate by definition means average or temperate. But can this term really be used in relation to environmental damage or health? The risks of the toxins being released into the environment from the burning oil are not exactly what I would call moderate.
Consider the details of some of the chemicals that will be released into the air from the oil being burned:
- Nitrous Oxides: These are greenhouse gases and ozone depleters that account for 6% of the heating effect in the atmosphere. They are also significant contributors to the formation of smog, which has an affect on the lives of both plant life and cause respiratory problems in humans.
- Sulfur Dioxide: One of the releases that could come from burning the oil is Sulfur Dioxide, a compound known to also cause serious respiratory diseases, hinder breathing, and has the potential to lead to premature death. Both Nitrous Oxides and Sulfur Dioxide are also causes of acid rain, an occurrence that has damaged rivers, lakes, soil, forests, plants, animals and human health.
- Methane: It is a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than CO2. Methane is often produced from decay in landfills and the digestive process of animals.
The effects of these compounds on the environment are severe and lasting. It’s clear that burning the oil and the results of the event should not be taken lightly.
Additionally, safety of people needs to be considered. The oil spill has already been the cause of 11 people’s deaths and now is possibly making the people cleaning it up sick.
For instance, the reliability of the equipment being used in this burning effort should also be questioned.
According to the Associated Press, it is unclear about how many times this "EverGreen Burner” has been used in situations such as this. It seems like this fact alone should have experts questioning whether or not it is safe to use this kind of equipment in an already dangerous situation.
BP also said it would be careful not to allow the flames and heat to endanger other vessels. Can this be guaranteed?
We take a risk of an oil spill occurring every day that we continue to drill offshore. Today, by using a technique to clean up a spill that is also an environmental and safety hazard, we could be exacerbating the effects of this event. Perhaps burning the oil can be done in a safe and effective way. Perhaps it is the best solution to remove the underwater islands in the Gulf.
However, we must be sure of that before decisions are made from haste and panic. BP was clearly irresponsible with the running of the Deepwater Horizon before this disaster happened. The company should be held to environmentally responsible standards when cleaning up the pieces.
Lately, a significant amount of news on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill has centered upon the giant, underwater plumes of oil currently being investigated by both scientists and journalists.
ABC News has referred to the plumes as “islands” in a frightening video showing evidence that the oil has reached significant depths.
The thought that the oil could at one point be soaked up along the surface with booms made of hair is now a hopeless wish that existed long ago. But it’s clear that the oil will reach many more creatures and ecosystems than originally thought.
One of the environments currently being threatened is the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas and Louisiana. The underwater oil “islands” threaten the bountiful life that currently exists in the region and the possibility that it will ever be the same again.
See here for more information on the oil spill’s effects on this area.
However, when researching this marine sanctuary, we also discovered that it was also once the focus of a major greenwashing scheme headed by Shell Oil Company.
At a time when the fate of this federally protected area is so vulnerable and at risk of being altered forever by oil, Greenpeace felt it necessary to shed light on the ironic fact that Shell has used the place to brand its own image as green and actually caring about the environment.
The oil company ran a full-page print advertisement in National Geographic Magazine and several other publications, which featured a color picture of a diver swimming through deep blue water featuring brightly colored fish and coral. The statement in the middle of the ad says: “What do we really need in today’s energy hungry world? More gardeners.”
More gardeners? If that’s really what we needed, we could just stop drilling for oil all together right? All we need is more gardeners.
But Shell doesn’t really mean that at all.
They know that in today’s energy hungry world, oil is the food and the company’s main priority. Even through the thickest green glasses, few are going to dispute that fact.
The rest of the text on the advertisement reads that a Shell employee and marine biologist has been working with the company to protect the area.
But how much could the oil giant really be protecting when the company also actually drills near the vulnerable sanctuary.
The advertisement and words on the page are clearly for show.
Shell does have close ties to the Flower Gardens. In fact, an executive from Shell Canada, Rebecca Nadel serves on the sanctuary’s advisory council. Also on the team for the sanctuary is James Sinclair of the now notorious Minerals Management Service. At first glance, it doesn’t exactly look like those employed to protect the sanctuary are representing the most responsible organizations.
Shell has a cozy bed in sanctuary bureaucracy.
The company however, does donate money to Flower Gardens. The Green Life reports $5,000 of direct funding each year. However, the site also acknowledges that it costs nearly six figures to run one advertisement in National Geographic. For a drop in the bucket, the oil giant rebrands its image as being concerned with the underwater sanctuary.
BP has run very similar greenwashing campaigns that seek to portray the company as putting forth a significant amount of effort toward alternative energy. Further research on the topic also found that they were only focusing a small percentage on alternatives, when the majority of their focus proved to be on oil.
If Shell really wanted to protect the area, it wouldn’t be drilling at all. When looking at the real facts of this company, it has no right to run advertisements that it is truly working to save the area that should be protected as a gold mine of beautiful species and ecosystems.
Every time that Shell drills again near the area, they are taking the risk that an event like the Deepwater Horizon spill could happen again. It’s a risk, and it severely outweighs any kind of protection that their $5,000 might provide. It’s a risk that can have serious consequences, and it’s a risk that forbids Shell from being called a truly green company or caring about the environment. It’s a risk that that completely undermines their pretty, full-page color advertisement and smoothly written paragraph that fakes sensitivity.
The company’s greenwashing actions seem even more intense when considering that Shell is currently moving forward with plans to drill off the Arctic coast of Alaska, even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Should the oil from the current spill begin to effect the Flower Gardens Sanctuary, it will forever alter the status of what was supposed to be a protected place. However, it should be noted that as long as drilling by companies like BP, Shell, and others, still occurs, the threat will always be there.
It’s true, we do need more gardeners in the world. But not if they have the same green thumb that Shell does.
Someone should tell that company that oil isn’t good for any garden.