By Farron Cousins, DeSmog Blog • 14 August 2017
For many years, a standard talking point from the fossil fuel industry and those who speak on the industry’s behalf has been that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to conventional energy sources like coal and oil. This talking point is at least partially responsible for many people — including former President Barack Obama and his Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz — believing that natural gas can act as a “bridge fuel” in the eventual shift from coal and oil to renewable sources of energy.
But the truth is a lot more complicated than a talking point, something which a Dutch advertising watchdog has recognized as it takes two fossil fuel companies to task over misleading ads about natural gas being the “cleanest of all fossil fuels.”
At first glance, natural gas does appear to be “cleaner” due to the simple fact that it does not release as much carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned as coal. However, when you account for the release of methane (a much more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas) from burning natural gas — a number which is frequently underreported — its climate impact goes through the roof, revealing a fuel source roughly equal in total emissions to other fossil fuel sources.
To complicate the issue further, when natural gas is extracted via the horizontal drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the overall environmental impact can actually exceed that of fuel sources such as coal and oil.
When all of these factors are taken into account, it becomes clear that natural gas is not the wonder fuel that the industry and its cheerleaders would have us believe.
The big question then becomes how should society handle this kind of spin and misinformation from industry? In Europe, they’ve decided to censure the dirty energy companies that are trying to convince the public that natural gas is a cleaner alternative to coal and oil.
According to reports, an advertising standards board in the Netherlands will formally censure Exxon and Shell, as part-owners of a Dutch petroleum company, for advertising the claim that natural gas is “the cleanest of all fossil fuels.” The ad campaign featuring this claim ran earlier this year. Just two months ago, the agency also admonished Statoil for making the claim that natural gas was a “low emissions fuel” and for calling it “clean energy.”
The Dutch watchdog waived punitive action against the NAM company, which is part-owned by Shell and Exxon, in that light.
Paul de Clerk of Friends of the Earth Europe, which co-filed the complaint with Milieudefensie, said: “This clear ruling by the advertisement standards board is of great importance. Time after time we see how oil and gas companies are misleading citizens and politicians.
“They want us to believe that gas is clean and they support the transition to renewable energy. Behind the screens we see how the same companies lobby against this transition. To prevent catastrophic climate change we need to end the dependency on all fossil fuels — including gas.”
While the move by the Dutch advertising watchdog is a great step forward, the United States is still embracing the backwards policy of believing that natural gas is the fuel of the future, with the Trump administration pushing world leaders at a recent G20 meeting to buy American natural gas by calling it “clean technology” and insinuating it’s a more stable source than Russian gas.
The Dutch regulators understand that natural gas is not clean, it is not revolutionary, and it certainly is not a “bridge fuel.” If anything, the constant claims that natural gas could be cleaner are helping to prevent areas of the world from making the switch to renewable sources of energy, even as that sector continues to show phenomenal growth.
RELATED: Read DeSmog’s report “Fracking the Future: How Unconventional Gas Threatens our Water, Health, and Climate.”
Southern Co. is accused of fraudulently misrepresenting the prospects for its troubled “clean coal” project in Kemper County, Mississippi in several legal filings this summer.
Southern announced in late July that it was shuttering the troubled “clean coal” part of Kemper after construction ran years behind schedule and the company spent $7.5 billion on the 582 megawatt power plant — over $5 billion more than it first projected.
In a lawsuit filed today, Brett Wingo, a former Southern Company engineer, alleges he warned the company’s top executives that it would not be possible to meet key construction deadlines. Management responded by retaliating against him, the complaint asserts, and Southern continued to assure investors and the public that Kemper’s schedule and budget targets would be met, then blamed unpredictable factors like the weather when those goals were missed.
Wingo’s claim that Southern misled investors by concealing construction-related problems drew national attention in a front page New York Times investigation last year. In January, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded that Wingo had suffered a “continuing pattern of retaliatory treatment” and ordered Southern to reinstate Wingo, but the company has refused, according to a statement accompanying the lawsuit. (The case is “Brett Wingo v. The Southern Company, et al.,” Case No. 2:17-cv-01328-MHH in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division.)
A second less-noticed legal filing with Mississippi state regulators accuses Southern of misrepresenting Kemper’s prospects right from the outset, before construction even began. Those claims center on Southern’s projections for what it would cost to operate and maintain the plant once it was up and running, which the filing asserts were so low they were “indefensible”.
In an email to DeSmog, Wingo seconds those claims, saying that he believes management knew back in 2012 that its “operation and maintenance” (O&M) projections were off — but kept the accurate numbers under wraps for years.
“By hiding the true O& M costs for so long, apparently since 2012 and likely longer, Fanning basically ensured shareholders would be forced to absorb $6 billion in losses,” Wingo told DeSmog.
“In 2012, sunk costs on Kemper were only around $1 billion and the natural gas part of the plant substantially complete. It would have been a perfect time to stop a runaway train from running off the end of the tracks,” he added. “But history shows, that’s not what Fanning and Southern Company chose to do.”
EV Advertising and Fan Ads
Walmart founder Sam Walton once said businesses should focus on what customers want and then deliver it. It may sound obvious, but when it comes to eco-friendly consumer goods, it’s taken marketers a while to figure it out.
Go back a few years to the unveiling of the Nissan Leaf, an all-electric sedan that sold for $35,000 and sported a range of just 100 miles. The car was neither powerful nor roomy nor sexy, but it had one distinct advantage — it generated no emissions. Nissan harped on this fact.
In a 2010 commercial for the Nissan Leaf, a polar bear flees the melting Arctic and travels south to civilization. He discovers roads and cities and growls at a couple of trucks. Eventually, he comes upon a Nissan Leaf parked in the driveway of suburban home. Overcome with gratitude, he hugs the owner.
You don’t need to be Don Draper to see why the ad was a flop.
“It’s horrible,” said Ed Stafford, a professor of marketing at Utah State University. “People were like, ‘I buy a car to save polar bears?’ No, I buy a car to get me from point A to point B.”
For decades, companies marketed green products based on their environmental benefits. “If you walked into a health foods store in 1990, it would look like the same dusty place as it did in 1970, with the same Birkenstock crowd and the laundry detergents with the planets on them on the bottom shelf gathering dust,” said marketing expert Jacquelyn Ottman.
This strategy appealed to a small subset of consumers, but alienated many of the rest. That’s what happened with the Nissan Leaf. “They went after the wrong target audience,” Stafford said. “If you focus just on, ‘Hey, this product is green,’ you’re going to miss 95 percent of customers.”
Making matters worse, underlining the ecological benefits of a product can actually turn away people who don’t identify as environmentalists — namely men and political conservatives. A 2016 study found that men were less likely to buy green products when they felt their masculinity was threatened. A 2013 study found that political conservatives were less likely to purchase an energy-efficient lightbulb when it was advertised as being good for the environment.
“We start off with well-meaning, non-monetized environmental things and everybody’s good-intentioned, and we’re saving the planet. And then we find out that there are a lot of people who do not want to wear the green badge,” said Ottman.
That’s not the only challenge to marketing eco-friendly goods. A recent study found that many consumers — particularly those who don’t care about the environment — doubt the quality of green products. Even among eco-conscious consumers, price can be a deterrent. Environmentally friendly products often cost more, meaning buyers pay a premium to go green.
In a 2006 paper, Stafford warned against “green marketing myopia” — the tendency of companies to emphasize environmental impact over customer satisfaction. Like other marketing experts, Stafford argued that firms need to highlight convenience, efficiency, safety, performance and social status. “If it’s going make an impact on the world, you’ve got to make your product mainstream,” said Stafford. “I don’t buy carpet cleaner to save the planet. I buy carpet cleaner to clean my carpet.”
Some companies have taken the hint, giving up green-tinted marketing tactics to focus on quality. “I would say that I have seen more and more ads focused on consumer benefits,” said Stafford. Advertisers now say that LED lightbulbs save you money. Natural cleaners are better for your health. And, organic fruits and vegetables taste better. Look at how Whole Foods markets itself.
“What the organic produce people figured out is that if they positioned it as ‘the new gourmet,’ the old yuppies will come down and pay more and put the gourmet food on their table and show off and feel like they’re doing something better for their families and themselves,” said Ottman.
Perhaps the best illustration of this shift comes from the Energy Star program, which awards a seal of approval to energy-efficient consumer goods. Its slogan has changed over the years, reflecting shifting approaches to marketing. Early on, it read “EPA Pollution Preventer.” Then it was “Saving The Earth. Saving Your Money.” It was later updated to “Money Isn’t All You’re Saving.” The last slogan is careful not to alienate consumers who don’t identify as environmentalists.
The Texas State Department of Highways and Public Transportation figured this out decades ago. In the late 1980s, officials determined that was primarily young men who were trashing Texas highways. So, they identified the values of this group, which include strength, honor and loyalty, and they devised a slogan that emphasized those values: “Don’t Mess With Texas.” By all appearances, it worked. Between 1986 and 1990, highway litter dropped 72 percent.
You can test this approach to marketing yourself. How do you feel when you read the words “recycled toilet paper” or “eco-friendly laundry detergent”? How about when you read the word “Tesla”? Does it send electricity up your spine?
Tesla could market its flagship product much like the Nissan Leaf, as a green ride for eco-conscious consumers. But it isn’t. It’s selling a status symbol. The Tesla Model S is as a plaything for high-earning car geeks. “Their innovators were basically race car enthusiasts,” said Stafford, “and so they emphasized the electric vehicle’s performance.” They focused on customers “who could appreciate the speed and the performance that a Tesla could deliver.”
Famously, Tesla doesn’t invest in TV ads or spreads in glossy magazines. But, it recently held a video contest, soliciting homemade commercials from Tesla devotees. The idea came from a 10-year-old who enjoyed watching fan-made commercials online, like the one below, which Elon Musk said he loved.
This video gets at the ethos of the company. Filmmakers draw a contrast between the past and the future. People wandering across a desert landscape littered with oil rigs set down their petrol cans and march toward a chic, white Tesla. They get in, escape their dreary black-and-white world and drive into a technicolor future.
Tesla’s tactics have worked. The Model S is the best-selling luxury sedan in America, and the company has received half a million preorders for its soon-to-be released Model 3. Consumers are willing to shell out for speed, safety, fuel savings and status.
“Electric is more expensive, so they figured out if you want to sell it, you have to sell it to people with money in their pocket on the grounds that they want to buy one,” said Ottman. For her, the lesson is clear: “Find the consumer benefit behind the environmental feature. Push that.”