Is Exxon declaring war on E.V.s?
The subject of a new Exxon ad campaign is debatable, but the intent — a last-ditch bid to stay relevant and necessary — is clear.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
This summer is shaping up to be a failing game of whack-a-mole with deadly climate disasters. As we covered the now-fatal flooding in Vermont last week, the heat dome in the southern U.S. stretched on, with some of the hottest and longest-lasting temperatures ever recorded — leaving nearly 100 million Americans under heat advisories, many in increasing danger and with little protection. In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, flash flooding swept away cars and killed five people, with small children still missing. The Midwest and Northeast faced air quality alerts again from still-burning wildfires in Canada. FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is already nearly depleted — and that’s not to mention the excruciating heat, floods, and fires imperiling lives across the globe.
With the symptoms of climate chaos all around us, ExxonMobil has a new pitch to keep us feeling fancy free: take your fossil-fueled car out for a spin. The oil giant is piloting a new ad campaign that appears to depict electric vehicles as shackling and oppressive, contrasted with the unbridled freedom of… getting your gas from Exxon.
“The ad is about disconnecting from our devices, hitting the open road and enjoying our surroundings,” an Exxon spokesperson told investigative journalist Amy Westervelt, who first unearthed the ad campaign. The company denied any knock on electric vehicles — despite the repeated symbolism of people being dragged down by giant, weighty cords that look a hell of a lot like the ones you use to charge E.V.s.
It seems unlikely to be an accidental hit on electric vehicles for more than just that reason. Under the cover of front groups and trade associations, Exxon and other oil giants have for years lobbied and fought against E.V.s behind the scenes. In 2021, Mike Sommers, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, claimed that a “rushed transition” to electric vehicles is part of “government action to limit Americans’ transportation choice.” Yet when asked by Rep. Ro Khanna during a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing later that year whether they would leave the API if it continued to lobby against E.V.s, the executives of Shell, BP, Chevron, and Exxon all fell silent.
Still, in recent years, Big Oil’s public face has mostly been focused on greenwashing its reputation and promoting false climate solutions that allow the polluter to keep burning fossil fuels with impunity. That began to change after the oil industry hauled in record-breaking profits last year from fossil fuels, and each individual company turned its back on even their most superficial climate commitments. In February, Exxon pulled its funding out of algae biofuels research — which was a miniscule effort all along, compared with its investments in oil and gas, but fueled multi-million dollar advertising campaigns to rebrand the oil giant as a concerned partner in solving the climate crisis.
Now, the company is desperately doubling back down on fossil fuels as their reign promises to come to an end — and some are wondering if their strategy is returning to a more outwardly aggressive takedown of alternatives. “It seems that oil companies may be ready to stop pretending that they’re part of the climate solution and get back to raking in record profits. This is an industry that knows its days are numbered, and it’s going to spend the last of them making as much money from its assets as it possibly can,” Westervelt wrote in a piece on the ad for the New Republic.
As Westervelt points out, 67% of petroleum produced in the U.S. goes toward the transportation sector — which is rapidly transitioning towards electric vehicles. New York, California, and the European Union recently passed laws phasing out the sale of combustion engine vehicles, and New Jersey is following close behind. Exxon already tried to “water down” those laws in the EU, according to documents found by watchdog nonprofit InfluenceMap.
It wasn’t the first time the company tried to block the transition to E.V.s: along with other oil giants like Koch, Exxon was also behind a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign to stop utilities from building charging stations for electric vehicles in 10 states, POLITICO reported in 2019. Three years earlier, DeSmog reported on internal documents showing the company was lobbying against electric vehicles in the U.K. Going further back to the early 2000s, Exxon sponsored joint research with Toyota into so-called “high-efficiency, low emission gasoline and diesel fuel engine systems” that could be used in internal combustion cars as an alternative to fuel cell and other electric vehicles, claiming this was proof that they were “taking action to address global climate change.”
Then, they used paid ads to promote fuel efficiency by drivers themselves, suggesting drivers just turn off their A/Cs and adjust their tire pressure. “It’s the same as everything else, pushing the responsibility onto all of us,” said Kert Davies, longtime oil industry watchdog and the Center for Climate Integrity’s new Director of Special Investigations. (ExxonKnews is a project of CCI.)
Today, they’re promoting “advanced plastics” as the key to fuel efficiency.
Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies professor at Rutgers University, said that while she did think Exxon was acting out of fear of being left behind by the electric vehicle transition, the ad might not be indicative of a complete shift in their tactics from greenwashing back to an outright attack on climate solutions. “I would not be remotely surprised if next year they have an ad that’s promoting electric vehicles in some way,” she said. “Big Oil is actually always pursuing multiple strategies at once, [based on] the particular context that we find ourselves in. For many, many decades, Exxon has promoted voluntary approaches to reducing planetary harm like greenhouse gas emissions as a way to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility, and at the same time, sidestep environmental regulations or legislation. But they’ve also always been promoting continued fossil fuel expansion and infrastructure.”
And for that very reason, Exxon might not have as much incentive to fear electric vehicles as we might think. Thirty eight percent of gas production comes from electricity, and E.V.s are going to be an increasing part of electricity consumption — which the industry has fought hard to ensure is sourced first and foremost from new and expanding gas-powered plants, rather than renewable energy. “What's ironic is that Exxon and other major methane gas producers are going to make bank as electricity demand grows the more we plug things into the grid, including E.V.s,” Davies said.
If that’s true, what’s Exxon’s motive here? That’s what we need to determine, Davies said, pointing to the documents released in a report by the House Natural Resources Committee last year, which revealed that Exxon and other oil companies worked with major PR firms and ad agencies to delay climate policy.
To Aronczyk, focusing on the specific ad is less important than Exxon’s drive to maintain their social license to operate — and the help they get from third-party firms to make their advertising dreams come true. “The reason a company gets into promotion is to maintain their legitimacy, and one way that all companies do that is to make sure they’re part of ongoing conversations that are taking place in the media, the public, the political sphere, and so on,” Aronczyk said. Amid societal debates about Big Tech, surveillance, and social media platform takeovers, she explained, and after over a hundred years of car advertisements promoting freedom on the open road, Exxon likely saw an opportunity to take advantage of those “very classic, very embedded tropes in the American mindset” — values of independence, individuality, and breaking free of technology.
Just a few months ago, Slate reporter Alexander Sammon delivered an eerie dispatch from the annual convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association — an enormously powerful trade organization representing car dealers across America, most of whom are virulently opposed to, or at least significantly wary of, E.V.s for a variety of reasons laid out in the piece. Car dealers, Sammon writes, are “one of the most organized political factions — a conservative imperium giving millions of dollars to politicians at local, state, and national levels.” The political sway of that group, and their fervor for fossil fuels, gives a window into the type of consumer Exxon might be priming to fight for their product. Ads like this, which promote “a very American, domestic oil mentality,” might also be designed to appeal to nationalistic fears, Aronczyk suggested.
“At the end of the day, fossil fuel companies want to sustain their business model,” she said. “Now that the average person is more and more aware that the levels of greenhouse gas emissions make business as usual forecasts for fossil fuels no longer sustainable, companies like ExxonMobil are heightening the way that they try to influence the average person to reinforce the idea that the world still needs fossil fuels and that Exxon is a trusted, reliable source that’s positive in the American imagination.”
ICYMI News Roundup
Thanks for reading ExxonKnews! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.