Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Exxon, For Shame

In the past week I've seen the following Exxon commercial probably a dozen times. You may have seen it too, or one like it. They usually include a charismatic narrator describing how some aspect of Exxon's operation is valuable to our country. You can almost hear them pleading, "We're doing the right thing, don't you see?" But this most recent commercial, part of their 2011 corporate ad program, really rubbed me the wrong way. Why? Because it's a blatant lie. Brilliant marketing, and a blatant lie.


Geologist Erik Oswald touts the benefits of natural gas exploration. "Technology has made it possible to safely unlock this cleaner burning natural gas," he boasts, "These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years, providing energy security and economic growth all across this country." All the while, the background video displays expanses of wilderness, sleepy households, and mom-and-pop shops on Main Street opening for business (complete with American flags, of course. Hurrah for exploiting patriotism).

If Mr. Oswald were telling the truth, this commercial would go a little something like this: "Extremely toxic and unregulated technology has made it possible for us to extract natural gas right in your backyard. Natural gas produces about 30 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum, so sure it's more efficient but it's still a dirty fuel." Smiling sheepishly, he'd continue, "These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years which is really no time at all, perpetuating our addiction to fossil fuels. It would lead to economic growth for those that have rigged the system to reap the benefits. Heck, Exxon enjoyed record profits during Q1 in 2011! For others, those we exploit, natural gas exploration will lead to extreme human health risks and contaminated drinking water. But who cares about them?"

Sorry Mr. Oswald, but in the words of Michael Scott, "Boom, roasted."

It is precisely what is not mentioned in this commercial that is so troubling. The unspoken phrase here is hydraulic fracturing, even though that is exactly the type of natural gas exploration and extraction that it describes. For those of you who aren't familiar with the technique, hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) involves injecting a toxic cocktail of chemicals thousands of feet beneath the earth's surface to break up porous rock and release the natural gas trapped within. But of course the term "fracking" isn't used, because it's a dirty word (pun intended).

One of the reasons I'm so worked up about this commercial is two weeks ago I saw Gasland. After receiving a $100,000 offer for a gas lease on his land in Pennsylvania, filmmaker Jeff Fox decided to investigate fracking sites across the country and made this award-winning documentary. What he found could not be more contradictory to the natural gas utopia depicted by Oswald and Exxon.

Watch the Gasland trailer to get a sense of what I'm talking about:

I'm unsure if any film has ever affected me the way Gasland did. I came out of the screening irate and upset. How could something so clearly dangerous and untested be allowed? I wanted to throw these images and these stories in the faces of those who continually deny a link between fracking and environmental and human health crises. I think that's why it moved me so much - because this just wasn't a story about environmental degradation on a national scale. It was also a narrative about the destruction the social fabric of the families and the communities that now can't fish in their waterways, let their kids play outside, or trust the air they breathe in their own homes.

I think watching this movie had the same effect on me that reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road did last year, even though the cause of the dying earth he vividly depicted was never explicitly stated to be environmentally rooted. The anger I feel towards this Exxon commercial reminds me of the fear I felt after reading that book. But what role do these emotions play in the climate movement? I think we shy away from the realities of climate change because what's happening to the planet is so immense in scale and complexity, and we need to remain hopeful and happy to pull us through. But these emotions are valuable in their own right, not to mention entirely justified. And this brings us to the central problem with this commercial - Exxon expects us to accept it hook, line, and sinker. I say, "How dare they?" They don't fool me and they shouldn't fool you either. The next time you see this commercial or one like it, understand it for what it is.

In the last 24 hours I've signed this petition asking Mr. Oswald to halt fracking activities and one from asking Congress to end subsidies to oil companies. I urge you to do the same.

Image credit: "What the Frack?" by Option-G.


  1. Thank you much for posting this. Everytime I select a CNN video I get this commercial and it just makes me sick! How does this guy sleep at night???

  2. Well put! Thanks for posting this!

  3. No problem - I'm glad you liked it!

  4. Good thing this guy isn't licensed as a geologist in my state; I'd call the Board and have his dance card pulled.

    Guys like this make me sick. While, as a practicing Engineering Geologist, I am called upon to do some less than environmentally friendly things (roads, etc), outright lies don't fit the professional ethic.

    This guy is exactly the sort of corporate schill that should be drummed out of our profession. He is an embarrassment to the responsible practitioners.

  5. Thank you, Adam, for posting this. I felt the same way when I saw that commercial for the first time. How dare they, was my first thought.