Editors know that counterintuitive headlines sell magazines. They also know that making wildly exaggerated claims can damage their credibility. Writing a headline is often a balancing act between these two factors. So when you see a magazine like Forbes say that ExxonMobil is "Green Company of the Year," as it did this month, what it's really saying is that it's hurting. With advertising pages way down this year, the magazine feels the need to sell off its long-term credibility with some readers for the short-term gain of boosting page views. That, at least, is my take on what Forbes was thinking. Because there's simply no way that any serious reporter would wrap Exxon in a shroud of green.
Here's Forbes reporter Christopher Helman's argument in a nutshell: By next year, Exxon will become the world's top non-governmental producer of natural gas. Natural gas can replace coal in power plants, resulting in a 40 to 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This would be the most cost-effective way to start addressing global warming. Therefore, Exxon is "Green Company of the Year."
Helman is not wrong, until he gets to the last part. His leap in reasoning is like saying that a military dictator is "Humanitarian of the Year" because he built 10 new hospitals, but failing to consider that he conducted a genocide. If that sounds a bit harsh, then consider the truly abysmal nature of Exxon's broader environmental record:
1. Exxon has a long history of funding climate change deniers. And despite a 2008 pledge to discontinue contributions to groups "whose position on climate change could divert attention" from the need for clean energy, the company went right on funding them.
2. Exxon is a leading opponent of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, the very legislation that would begin to price dirty coal out of the market. In May, the Exxon-funded Heritage Foundation released a wildly exaggerated study claiming that an emissions cap will kill millions of jobs and send gas to $4 a gallon (The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found middle-class households would pay only $175 a year more in 2020 because of the legislation). And on August 18th, 3,500 energy workers rallied against the climate bill in a Houston demonstration organized by--you guessed it--Exxon and other energy companies, a leaked memo from the American Petroleum Institute reveals.
3. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. See dictionary entry for "environmental genocide."
4. Exxon is an aggressive player in Canada's tar sands, the world's top producer of ultra-dirty oil.
5. The natural gas pumped by Exxon still contributes to climate change. Indeed, natural gas is currently responsible for about 20 percent of US carbon emissions. Curtis Brainard points out in his own takedown of the Forbes piece in the Columbia Journalism Review:
A recent study by Carnegie Mellon projected that replacing all coal burning with natural gas would significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but not enough to meet scientifically recommended targets for mitigating climate change. Moreover, it’s fairly ridiculous to suggest, as Helman does in the beginning of his piece, that natural gas will replace all coal burning any time in the near future.
Brainard goes on to point out that natural gas is a "bridge fuel," tiding us over until we're able to ramp up lower carbon alternatives. The race to create those alternatives and dominate an emerging global market in clean tech will be the biggest business story of the next decade--a story that Forbes seems to have forgotten.
Of course, the Forbes' approach clearly isn't about putting forth a coherent argument or roadmap to the future. Adding another layer of weirdness, there's an accompanying editorial that argues that "environmentalism is a religion, not a science" and "the very thesis that environmental carbon is bad is a matter of faith, not science." Really? So then why is Forbes hawking a 2,000-word feature on how Exxon is so great at cutting environmental carbon? Probably for the same reason that Exxon is pumping natural gas: Because there's money in it.