It was one thing to see ExxonMobil’s ad right on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on Monday, headlined “Energy from algae” and rhapsodizing about how its research efforts could someday result in algae taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Fair enough. If a company decides to spend $600 million on research aimed at heading off disastrous levels of climate change, it can legitimately give itself a highly visible public pat on the back.
But then I came across the Forbes piece, also published on Monday, that calls ExxonMobil the “green company of the year.” Puh-leeze! (Subhead: “Oil from algae? Just a sideshow, Exxon’s real thrust into green energy is a big bet on natural gas.”)
One need look no further than today’s headlines to see that ExxonMobil, far from being a “green” company, is pleading guilty to killing migratory birds.
OK, so obviously Forbes writer Christopher Heiman was reporting his piece long before this dead-birds case hit the news. But still, the mind reels trying to figure out how he and his editors could have come to the conclusion that ExxonMobil is somehow worthy of high praise for its environmental record.
Curtis Brainerd’s “The Observatory” column for Columbia Journalism Review does a thorough job of explaining why Forbes stumbled badly here, simply based on the fact that Heiman found that natural gas is significantly better than coal from a greenhouse-gas standpoint. True enough, and it’s also true that Exxon’s going great guns on natural gas. But that’s just smart business, with Cap’n Trade on tap.
Instead of analyzing natural gas’s role in the pantheon of energy options, the article blindly declares that “the engineering solution to the matter of carbon in the atmosphere [is to] drill for natural gas.” That overzealous proclamation smacks of the naïve, silver-bullet reporting that has often plagued energy coverage.
And also note that Exxon’s big bid, as laid out in the Forbes piece, is for bringing liquefied natural gas out of Qatar. When you calculate the processing costs, LNG looks a lot less benign from a climate-change perspective. (Not to mention that LNG is an attractive target for terrorists, although that’s a discussion for another day.)
So Heiman’s piece basically falls of its own weigh when examined a bit.
But how about the larger point that Exxon has a terrible record on the environment? This is what makes the Forbes piece so tone-deaf.
One need not go back to the biggest oil spill in the country’s history, the Exxon Valdez 20 years ago, to conclude that Exxon is not the greenest of corporate citizens, as Forbes appears to believe.
No, one need only look at the company’s much-more-recent campaign to head off efforts to slow climate change, as documented by the Greenpeace-run site exxonsecrets.org. During the Bush administration, Exxon was instrumental in keeping the United States from agreeing to the Kyoto Protocol, news reports showed.
I could go on, for instance pointing out further Exxon transgressions or the company’s recent stratospheric levels of profitability. But you get the idea. It’s important that journalists covering these issues of energy and environment develop a better sense of perspective and make sure they keep their BS detectors in working order.