Big Oil wants your love, and it's using Obama to get it
Former Obama administration officials are not pleased.
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.
Today’s edition reveals how the oil and gas industry has been spending thousands on Facebook and Twitter ads to paint itself as climate-friendly, and using former President Barack Obama’s past quotes to do it.
It features exclusive reactions from three of Obama’s top environmental officials, who called the ads “desperate” and “outdated.” It also features reactions from longtime climate advocates, who criticized Obama for saying things that could be used by the industry in the first place.
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Now let’s get to it!
Why Big Oil is suddenly obsessed with Obama
Let’s say oil and gas companies were all Power Rangers. If that were true, The American Petroleum Institute would be their Megazord—the huge robot monster that uses the combined power of each individual power ranger to friggin’ hulk the hell out.
The API is America’s largest oil and gas industry trade association, representing more than 400 individual oil and gas corporations. It’s also a powerful lobbying force in Washington, and has worked closely with the Trump administration to loosen environmental regulations over the last two years. Trump, in other words, has been Dragonzord—another powerful robot monster that combines with Megazord to form the more powerful Mega Dragonzord.
But as all Power Rangers fans know, the alliance between the Megazord and Dragonzord ultimately fails. And that’s sort of what’s happening with the API and Trump.
Lately, API’s biggest corporate members have been complaining that Trump is actually too anti-climate. As Justin Worland reported for TIME last week, oil and gas companies are facing “increasing pressure to act on climate change.” And Trump is only further harming public opinion of their industry by slashing climate regulations for natural gas.
API’s individual members don’t all agree on how to gain climate credibility with the public, Worland reported.
But API itself has settled on a strategy: Ditch Trump, align itself publicly with President Barack Obama, and advertise the crap out of it.
(I don’t have a Power Rangers reference for this).
API’s pro-Obama social media advertising blitz
The American Petroleum Institute has spent a combined $216,899 on about 131 Facebook ads since May of 2018. About a third of those ads have touted the oil and gas industry’s “greenhouse gas emissions reductions” or “environmental progress.”
It wasn’t until last month, however—the night of the September Democratic presidential debate—that Big Oil started using Obama in its pro-climate ads. Using hashtags #ActOnClimate and #DemDebate, API released a video montage featuring inspirational piano music and President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address.
“The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power, and greater energy independence,” Obama says, while pledging to “speed up oil and gas permits.” Later, it shows Obama at the 2012 presidential debate against Mitt Romney. “Natural gas isn’t just appearing magically,” he says. “We’re encouraging it and working with the industry.” In the video, Obama also credits natural gas with helping lower carbon emissions during his administration.
API has since run the video as a Facebook ad 8 times, spending anywhere from $23,000 to $85,000, according to Facebook’s ad transparency tool. The ad has received anywhere from 2.6 million to 4.5 million impressions.
Twitter has provided a similar bang for API’s buck. It’s been running four ads with the Obama video since September, spending about $22,000 for about 3 million impressions.
Obama’s top environmental officials respond
The former president did not respond to HEATED’s request for comment.
But Gina McCarthy, Obama’s former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, did—and she accused API of using “outdated, selectively chosen quotes to spur confusion about the immediate need for broad climate action to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.”
"It should come as no surprise that the fossil fuel industry is once again trying to mislead the public,” McCarthy said in an emailed statement.
You don't have to look further than the color of President Obama's hair in their ad campaign to know that the industry is using outdated, selectively chosen quotes to spur confusion about the immediate need for broad climate action to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. It’s is undeniably true that cheap natural gas helped drive down the use of dirty coal. But it is also undeniable clear today, that natural gas does not have a lasting place in any clean, healthy, and sustainable future.
The two other former Obama environmental officials I spoke with also accused API of relying on outdated and incomplete information. Yes, they said, the former president did consider natural gas a cleaner option than coal, which is why he promoted it.
“The administration was on record of natural gas being a bridge fuel toward a clean energy future, and I think that’s totally appropriate,” said Thomas Burke, who was EPA's science adviser during the Obama years.
But that was also before it was widely known that invisible leaks of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas—from natural gas operations were contributing just as much to climate change as burning coal. Even then, the former officials argued, Obama strictly regulated methane leaks from natural gas.
“[API’s video] does not reflect the full position of the administration,” Burke said. “But unfortunately, things get taken out of context to be self-serving, to preserve the interests of an industry, or a company.”
Judith Enck, who served as the administrator for EPA’s Region 2 under Obama, agreed.
“I cannot speak for the president, but I think the ads are a desperate attempt by the fossil fuel industry to continue to distort the record,” she said. “Certainly the Obama administration did not block [natural gas] fracking. But it was not a priority in terms of driving down carbon emissions, particularly when you compare it to the massive amount of work the administration did on promoting renewables and efficiency.”
“This was the great mistake of the Obama years”
Former Obama officials weren’t the only ones who slammed API for advertising the natural gas industry as a climate solution.
"It's sad that API is desperate enough to dig up quotes from seven years ago in a futile effort to roll back the clock on the global reckoning with the fact that fracked gas is a bridge to climate disaster,” said Adam Beitman, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club. “In recent years, the pendulum has rapidly swung toward the need to transition completely off of all dirty fossil fuels and forward to an economy powered by 100 percent clean, renewable energy."
Still, some environmentalists lamented that the old Obama quotes were even available for API to use in the first place.
“This was the great mistake of the Obama years,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental group 350.org. “The idea that gas would replace coal and dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” He continued:
At the start it seemed to make sense, but within a year or two the science coming out of Cornell and elsewhere [about methane leaks] was beginning to sound the alarm. If you look at Obama's State of the Union addresses, they regularly salute the rise of fracking and natural gas—but by the end, I think that boasting stopped because the message began to get through.
The boasting didn’t stop, though. The last public comments Obama gave about natural gas were in 2018, when he took credit for the domestic oil and gas boom.
David Turnbull, the communications director for Oil Change International, said he wishes the former president would reckon with those statements.
“Obama should not have been pursing an all-of the-above energy policy that included massive increases in oil and gas production,” he said. “He shouldn’t have allowed the crude oil export ban to be lifted either. It’s a threat to our climate and communities, and the fact that API can use Obama quotes for its purposes is unfortunate.”
One thing everyone I spoke to agreed on, however, was that Obama’s seven-year-old quotes don’t convey the scientific reality we know today: That truly chaotic and irreversible warming requires an eventual end to the fossil fuel economy.
It is, in other words, Morphin’ time.
An actually useful quote to end on: “I think it's fair to say that 'Natural gas is clean' has replaced 'Climate change is a hoax' as the main industry lie. I hope it doesn't take the movement as long to root this one out.” - Bill McKibben
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