Big Oil's new climate campaign mimics liberal groups and NASA

"This rhetoric is what they’ve been selling for the last century," a fossil fuel ad researcher said.

Faced with growing outrage over its responsibility for the climate crisis, the oil and gas industry is on a mission to re-brand itself as a leader in the climate fight.

To achieve that goal, the industry’s largest trade group has launched a nationwide advertising campaign called “Energy for Progress.” Intended to promote the industry’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the seven-figure initiative also contains ads featuring the tagline, We’re On It”—“it” being reducing emissions.

This branding looks very much the branding of some the nation’s most well-known progressive and scientific institutions. The name “Energy for Progress” closely resembles top liberal think tanks “Data for Progress” and “Center for American Progress,” as well as many progressive PACs.

The tagline “We’re On It” is also the same tagline NASA used for nearly all its climate educational content from 2014 to mid-2017, after President Donald Trump took office.

An API spokesperson did not say whether the similarities were intentional or coincidental, but implied the latter. “We chose Energy for Progress because that’s what our campaign is about—making progress on climate solutions by working together,” API spokesperson Scott Lauermann said in an email.

Either way, the similarities have ruffled the feathers of some within the mimicked institutions. They say API’s branding deliberately misleads the public into thinking the oil and gas industry is progressive and science-friendly.

“I think it’s very clear that they’re trying to trick people into believing that they’re not a conservative dark money group,” said Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee.

He added that he does not believe the similarities are coincidental.

“Either they’re some of the dumbest political operatives who’ve ever existed and didn’t think ‘Progress’ had any Democratic-side connotation, or they’re lying to you,” McElwee said. “Those are the only two options.”

“It’s actually quite predictable”

It’s not like progressives have a monopoly on the term “progress.” Indeed, the American Petroleum Institute has advertised around the term for decades, despite historically funding conservative policy groups and pushing conservative policies.

“API has got one rhetoric its been running for a century: Energy, progress, the good life. It’s actually quite predictable,” said Robert Brulle, an environmental sociologist and professor emeritus at Drexel University who recently published research analyzing Big Oil ads. He pointed to a few historical examples:

“They vary it according to the time and the issue, but it’s always still the same argument, which is that all things good come from fossil fuels,” Brulle said.

A clip from Colorado’s Wray Gazette in 1957.

What makes API’s new “Energy for Progress” campaign different from past progress-related oil industry campaigns, however, is that it is centered directly on pro-environment and pro-climate claims. “That’s new,” Brulle said. “For the most part, they’ve avoided advertising around environmental degradation issues by omission.”

But that’s no longer the case. The API’s new ads now claim things like “Thanks to natural gas, the U.S. is leading the way in reducing emissions,” and “leading the world in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.” One ad claims that natural gas is responsible for a 60 percent reductions in emissions.

An inaccurate picture of Big Oil’s climate impact

But these claims don’t paint an accurate picture of natural gas’s climate impact. As Desmog reports:

While the oil and gas industry — or as API's new ads call it, “the natural gas and oil industry” — is touting natural gas as a way to decrease emissions, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that natural gas will have the greatest increase in carbon dioxide emissions growth of any fuel source through 2050. That would make the U.S. a world leader in increasing CO2 emissions from natural gas.

And about that “60 percent reduction in emissions” claim:

A close listen to the video's narrator (and a close reading of the API website) reveals the industry has reduced emission rates, not overall emissions, by 60 percent in the most productive oil and gas fields. That means greenhouse gas emissions are not increasing in these regions as fast as they once were, but that doesn't mean they are going down.

The API’s ad campaign also claim the oil industry is “researching better climate solutions” and entering partnerships that “have been helping us combat climate change while meeting the rising demand for cleaner energy.”

But, as the New York Times reported in October, “While companies are making green-energy investments, a much larger proportion of most oil companies’ spending is going into oil and gas projects that produce greenhouse gas emissions.”

“Lying to people about what the future should be”

The API’s prolific use of the word “progress” could simply be a function of effective marketing. “If they get a good focus group response, they’ll just buy it and run it,” Brulle said. “I don’t necessarily know that they copied it—it’s just that that [progressive] rhetoric works in both arenas.”

But Geoffery Supran—who studies the history of the fossil fuel industry’s climate change denial at Harvard University—thinks the industry’s use of language that has long appeared in progressive and scientific institutions is about something more.

“Gone are the days when the fossil fuel industry could get away with wholly negative—anti-science, anti-policy—public campaigns (they do that through back channels and third parties now),” he said in an email. “Today, they need to be seen to be for something too. To that end, the positive, forward-looking imagery of ‘Energy For Progress’ and ‘We're On It’ allows Big Oil to pivot: to spin its climate and energy failures as imperatives for a fossil fuel future. As reasons for more, not less fossil fuels.”

Of course, scientists overwhelmingly agree there is a drastic need for less fossil fuel use if the world is to avoid catastrophic warming—which is why progressive groups that advocate for such a reduction are annoyed at API’s pro-climate, pro-“progress” branding.

“API’s campaign is a lie, pure and simple,” said Chrisy Goldfuss, the Center for American Progress’s senior vice president for energy and environment. “They know the oil and gas industry has a political problem and they’re trying to deny their denialism. Progress is about moving towards the future, not lying to people about what that future should be.”

Scientists like Supran don’t appear to appreciate the industry’s branding much, either.

“Their lingo certainly appears to be co-opting the intellectual imprimatur of organizations that legitimately pursue research and education on climate and energy,” he said. “Yet in reality, API's language is all rhetorical sleight of hand: conflating energy and fossil fuels, and pushing incremental change that doesn't threaten their core oil and gas business.”

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