If you’re a Washington, D.C., commuter, it’s hard these days to miss the series of transit ads from Chevron on subway walls, bus shelter windows, and even the exteriors of subway cars. “I will finally get a programmable thermostat,” says one, over the picture of a concerned woman. “I will at least consider a hybrid,” says another, over the face of a perplexed looking man. Other ads in the “Will You Join Us” series, commit “I” to taking “my” golf clubs out of the trunk, replacing three (count ‘em, three) light bulbs with compact fluorescents, reusing things, and leaving the car at home “more.”
I enjoy all those magazine articles about “Ten Things You Can Do to Save the Planet” as much as the next guy. But Chevron’s little honey-do list is a different story. I find something fundamentally offensive about having Chevron – the third largest oil company on the planet – lecture me about my environmental habits. To begin with, I’ve had a programmable thermostat for 20 years, thanks very much, and I stopped buying incandescent light bulbs a while ago. And when my eight-year-old, gas-sipping hatchback finally gives up the ghost, or gets crushed by an SUV, I imagine I’ll replace it with a hybrid or some other car that gets something north of 35 or 40 miles per gallon. Ditto the other modest suggestions Chevron serves up.
So, while I don’t claim to be any more environmentally virtuous than the average American, I think I can safely say I’ve cleared the achingly low bar that Chevron presumes to set for me. Still, I have no illusions about having a sparrow-sized footprint on the environment. I’m sure I could do better on a number of fronts: reducing the quantity of un-recyclable, landfill-bound stuff that ends up in plastic trash bags, walking or biking more to the subway stop a mile and a half from my home, or choosing products and vendors on the basis of how they package or ship their goods. I could do a better job of denying my business to companies that are hard on the environment, and I know for sure that I could be paying more attention to the environmental records of the companies that my mutual fund company invests my dollars in. (After all, if I have to lose retirement dollars by the bucket anyway these days, why not let environmentally conscious funds lose it for me?!)
So there’s my personal environmental inventory. But since Chevron’s doing the lecturing, let’s consider theirs.
Even while its ad firm was designing and placing the ads now in my local subway system, Chevron was throwing money and lobbyists into defeating California’s landmark climate-change bill, AB 32, eventually signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as a statewide ballot initiative that would have funded alternative energy initiatives by taxing petroleum. Chevron also funneled a small fortune into business associations that lobbied fiercely against AB 32, including the California Chamber of Commerce, and a lobbying group tellingly named the California Council for Environmental and Economic Balance.
Meanwhile Chevron’s political action committee has been similarly engaged, pouring money into campaigns of federal candidates who have been anything but environmentally friendly. Among the PAC’s long list of 2008 cycle contributions were gifts to nine members of the League of Conservation Voters 2008 Dirty Dozen – incumbents who have been particularly notorious for their opposition to environmental causes. Overall, Chevron’s gifts tilted decidedly toward Republicans this cycle, as they have in the past. Indeed, in Senate races this year, Chevron gave $155,000 to Republicans and $16,500 to Democrats. And the vast majority of the Democratic money went to Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Dirty Dozen member and a big backer of offshore oil drilling. Taken as a whole, the contributions are a resounding embrace of environmental inaction.
Now, if you happen to be from Ecuador, that’s not the principal reason you might object to Chevron lecturing anybody about environmental values. Rather, it’s the company’s 30-year record of environmental devastation in the Amazon rain forest. To be fair, it was Texaco that did the violence – dumping some “18 billion gallons of tainted water” and building about “1,000 open-air, unlined pits to hold oil and toxic waste,” according to residents. But in 2001, Chevron bought Texaco, and with it, its environmental track record and liabilities. Those liabilities are significant in Ecuador. This past April, a court-appointed expert recommended that the company pay between $7 billion and $16 billion in compensation for polluting the region. Chevron doesn’t deny that it did the dumping either. Rather, it maintains it should no longer be liable for its past sins because it believes it met its legal clean-up obligations before turning over operations in the country to a local company. Not our problem anymore, argues Chevron. In addition, having succeeded sometime ago in winning a ruling from a U.S. judge that the litigation could only proceed in Ecuador, Chevron is now “lobbying the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to impose trade sanctions on Ecuador if the Ecuadorian government does not make the case go away.” The Ecuador case is one of several items that led Multinational Monitor to name Chevron to its 20th anniversary year list of The 10 Worst Corporations of 2008.
On the other hand, if you’re a resident of one of 17 states where Chevron and other big oil companies recently settled a U.S. lawsuit, you might know the company better for its contributions to polluting drinking water with metyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, which the EPA describes as a “potential human carcinogen” in water. It was used as an additive in gasoline in the 1990s, in order to make the fuel burn more efficiently and to cut air pollution. But before long it became clear that any air pollution benefits were purchased at the expense of severe water pollution problems. The stuff leached out of underground gasoline tanks. That resulted in lawsuits across the nation, some 59 of which were wrapped into one suit against multiple companies, including Chevron, and settled earlier this year, with the companies agreeing to pay out $422 million. Don’t worry about the impact on Chevron, however. It recently reported third quarter earnings of $7.89 b-b-b-billion.
So all things considered, I’m disinclined to regard Chevron as a sufficiently virtuous member of the environmental community that I’m willing to let them lecture me. But then again, nobody really thinks the ad campaign is about affecting individuals’ environmental behavior, except to the extent that choosing Chevron’s gasoline over one of its rivals’ affects the environment. The plain mission of the ads is to get consumers and policymakers to associate Chevron with environmentalism, accomplishing something of what BP has been able to accomplish in recent years with its “Beyond Petroleum” repositioning. In the case of Chevron, however, the gruel is especially thin.
Along the way, however, the ads do a disservice to the cause of environmentalism by suggesting that such tiny little half-measures as “considering” a hybrid and “turning stuff off more” are sufficient to discharge our individual environmental obligations. I think the bar ought to be higher. The little stuff is important, to be sure, but the big stuff matters even more. One good place for consumers to start: choosing where we buy gasoline not on the basis of the piddling cent-per-gallon differences in price at the pump, but rather on the basis of the environmental records of the companies whose logos decorate the spot a little higher up on the sign.
(By the way, the League of Conservation Voters isn’t a big fan of Chevron’s ads either, and went so far as to come up with suggested counter ads. Well worth a look.)