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Power Player

Exxon, the Olympics and Greenwashing 2.0

What if the oil colossus actually did commit to clean energy?

Every four years I make it a point to watch as much of the Summer Olympics as I can.

This quadrennial in particular, watching the Olympics reassures me that at least when it comes to sports, American society is not on the brink of collapse. (Obviously, other than the Olympics, I have been watching too much Trump.)

Being a contrarian by nature, my Olympic viewing has tended to concentrate on the esoteric. For example, while you have been marveling at the sublime talents of the American gymnastic squad, I have been trolling the outer reaches of the NBC broadcasting system, learning a lot in the process about the rules and nuances of team handball.

Another unexpected educational benefit I have derived from watching so much Olympic coverage is that I learned something important about the industry I have been employed in for the past 25 years.

To wit: ExxonMobil is an alternative energy company.

Exxon is turning algae into biofuel; it is working on carbon capture from conventional power plants; it is working on electric vehicles. I can’t believe that I did not know about green Exxon! All this time, there has been this colossus in our alternative energy midst, and I didn't know it.

I can’t believe that I did not know about green Exxon! All this time, there has been this colossus in our alternative energy midst, and I didn't know it.

I now know all of this thanks to a juggernaut of an advertising campaign by Exxon on NBC during its Olympic coverage. In case you missed all of the reported 233 airings, you can view Exxon's "to do list" commercial on YouTube. It features, by my count, 19 actual Exxon employees talking in micro-snippets about the imperative of alternative energy development at Exxon.

Of the employees featured, 12 are women and seven are men, which you might wish to compare, as a matter of gender balance, to Exxon's executive team which, according to Morningstar's "key executive" page, consists of 24 men and 0 women. (And don't get me started about whether I think the prevalence of people of color in the commercial accurately reflects the racial diversity of Exxon’s employee base.)

You should, by now, be sensing a healthy dose of sarcasm. But it is sarcasm tinged with regret. How much better off would all of us (and the planet) be if Exxon, with its immense political, technical and financial throw-weight, actually was committed to leading the way to the clean energy future? And how poetic would it be if Exxon led us to the clean-energy promised land using a workforce which, in totality, actually resembled the ethnically, racially and gender-wise perfectly diverse employee group featured in the commercial?

[Catch David Crane speaking in person at VERGE 16, Sept. 19-22, in Santa Clara, California.]

Clean-energy leadership is probably too much to ask of this hydrocarbon colossus, but there still is a morality play here. Should Exxon as a leader of the foremost climate-damaging industry be applauded for pursuing new ventures and new sustainable technologies that ultimately might transform its business, and the energy sector with it? Or should we heap scorn upon them, not only for what they previously have done to impede public understanding of the climate danger we face, but now for pouring resources into advertising its clean-energy efforts rather than actually pursuing them?

I Googled one of the clean-energy initiatives prominently featured in the Exxon ads — turning algae into biogas — in an effort to make my own judgment. In 2009, Exxon announced plans to spend $600 million developing algae as a transportation fuel. Impressive! Exxon committed real coin to algae.

But wait: In 2013, the company applied the brakes to the program, having spent a reported $100 million of the $600 million over the previous four years. And just this year, Exxon's CEO was quoted as saying that it would take at least 25 years for algae-derived biogas to become commercially competitive. Even for companies that take pride in thinking and acting long-term, few private sector companies spend capital on ideas projected to pay off a quarter-century hence, if at all.

Why is this almost $400 billion market cap company highlighting algae in its Olympics advertising campaign, a campaign reported to have cost $20 million?

So why is this almost $400 billion market cap company highlighting algae in its Olympics advertising campaign, a campaign reported to have cost $20 million? Wouldn't that money actually have been better spent on proving up algae as a transportation fuel?

I would hazard a guess that the R&D money Exxon is investing in algae these days is considerably less than the cost of the campaign.

Exxon has been under relentless pressure from climate activists over the past several years. With the public focus of another Climate Week coming in late September, the increasingly probable election of a climate warrior such as Hillary Clinton as president in November and with COP22 in December, the climate scrutiny accorded Exxon is likely both to grow more intense and spread to other companies.

In anticipation of this onslaught, I believe corporate climate change deniers, skeptics and do-nothingers already have gone to ground. No longer do we have the benefit of knowing who our opposition is because the CEO is standing behind Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., as he decries the climate change scam or because they are funding charlatan journalists and bogus academics.

Is Exxon suddenly a friend of the climate movement? I honestly don't know.

In today’s world of corporate sustainability, we face a new challenge: Separating the sincere and well-intentioned from the GINOs ("green in name only") — corporate poseurs wrapping themselves in the mantle of sustainability in order to escape criticism and derive the corporate branding benefit of trending green.

This emerging corporate phenomenon I have taken to calling Greenwashing 2.0.

Is Exxon suddenly a friend of the climate movement, spending a small (for them) but ever-increasing amount advancing various clean energy technologies? Or is it still a foe, just pursuing a much more subtle and disingenuous approach to its opposition?

I honestly don't know. But I do know this. If we don't find a way to tell the difference between the two, at Exxon and across the entire corporate sector, we are likely to face an avalanche of Greenwashing 2.0 behavior and pronouncements by companies trying to erect a green smokescreen around their business-as-usual behavior.

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