Washed Away: 18 Years of Exxon

Exxon’s bold promise for a better tomorrow – and how industry uses greenwashing to get its way.

The last few years have beckoned momentous transformations within the world’s largest investor-owned energy company, ExxonMobil.

While the only good press they usually get is the press they write themselves, it seems the last few years beckoned a profound moral awakening for one of the world’s most criticized corporations. Pursuing riveting new projects and exciting energy discoveries, they were proudly crowned 2018’s “Explorer of the Year.” They celebrated gender inclusion and diversity, inviting women and people of color to brighten their public relations. Most notable, however, was the fossil fuel demogorgon’s momentous turn towards a greener energy future, with the advent of a revolutionary algae biofuels project. According to Exxon, groundbreaking projects like this have helped them invest “more than $8 billion since 2000 in lower-emissions energy solutions.”

What they fail to mention is that during these miraculous 18 years, they also spent 466 billion dollars pursuing business as usual, raking in 6.7 trillion dollars from fossil fuels. Oops.

In an era of mounting environmental concern, as the ruinous effects of unrestricted consumption evolve from invisible ideas to vivid reality, this has become standard procedure for polluting industry. Greenwash, mislead, deny – reframe their image, not their behavior – as they struggle to justify their continued existence in our pursuit of a sustainable world. Exxon’s $8 billion promise is the brainchild of this creative response to evading change. But what creates confusion can bring us tremendous clarity – by showing the sheer power of words, and how they’ve enabled a dying industry to get its way.

Every year, ExxonMobil publishes an annual report for its shareholders, called a “Financial and Operating Review.” It is here, in their 2017 Financial and Operating Review, that the $8 billion promise arises. Joined by alluring narratives of growth, responsibility, and innovation – female empowerment, racial inclusion, and ending poverty – the $8 billion investment seems miraculous. Our immediate reaction is awe and amazement, because we see the number within the context of our own financial experience – and to most of us, $8 billion is an unimaginable sum of cash. To a company to ExxonMobil, it is not.

In the year 2000 alone, ExxonMobil spent $11 billion exploring for fossil fuels. The following year, in 2001, they spent another $12 billion, and the year after that, $14 billion. In one year alone, they surpassed the algae biofuels research by billions of dollars, and in just three years, they dwarfed it. Adjusted for inflation, their investment in fossil fuels over the 18 year period comes out to $466 billion. It’s like an addict celebrating brief moments of sobriety amongst raging addiction – $8 billion just isn’t that much dough.

Exxon boasts that they invested $8 billion towards “renewable energy solutions” over the last 18 years. Totaling up their financial reviews from 2000-2018 reveals that during this time, they spent $466 billion exploring for fossil fuels, generating revenue of over $6.7 trillion. All values have been adjusted for inflation. “Financial & Operating Reviews” can be found online.

In spite of this, Exxon’s reports glow with the glistening narrative of a better tomorrow. They celebrate growth, environmental responsibility, and groundbreaking innovation, as if they’ve unlocked a modern gold rush by uprooting the rotten remains of the past. Their media outreach gushes with articles that glorify algae-biofuels, exalting photos and videos that burst with fun energy, boosted with slogans like, “I heart single-celled organisms.”

It’s so well-decorated, it makes you wonder – did they spend more money on advertising, or actually pursuing the research?

A dose of their compelling oration. Source: 2017 Financial & Operating Review
Exxon’s exciting vision. Source: Energy Factor

While the propaganda desperately begs us to believe in their future-focused vision, Exxon’s altruistic sermon cripples beneath the gravity of several contextual revelations.

First, is the problematic reality that their fundamental paradigm contradicts all notions of a sustainable world. They function under a paradigm that prescribes society’s biggest ailments – poverty, injustice, inequality, environmental collapse – as opportunities to turn a profit. It’s a paradigm that equates the destruction of the biosphere and people’s homes with “growth,” that encourages polluting practices, ecocide, inequality, and injustice. They, like many destructive industries, actually profit off of the existence of a disempowered, destitute and vulnerable global poor from which to extract. Their fundamental paradigm, as it now exists, is not sustainable.

No sum of money can single-handedly uproot or change this – the only remedy is change itself, a prospect that Exxon doesn’t seem too thrilled to embrace. “Change” actually appears to be their strongest aversion – demonstrated by their intentional numbing of the public conscious as they frantically evade all criticism.

Sensationalizing their contribution to the environmental cause, they’ve essentially told us we can sit back, relax, and mindlessly dwell in the present, as they embark on their $8 billion quest to single-handedly save us from climate change. We need to question such desensitizing narratives – because what’s construed as removing the burden from society, can just as easily be a systematic effort to make us back off and look away. We all have agency in disrupting the climate, and real leaders will involve us in innovative solutions – not compel us to look the other way.

Against this backdrop, it’s hard to believe their vomitous exhortation for a better, more equitable world, or that this $8 billion investment is anything more than a tactful distraction.

But the sense of subservience we feel to this industry is a delicate construct, shown by other insights in their financial reviews: while from 2000 to 2010 they enjoyed enormous returns on their fossil fuel investments, they’re waiting to see if this decade delivers the same – a hope that climate regulation would effectively pulverize. The greenwashing, the power mongering, the deception – it’s all part of an illusion of power they’ve worked tirelessly to upkeep for so long, and now, it’s beginning to fall apart.

The bottom line is that our critical awareness and involvement is worth more than any $8 billion project, and it cannot be bought out or subdued. We are no victim to the Orwellian whispers of a dying industry. As we sift through their outdated reality in search of our own, we must remember that some things are meant to be left in the past. Fossil fuels are one of them, and so are their proprietors – so that 18 years from now, we can look back with authentic pride, knowing that we embraced solutions for a brighter energy future and more sustainable world – not a false vision.

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