With the new Congressional leadership promising to get serious about carbon emissions, Big Oil is appealing directly to the public for a little sympathy. Wall Street Journal reporter John Fialka previews the energy industry’s latest hearts and minds campaign.
Riding the Nuclear Tiger
Artist: Ben Allison
BOB GARFIELD: The American media may gush over anything Apple throws their way, but Big Oil is not so lucky. Even with friendly leadership on Capitol Hill, it faced an often unfriendly public. Now that the Democrats have stormed Congress with plans for reducing oil company subsidies and imposing carbon dioxide emissions caps, energy industries are braced for a regulatory battering the likes of which they haven't seen in decades. And so, reports The Wall Street Journal, they're waging a battle for hearts and minds.
John Fialka co-wrote the Journal article. He says that readers of wonky rags such as The Washington Post or The National Journal will be sure to notice the new public relations push. JOHN FIALKA: It started out with the American Petroleum Institute, which began a big advertising campaign shortly after the Hurricane Katrina tore up the oil fields and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. As they explain it, they felt that they did an heroic job in getting gasoline supplies back on line, and there weren't any major shortages, which is true.
But they felt, you know, the public really didn't appreciate that, and as soon as gasoline prices began to rise at the pump, then they began to see themselves demonized as Big Oil, and, of course, their big profits didn't help them any in that regard. And so they began the first of what appears to be a long-range, as they call it, public education campaign. BOB GARFIELD: Is what we're going to see in the next few weeks and months just a continuation of the existing campaign or will there be specific attempts to influence Congress? JOHN FIALKA: Oh, I think this is all intended to influence Congress. The problem is the industry and the companies involved don't have the access to the committee chairmen and the policymakers that they used to, and so they're trying to do it by going at the literate public, I guess is the way I would put it.
I'll give you one example. One of their ads says— you've heard all this talk about Big Oil— well, oil companies need to be big because they only hold about six percent of the world's oil reserves, and they need to bargain with state-owned oil companies in nations like Saudi Arabia to get access to the rest. And that requires a certain amount of bigness, high technology and money. BOB GARFIELD: Well that's actually an interesting point. Now, you cover energy. Is it a relevant point? Is it misdirection? Is that information that should change any legislator's opinion of how to vote on Big Oil? JOHN FIALKA: Well, I would hope it would get them beyond the slogans. I mean, the slogan airing that we heard last summer was that Big Oil is ripping you off at the gas pump. It was kind of a one-sided argument because it didn't point out that the oil price is set internationally by a cartel of governments. And also you've got other big governments, like China, who are bidding against us in the market.
So it's a complicated picture, and both sides seem to want to, you know, short-circuit that with handy slogans. But people have to sit down and understand both sides of the equation. BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've talked so far about Big Oil. What about the electricity lobby? Do they have a dog in this fight? JOHN FIALKA: Oh, big dogs, several, as a matter of fact. Fifty percent of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Coal would be one of the big targets of mandatory carbon dioxide controls because they produce about a third of the nation's CO 2 emissions.
Part of their campaign—and they don't have a really well-heeled advertising campaign going, but they're thinking of doing one—would be jobs, that in the small towns in coal country, lowering emissions would create a loss of jobs and a huge economic impact in small-town America. And their complaint is that people in big-town America, where a lot of the new Democrat chairmen come from, don't understand this.
They also raise the flag for small business in industries where if you raise their electricity rates a bit, they'll have to shut down because they can't compete with foreign competitors who have cheaper electricity or who don't have the kind of mandatory pollution controls that we do. BOB GARFIELD: So I guess the ultimate question here is is this going to help? Do you think this sort of lobbying one or two steps removed is going to influence any single person on Capitol Hill? JOHN FIALKA: Well, I think so. I mean, I think we still have a concerned public out there that is attempting to be literate on this issue. I don't know if they'll read all the ads but, you know, they'll really worry about their interests and about their businesses and their jobs.
On the other hand, you have some very thoughtful people among the new chairmen coming into Congress, and they want to look good in the long run, and slogans really aren't helpful in the long run, and so I think they will fight. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, John, many thanks for joining us. JOHN FIALKA: Thank you, happy to be here. BOB GARFIELD: John Fialka covers the energy industry for The Wall Street Journal.