August 15th, 2006
In this space I have been clear about where the price of gasoline is going and, more importantly, what Americans and all global citizens need to do regarding energy. The next twenty years are a critical time, a time of potentially great peril unless we have visionary leadership and full scientific and entrepreneurial mobilization toward first reducing and then replacing our consumption of petroleum based energy.
The reality is that we are now living in a country of $3.00 plus gas in the United States, with $4.00 likely by the end of the year. This has become a catalyst for consumers to take a harder look at driving less, buying cars with a higher MPG rating and generally thinking about conservation. This means that people are more aware of and sensitive to environmental and conservation messages and advice. There is a direct cause and effect here. It is no surprise that Toyota just became the second largest auto company in the United States in terms of sales because they offer and sell more fuel efficient cars than Ford does. The absolute stupidity of the American car companiesâ€™ long term is almost beyond comprehension, but that is for another day.
What I want to focus on is the concept of intentionally misleading consumers with environmentally oriented marketing messages to try to influence consumers who are just trying to do their part, to do the right thing. Wave the â€˜greenâ€™ flag in advertising and those gullible consumers will fork over their money. This is about bp (lower case because thatâ€™s cool), formally known as British Petroleum.
British Petroleum morphed into bp which they said stood for â€˜beyond petroleumâ€™ and we all know they chose green as their corporate color. You know the line: we care about the environment, we are working to find new energy solutions, we are greener that the other guy, so pull into our gas station to fill up. So who just had to shut down the Alaskan oil pipeline because of an oil spill? bp Why was there an oil spill? Because, as Joe Nocera pointed out in a detailed and forceful column in the New York Times, bp didnâ€™t monitor the physical state of itâ€™sâ€™ pipeline, letting parts of the pipeline corrode to the thinness of a beer can. Care about the environment? Evidently while extolling the fact that they were investing $8 billion in research on new energy fuels â€” over ten years â€” they pulled down $10 billion in profits this year and didnâ€™t want to spend money to protect the environment.
When this is put within a larger historical context, the oil companies should be really clear that their own survival is at stake, but they donâ€™t seem to get it. Depending on what expert you believe, Earth will run out of oil sometime between 2040 and 2100 â€” the latter number being the one supplied by oil company experts and the former number offered up by the most respected experts in this area. This is not even taking into account the coming dramatic increase in oil prices due to declining supplies and exploding demand and the economic havoc that will create. Logic would dictate that the energy companies of today, the oil companies, would want to continue to be energy companies, and would be urgently working to discover, invent, and create new sources of energy.
We all know the story of the railroad companies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in America. They thought they were in the railroad business, period. They did not understand that they were in the transportation business and the real estate business. As a consequence of this narrow thinking, as an industry they gave way to the automobile and aviation industries. The transportation industry that basically helped to create a nation became so smug about it and the profits they were making that they stopped looking forward. Why would the oil companies not have this macro business case study always in mind? Maybe they do, but I have yet to see it.
I know this is a bit of a rant, but the future of humanity is, to some degree at stake here. If we do not dramatically slow down the global consumption of oil to buy time for human innovation and scientific effort to create replacement and renewable energy sources, we, and our children for sure, are all in serious trouble. So, if a company tries to sell product by using environmental messaging and they are not truly working with urgency to solve this huge problem, we should not buy their product and let them know that â€œWe wonâ€™t get fooled again!â€ When it comes to energy companies, have truth in advertising, truth in purpose, or suffer the consequences of public embarrassment and if we can act with any concerted effort, lowered sales.