Oil be damned

Angela Saini scrutinises the green fuel claims of London-based oil giants

First the oil giants faced decades of tanker spillages and allegations of complicity in gross human-rights abuses. Now climate change has unleashed floods of criticism as never before. To their opponents, they are fossil-fuel pushers, feeding our globe-destroying habit with their pernicious black liquor. It really couldn't get much worse – except, of course, that BP, Shell and other oil majors continue to declare record profits as the public eagerly buys what they have to sell. Now they are preparing for one of the biggest PR battles in history.

The amount spent on advertising by ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Royal Dutch Shell increased by 37 per cent last year, according to the research group TNS Media Intelligence. Much of this went towards cultivating clean, green images.

BP was the biggest spender, pumping an extra £7m into UK advertising and sponsorship, and almost tripling its total investment during the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research. The multinational's ubiquitous green, yellow and white magazine adverts and internet banners follow a rebranding in 2000 to "Beyond Petroleum". The credibility of this ambitious slogan now rests on a new unit, called Alternative Energy, dedicated to developing low carbon fuels. Over the next decade, £4.6bn will be spent on this venture – just 3 per cent of BP's turnover last year. In anticipation of public scepticism, BP's website features a survey asking: "Is BP's new Alternative Energy business a genuine investment in low carbon energy?" The corporate greenwashing must be working, because more than 70 per cent of respondents so far have answered "yes".

Like BP, Shell began its image turnaround in 2000, when it invested £400m in Shell Renewables, a collection of wind, solar and hydrogen power businesses. The oil giant describes this as a core part of the company, even though total spending on it over the past five years equalled less than one-fifth of 1 per cent of total revenue last year. Meanwhile, Esso (the UK arm of ExxonMobil) continues to frustrate environmentalists with its steadfast claim that there is too much doubt in climate science for anyone to be sure that increased global warming is down to human activity.

These fractions of annual turnover dedicated to alternative energy may seem like sticking plasters over gaping wounds, but it would be unfair to say that the oil giants have made no progress at all. Shell is one of the largest wind-farm owners in the world, and BP's solar business became profitable in 2004, now employing 2,000 people across the world.

The next big focus for the oil giants is biofuels. Ethanol is a renewable and – depending on how it is produced – virtually emission-free source of energy derived from the fermentation of crops such as sugar and corn. Most ordinary car engines can run on petrol containing up to 10 per cent ethanol

without any modifications. It's a miracle mixture that has generated a lot of excitement. In this year's budget, the British government announced that 5 per cent of all transport fuel must come from renewable sources by 2010 – a goal most likely to be achieved by swapping ordinary petrol with a 5 per cent ethanol blend. EU targets go one step further, calling for biofuels to share 5.75 per cent of Europe's transport fuel market by 2010.

A 5 per cent emissions cut, however, is just a drop in the ocean. The UK guzzled more than 230 million tonnes of oil last year, up 2.5 per cent on the previous year. If consumption continues at this rate, it would negate any progress made by the widespread use of biofuels within two years.

To change significantly, Britain needs to follow the lesson of Brazil, where specially designed flex-fuel cars, which run on biofuels containing a higher proportion of ethanol (as much as 85 per cent), now outnumber petrol cars on the road. This transport revolution began 20 years ago, when the Brazilian government committed to developing ethanol as a fuel, using domestic sugar cane as the raw material. In the UK, the first high-blend ethanol pump opened in March this year, marking the long-awaited start of flex-fuel car sales here. BP and Shell both supply biofuel blends across the rest of the world, and the UK is likely to be their next target market. Shell claims that it is "probably the largest blender of transport biofuels".

It will take much more political pressure before the green actions of the petroleum giants live up to their green advertising. Until then, a few per cent here or there is not enough.

Angela Saini has worked for Red Pepper, the Observer and openDemocracy

Read more from the New Statesman 'Heat and Light' energy supplement at


This article first appeared in the 15 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The worst man in the world?