How the fossil fuel industry buys goodwill

From sports to academia to the arts, fossil fuel companies are pouring money on the things we love, in an effort to “not be held accountable” for climate chaos.

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SOURCEDeSmog Blog

From the world’s biggest soccer championship to soccer training for kids, from major universities to music festivals and art galleries to — if you can name it, fossil fuel companies have probably sponsored it.

TotalEnergies will sponsor the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France. Aramco has partnered with Spain’s Laguna de El Hito Nature Reserve to conserve bird species. Chevron partnered with a “Community Inclusion” social project in Brazil. BP has donated to the British Museum in London since 1996.  

Big Oil sponsorships can even be found at the heart of international climate negotiations. Hassan Allam, an Egyptian private corporation with a mission of “transforming the country into a regional hub for natural gas” is a sponsor of the annual United Nations climate conference, known as COP27,  being held this year in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has polished its public image by using donations and sponsorships to associate itself with feel-good events and causes. As pressure on the industry grows to phase out dirty energy and take responsibility for the climate crisis, buying goodwill may be a better marketing investment than ever.

“Awareness on the harm of fossil fuel products is increasing and so they have the need to maintain the social license to operate,” says Italian social scientist Marco Grasso. Grasso recently resigned from his post as director of the “Anthropocene” research unit at Università degli Studi Milano-Bicocca in Milan, Italy, over the university’s joint research agreement with Eni, one of the world’s biggest and richest oil and gas companies.

Fossil fuel sponsorships “are all initiatives with which these companies buy and renegotiate the social legitimacy they need to continue to operate with a dangerous product,” Grasso believes, as well as “washing its conscience, through actions that aren’t related to the bad and ugly fossil fuel, but to things that are socially appreciated.”

Fossil fuel companies know that “they still need sponsorships to keep that social legitimacy in the public’s mind,” writes artist, activist, and author Mel Evans in her 2015 book ArtWash: Big Oil and the Arts. “These companies are desperate to not be held accountable in the way that they should be as the continuing drivers of climate chaos.” 

Evans suggests that fossil fuel sponsorships have filled the gap left after tobacco companies were held accountable for their decades of deception, and became socially unacceptable funding partners.

“A cultural artifact that was once background noise became a screaming anathema over the course of a twenty-year period of intense debate and criticism,” Evans writes in ArtWash. 

Sponsorships are especially effective marketing efforts because they get “under the radar and under the skin” more insidiously than regular advertising, says Andrew Simms, co-founder of the New Weather Institute.

“There’s an atmosphere of benevolence about it,” says Simms. “If you see a sponsorship deal, you assume the [organization] you identify with has positive feelings about it and is benefiting from the company sponsoring it.”

Capitalizing on arts and culture

In the Netherlands, Shell is setting up cultural partnerships where the “gas and oil industry have an interest in employing people or soothing them” in the wake of protests or backlash for fossil fuel projects, said Femke Sleegers, coordinator of Reclame Fossielvrij, a global campaign to ban fossil fuel ads. 

According to Sleegers, the PR agency Edelman advised Shell and other fossil fuel companies to “hook onto” what societies identify as precious. In the Netherlands, where Shell has sponsored children’s festivals and museums, that includes education and the arts. 

A 2021 study by Dutch researchers found that oil and gas companies use museum sponsorships to promote “a particular type of ‘energy literacy’…a narrative that is favorable to the agenda of the gas and oil sector.” 

According to the Dutch study, through “fairly limited investment” companies gain influence within the cultural heritage sector which is “generally perceived by the public as reliable and independent.” 

Sleeger says museum sponsorships also have a “halo effect,” because they imply the companies are “protectors” of something highly valuable to the Dutch. The companies are “hooking onto the national identity,” she says, and “presenting themselves as an integral piece of our history.” 

In Italy, Eni sponsored the 2022 edition of Sanremo, a nationwide Italian music festival broadcast every February to millions of viewers. The company also partners with 10 universities, research centers, and academic institutions across the country. According to Grasso, in Italy fossil fuel sponsorships like these have high “capillarity” across the country and are met with very little controversy.

Sponsorships and partnerships with academic institutions, educational initiatives, and schools “reinforce this idea that they are someone whose expertise, skills, [and] information we should be relying on,” says Silvia Pastorelli, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace EU. “Basically what it does is legitimize the presence [of the fossil fuel industry] in this decision making bubble, and again, misrepresents them in a way that they appear as the ones that decision makers have to rely on for the solutions to the energy transition.” 

In the United States, the American Geophysical Union has been criticized by some of its member scientists for accepting conference sponsorships from oil majors including ExxonMobil and Chevron. The group’s annual meeting, which is attended by thousands of scientists and hundreds of journalists from around the world, is one of the science world’s biggest events.

“It baffles us that the American Geophysical Union (AGU) continues to accept money from ExxonMobil,” wrote climate scientists Michael Mann of Penn State, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes in 2016. “The more than half a million dollars of ExxonMobil money that AGU has accepted over the past 15 years violates AGU’s own policy on accepting funding from groups that peddle misinformation.”

“I am an AGU member and I feel disgusted that my professional organization still maintains these ties,” says climate scientist Peter Kalmus. “To me, it’s just completely morally indefensible that these institutions of respect and legitimacy within our society still maintain ties with the fossil fuel industry…it provides them a level of legitimacy and social license that we can’t afford to let them have any longer.” 

In the United States, fossil fuel companies also have a long history of sponsoring teaching materials and other educational resources to influence elementary, high school, and university curricula. As the Drilled podcast has reported, oil companies have used these tactics since the 1920s “to shape how American kids think about society, the economy and the environment.”

Filling in for governments

Fossil fuel sponsorships are often attempts by companies “to rebuild trust following an accident or opposition,” according to ArtWash author Evans.

In Central and South America,“the [sponsorship] is a necessary expenditure for the companies” to maintain legitimacy and trust, “considering that the reality of their activity is often the displacement of peoples and communities, and pollution of local waterways, land and air,” says Colombia-based Alex Rafalowicz, executive director of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.

Rafalowicz’s campaign advocates with city and local councils around the world to phase out fossil fuel advertising and sponsorships. The organization has also documented efforts by fossil fuel firms to undermine each of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals.

Sponsorships with governments are also common, sometimes filling holes in funding for arts, education, or cultural programs.

In Argentina, for example, TotalEnergies and Pan American Energy are official sponsors of a government-partner music foundation. Pan American Energy is also a partner of PAE, a government-promoted education scholarship initiative. 

In Brazil, Petrobras has played a key role in social and education funding. And in Peru, Pluspetrol has widely sponsored the cultural sector. 

According to Diego di Risio, Latin America and Caribbean manager for the Global Gas & Oil Network, “it is pretty common that fossil fuel companies fill the gap [left by] the state, especially since some of them operate in rather distant or marginal communities.

“In the case of national oil companies, they complement the state by directly funding social or educational programs,” di Risio added. 

“A sea of high-carbon sponsorship”

Examples of sponsorships in the sports world are nearly endless. In just some of the more high-profile and recent examples, QatarEnergy is sponsoring the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Shell is partnering with British Cycling, and Saudi Aramco sponsors the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Until February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the country’s state oil company Gazprom sponsored the Union of European Football Associations. 

Sports is “floating in a sea of high-carbon sponsorship,” says Simms from the New Weather Institute, in part because sports coverage consumes more “column inches and broadcast minutes” than almost any other news topic. “It’s so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible,” he says.

Simms is also a founder of the “Badvertising” campaign advocating an end to fossil fuel advertising and sponsorships, which in October called for British Cycling to drop Shell as a sponsor.

According to a new report by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), fossil fuel sponsorships of Australian sports are worth between $14 and $18 million a year. Most deals include putting the company’s name on team uniforms or in stadiums. 

With this funding, fossil fuel firms “attach themselves to that emotional connection” between fans and their favorite clubs, teams, and athletes, says Simms, giving the sponsor company “a layer of emotional insulation” from attacks.

Sports also carries perceptions and feelings of vigor, health, and youth, he says, one reason why the tobacco industry was also so keen to sponsor sports.

This “reputational sportswash,” Simms adds, is why sport sponsorships are such a “prized asset” for fossil fuel companies, which also use them to promote the false narrative of individual responsibility for environmental pollution and climate change.

For example, the ICC has said that Aramco will install recycling machines at all match venues, and convert the collected plastic into clothing.

“That is classic misdirection. It’s ‘look at the little sparrow’ when there’s a fire breathing dragon over your left shoulder behind you,” says Simms.

“Given the sheer size and scale of Aramco, the reserves that they have and the fossil fuels that they are intentionally burning, you could recycle from now until the end of time and it wouldn’t scratch the surface of the damage that they are doing in the process.”

Banning fossil fuel sponsorships and ads

Civil society and activist groups around the world are targeting fossil fuel sponsorships and the organizations that accept them.

The campaign to Ban Fossil Fuel Ads, a Europe-wide effort that involves more than 40 environmental organizations and grassroots groups, has underscored that fossil fuel companies use sponsorships to “promote false solutions,” “mislead the public by presenting themselves as climate friendly,” and — intentionally or not — “encourage an increase in emissions.”

A ban on fossil fuel ads and sponsorships, says Sleegers, would “shift norms and understanding that you can’t cooperate with these [fossil fuel] companies, this destructive industry.”

The British Medical Journal and The Guardian are among a few publications around the world that have phased out fossil fuel sponsorships and ads. And there is some progress in the sports world as well.

“Increasingly our much loved arts, sports, and cultural events and institutions are refusing money from fossil fuel companies,” says Lucy Manne, CEO of 350 Australia. “In the past year [in Australia], there have been a number of successful campaigns from communities to get events and festivals to cut ties with coal and gas companies, including Fringe World in Perth, the Australian Open in Melbourne, and the Darwin Festival. This is sending a clear message that associating with fossil fuels is just as toxic as being sponsored by a cigarette company.”

Across the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia-Pacific, more than 400 ad agencies have signed a pledge to stop working with oil and gas companies — a campaign organized by Clean Creatives and the nonprofit Fossil Free Media.

Clean Creatives has also organized hundreds of scientists to sign a letter asking Hill+Knowlton, the PR company managing communications for COP27, to cut ties with its fossil fuel clients, including Aramco, Exxon, and Shell. 

“Because companies haven’t been held accountable” for climate change or damages, “they can continue to greenwash,” says artist, activist, and frontline defender Ina Maria Shikongo. 

“But it is only a matter of time until the people see through them,” adds Shikongo.” Then they will be the ones sitting where the tobacco industry — and others like Monsanto — were sitting just some years ago.”

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