Idea to fix oil lobby’s image problem

By David Deming
Geologist at the University of Oklahoma,

Watching the political and scientific debates concerning energy and the environment for the past 20 years has led me to one conclusion: The fossil-fuel industry—which could be the most powerful lobby in Washington—is hopelessly ineffective and self-defeating.

I once attended a lecture by the CEO of a major oil company. The gentleman explained that global warming was “real,” that the science behind it was sound, and that his company was doing everything possible to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

He then complained that the U.S. government would not grant his company leases to drill for petroleum on the continental shelves. He seemed oblivious to the fact that the government was doing what he said he wanted: reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by discouraging oil production. The point had already been conceded.

Fossil-energy companies could learn a thing or two from the gun lobby. The gun industry is tiny compared with theirs, yet it is among the most respected and powerful groups that lobby Congress.

After the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, didn’t budge an inch. He never agreed to the premise that firearms were inherently evil. Instead, he went on television and suggested that putting armed guards in schools might be an effective way of stopping evil. In other words, he refused to cede the moral high ground.

Much of the gun lobby’s strength springs from solidarity. The Eastern Sports and Outdoor Show is the largest exhibition of its type in North America. It typically has about 1,500 exhibitors, attracts some 200,000 people, and adds millions of dollars to the economy in Harrisburg, Pa.

On Jan. 15, the show sponsors announced that AR-15 rifles would be banned from their exposition. Almost immediately, exhibitors began to pull out. Some of the exhibitors who withdrew not only did not sell AR-15 rifles, they didn’t sell guns at all. Others were small companies that suffered significant financial losses from withdrawing. But they understood that the long-term health of their industry depended on absolute solidarity. When the number of withdrawals exceeded 200, the sponsors canceled the entire exposition.

If the firearms folks had responded like the fossil-fuel industry, the manufacturers of bolt-action rifles would have been overjoyed to see semiautomatic rifles banned. They would have attempted to exploit the political situation for short-term financial gain. But this didn’t happen.

Firearms manufacturers are well aware that if semiautomatic rifles are banned, bolt-action guns are next. It is a mistake to cede a millimeter on any issue, because it simply invites more demands. People in the gun culture know their opposition.

Consider, by way of contrast, the foolish actions of Chesapeake Energy, CHK -2.43% a major producer of natural gas. Time magazine revealed last year that Chesapeake gave the Sierra Club $26 million. Presumably the Machiavellian reasoning was that the Sierra Club would use this money to attack Chesapeake’s competitor, the coal industry.

Now the Sierra Club is trying to shut down hydraulic fracturing—the entire basis of Chesapeake’s natural-gas business. According to reports this week, the natural-gas boon from fracking could be a boon to the U.S. economy for 30 years, if the industry doesn’t fumble the opportunity.

If Chesapeake’s managers had understood the environmental movement, they never would have subsidized Sierra Club.

The oil industry’s failure to emphatically push back against the environmentalist attempts to block the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada is no more inspiring.

Environmentalists don’t think like engineers, nor are they conservationists. Modern environmentalism is based on emotionalism, biocentrism and the myth of primitive harmony. Understanding the environmental movement necessarily entails a study of subjects like philosophy and history. But fossil-fuel companies have never appreciated the importance of these subjects.

If the fossil-fuel industry were willing to change, they could become the most influential political lobby in the U.S. Three things are necessary. First, absolute solidarity. Second, an in-depth knowledge of the environmental movement. Third, fossil-energy companies have to seize the moral high ground. Providing 80% of the energy that sustains human civilization is nothing to apologize for.

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