The latest United Nations sponsored climate change meeting held in Doha was striving to develop a follow-on agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. The meeting of the 195 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change even went an extra day in order to provide more time for attendees to reach an agreement. What emerged from the summit was an agreement to retain the 15% reduction in carbon emissions target initially established by the Kyoto Protocol.
Once again, there was a general agreement that the western countries would compensate those developing economies most impacted by possible climate change, but no money terms were agreed for 2013-2015. The Doha meeting should be considered another chapter in the lengthening string of disappointing climate meeting outcomes. Departees from Doha expressed optimism that more will be achieved in Poland next year.
These annual climate change meeting failures are particularly troubling for environmentalists and have forced them to focus on other tactics to try to gain leverage in fulfilling their carbon emissions agenda. A new tactic is to pressure the managers of university endowment funds to divest their holdings in fossil fuel companies. This was a tactic used successfully in the 1980s in a campaign to get pension funds and university endowments to sell the stocks of companies dealing with South Africa. While people refer to that campaign as having been successful, in essence it didn't really succeed until the instigators commenced campus demonstrations including hunger strikes, sit-ins and the seizure of buildings.
The divestment campaign has been used by a small group of students for about a year in fighting to get coal stocks sold from endowment portfolios in opposition to strip mining atop mountains in Appalachia. The companies the students targeted were labeled the Sordid 16. Now, however, the movement is bigger and targeting a larger universe of energy stocks. It is being spurred by a former writer turned climate change advocate, Bill McKibben. He has been touring the United States by bus speaking to student groups. He has founded an organization called 350.org, which refers to the supposedly safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere -- 350 parts per million. Today, there are 390 parts in the atmosphere, 41% greater than what existed before the Industrial Revolution.
Mr. McKibben's organization is attempting to motivate students to push for divestment of the shares of 200 energy companies. In his presentations, he paints the fossil fuel companies as the "enemy," -- a tactic that has become the norm in the political and social arena in recent times. No longer are people or companies on the other side of a debate "opponents," or the "loyal opposition" as politicians are referred to in England, but rather they are the enemy.
Mr. McKibben's goal of making the ownership of these energy stocks disreputable is similar to the effort to make owning tobacco stocks verboten in many circles some years ago. Mr. McKibben has set forth a series of demands, which if met would get energy companies off the 350.org target list. First, the companies must stop exploring for new fossil fuels. Second, they need to stop lobbying against emission reduction policies in Washington. Finally, companies must devise a transition plan that will leave most of their reserves in the ground while encouraging the use of lower-carbon energy alternatives. Does that mean an oil-focused company that stops exploring for and developing its oil resources in favor of going after natural gas reserves will get a bye from 350.org? We doubt it.
Two weeks ago we learned that students of Providence's Brown University are among the latest to push for their endowment managers to sell its energy stocks. Earlier, a high-profile divestment effort was mounted at Swarthmore College located on the Main Line in Philadelphia. While the students have received sympathetic support for their goals from the college's president, Rebecca Chopp, a theologian, she does not agree with their means. Suzanne Welsh, vice president for finance at the school, was quoted saying, "The college's policy is that the endowment is not to be invested for social purposes" beyond the education of students. As she pointed out, the endowment money was given with the latter purpose in mind and not as a pile of money to be used for social purposes.
The idea that we need to target energy companies or others for that matter as the "enemy" in order to oppose their actions and/or policies seems to have become an accepted strategy. I would argue that it is an age-old strategy. Do you think Alexander the Great or Attila the Hun didn't view the people they were trying to conquer as enemies? I think back to an experience in my youth that demonstrates that demonizing the opposition is not a new phenomenon, but it also reminds me of how often the strategy fails.
I grew up in Darien, Connecticut and our archrival in sports was the neighboring town of New Canaan. In my senior year, New Canaan sponsored a "Hate Darien Week" before our annual football game. According to posters and reports from a pep rally the students held that week, New Canaan high school students were encouraged to "hate your mother, hate your father, hate your girlfriend, but most of all hate Darien." The coach of the New Canaan football team was even complicit by locking us out of our locker room before the game at their school field, making us late for the coin toss that earned us a 15-yard penalty. The New Canaan coach made a grand gesture out of declining the penalty. After their warm-ups, the New Canaan team appeared on the field in totally different uniforms. They changed again at half time into their regular uniforms. As a starter, I only got to play about half the game as we beat New Canaan 70-0. Hating your enemies isn't always a successful motivating factor.
Hatred, however, appears to be growing as a strategy -- witness the attack of Oil Change International and its cohort, The Other 98%, against ExxonMobil (XOM-NYSE) and the rest of the petroleum industry. These left-leaning and anti-fossil fuel organizations have created an advertisement directed against the petroleum industry using ExxonMobil as its caricature. Here is some of the text of the ad these organizations promoted to raise money for media time:
"Imagine if your government gave a company a sweet deal to build your local playground. Then, that company dumped toxic waste underneath where your kids play everyday, just because it was the most profitable thing for them to do. What would you do? Obviously you'd protect your children and demand that the company fully pay to clean up their mess. You'd demand that the company pay for any medical help needed by your kids. Finally, you'd demand that your government immediately stop sending your tax dollars -- subsidies -- to that company. That company is Exxon, the playground is our planet, and the sweet deal they get is by way of massive government handouts. But Exxon is not alone; their competitors and industry friends in the fossil fuel game are all running their businesses in a way that is ruining our children's futures. In short, if you judge Exxon and other fossil fuel companies not by the words on their press releases, but by their actions and predictable consequences, Exxon really must hate your children. The facts speak for themselves."
The ad points out that ExxonMobil (and its fellow petroleum companies) continues to drill and produce fossil fuels, endangering the planet's climate and poisoning the atmosphere for our children's future. To continue doing these things in the face of the evidence suggested by the United Nations, the International Energy Agency and Superstorm Sandy, means that ExxonMobil hates your children. The suggested remedies Oil Change International proposes are similar to those endorsed by 350.org -- stop seeking new fossil fuel reserves, stop lobbying against environmental laws and determine out how best to keep your reserves buried in the ground.
We subscribe to many web sites and data sources including ones such as Oil Change International (one needs to understand the views of the other side). We have been aware of this advertising campaign so we were intrigued to learn that within one week, the ad received 106,000 views on YouTube, over 13,000 Facebook "shares," thousands of tweets and over $12,000 in donations. With that money, Oil Change International has purchased time on MSNBC to show its ad hoping not only to influence the debate over petroleum industry subsidies as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations, but also to rally more people against the petroleum industry.
We find an advertising program built around hate to be reprehensible. At the same time we understand that it can prove highly successful. ExxonMobil has responded to the ad campaign with a statement that said: "The campaign is offensive to the thousands of ExxonMobil employees and contractors who work hard every day to deliver an essential product in a safe and environmentally responsible way."
The petroleum industry must continue fighting these anti-fossil fuel campaigns as their future business and ultimately the industrial and military power of this country is at stake. The battle for the hearts and minds of the public over fossil fuels is a tricky debate because the image of the industry is so tainted by Macondo and J.R. Ewing. The petroleum industry must become smarter about how best to counter the left-leaning, anti-fossil fuel advocacy groups who will stop at nothing to win over the public.
Until the industry gets smarter it should be prepared for more attacks such as those we have outlined above.
G. Allen Brooks is Managing Director of Houston-based investment banking firm Parks Paton Hoepfl & Brown. This article originally appeared in the Dec. 18, 2012, issue of PPHB's newsletter "Musings from the Oil Patch."