Oil and Money Conference: Fossil Fuel Executives Discuss How to Use PR to ‘Combat Growing Divestment Movement’


Climate campaigners have accused big oil and gas companies of trying to “subvert” the divestment movement as top executives gathered in London to discuss how to use PR “to combat” the growing campaign against fossil fuel investments.

The annual Oil and Money conference, which is taking place at the luxurious Intercontinental London Park Lane hotel between Mayfair and Knightsbridge this week, is a mainstay of the oil and gas industry calendar.

The three-day meeting — a “who’s who” of the global oil and gas industry — is co-hosted by the New York Times Company and Energy Intelligence and is attended by more than 500 senior level executives from the industry.

The overwhelmingly male line-up of speakers include some of the most influential CEOs in the oil and gas sector such as BP’s chief executive Bob Dudley, Shell’s CEO Ben van Beurden and Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanné as well as senior executives from Chevron, ExxonMobil, Glencore and Saudi Aramco.

Other speakers include the head of the Donald Trump’s administration dealing with matters related to energy and the global oil industry at the US State Department, Francis Fannon, and the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol.

A number of bank executives representing oil and gas interests from HSBC, Barclays, J P Morgan, Société Générale and Goldman Sachs are also present.

For the past few years, campaigners have protested outside The Dorchester hotel, on Park Lane, where the conference holds its annual gala dinner, to denounce how big polluters come together to discuss how to make more money from exploiting untapped oil and gas reserves.

But this year, campaigners themselves were part of the conference’s agenda.

For the first time, the conference includes a panel discussion on how oil and gas companies can “survive the energy transition” and what they “need to do on the PR front to combat the growing fossil fuel divestment movement”.

At a time when scientists are warning that the next decade will be crucial for action to prevent dangerous climate change, the oil and gas industry is discussing using its promotion tools to fight back against calls to move away from fossil fuels.

Big oil PR to ‘combat’ divestment

Climate campaigners protested outside The Dorchester hotel where BP’s CEO Dudley was due to receive Energy Intelligence’s “petroleum executive of the year award”.

Protesters blocked the entrance to the hotel with large banners while chanting “Hey, Bob Dudley, I wanna know how you sleep at night,” before being pushed to the sides of the front door by security officers.

Taking part in the protest, Alastair Binnie-Lubbock described the oil and gas industry as “murderous” for contributing to dangerous climate change.

Those people gathering here for the conference only think about short-term profits and are not thinking about the next generation, let alone the generation after that,” he said.

Jessie Amadio, from Fossil Free London — one of the divestment groups which organised the protest — told DeSmog UK that campaigners were keen to show the oil and gas industry that they were “not welcome in London”.

Their business model revolves around continued extraction of fossil fuels and if we are going to stop the destruction of our climate, we need to switch to renewable energy immediately,” she said, adding: “They are trying to subvert the divestment movement through PR rather than propose a real alternative to fossil fuels to tackle climate change.”

Hannah Staab, also a campaigner with the London divestment movement, added that the fact the divestment movement made it to the conference’s agenda show how much it has grown over the past few years.

This shows that we are winning. The divestment movement is not on the fringes anymore but it is becoming mainstream,” she said.

Around the world, calls for institutions, pension funds and investors to divest from fossil fuels have ramped up. Last month, London mayor Sadiq Khan and New York mayor Bill de Blasio announced that they will take “all possible steps” to divest their city’s pension funds from fossil fuels and called on other cities to do the same.

Meanwhile, Bank of England governor Mark Carney has warned of the “catastrophic impact” climate change could have on the financial system, unless companies, banks and insurers provide more information on the risks they face from global warming.

Climate science and obstructionism

This year’s Oil and Money conference also kicked off the day after the world’s leading climate scientists warned that rapid and unprecedented action needs to take place by 2030 if global warming is to be kept to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

The authors of the landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was released on Monday, said the world’s emissions had to be cut by around 45 percent between 2010 and 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 in order to keep global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees.

The report warned that warming of an additional half degree would significantly worsen the risks of droughts, floods, extreme heat, loss to biodiversity and poverty for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The findings prompted little reaction from the oil and gas industry, which has long known that its products are rapidly eating up the carbon budget the world has left before the impacts of climate change are tipped to dangerous levels.

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However, the sector is starting to express some concerns over becoming laggards as governments start to wake up to the urgency for a zero-carbon future.

The conference closing session, entitled “Climate Forum: Can oil companies learn to adapt?”, is expected to address how the energy transition “threatens to relegate oil companies to the sidelines if they cannot adapt” and ask whether big oil is doing enough to “survive the transition”.

While campaigners have long demanded oil and gas companies radically transform their business models to fit into a low-carbon society, solutions considered by the industry at the conference include a “shale gas revolution”, the financing of gas as a bridging fuel and the “potential” for deep-water drilling.

Fossil Free London’s Amadio accused oil and gas executives of being “unrepentant and shameless” to hold the conference in the light of this week’s scientific evidence published by the IPCC.

But failure to act on scientific evidence is not knew in the oil and gas industry.

Recent investigations have revealed that both ExxonMobil and Shell knew about the impacts burning fossil fuels were having on the world’s climate as early as the 1980s but did little to reverse the trend.

Although big oil and gas companies are known to have the scientific expertise to use necessary technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they spent decades lobbying to water down or obstruct climate actions in order to protect their commercial interests and continue business-as-usual.

Campaigner Hannah Staab added that it was important for campaigners to call out the New York Times Company which she accused of “giving the oil and gas industry a forum” to push their fossil fuel agenda.

In a statement to DeSmog UK, a New York Times Company spokeswoman said that discussions and debate at the conference will “address the transition to a low carbon economy, an issue which has been covered extensively by The New York Times”.

That transition is unlikely to occur without the participation of the world’s largest energy companies,” she said, adding that the New York Times’ newsroom has complete editorial independence from the company.

Image Credit: Protesters outside the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane, London. @ChloeFarand

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