Searching For A New Narrative

By Molly Szymanski, LABB Research Associate

For many people, common sense and their personal experience tell them that oil industry is a substantial polluter.  And the data backs this up, but it’s hard to not get side-tracked by the standard industry PR. They are experts at shirking responsibility for the human and environmental cost of their business practices.  Industry response to recent EPA actions provides some potent examples of this on-going trend, while also offering hope for momentum in another direction.

Blame Game

The oil industry often seems to specialize in shifting blame to other polluters or government regulators, convincing us that something or someone else is worse. Last month, the EPA released data on greenhouse gas emissions for 2010. Predictably, the oil industry argued for refineries to be exempted from any regulation:

“Howard Feldman, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, told Bloomberg that raises questions about the need to regulate refineries’ greenhouse gas emissions. He said the petroleum industry is in the “pee wee league relative to the major leagues of utilities.”

Nationally, power plants do produce the lion’s share of total greenhouse gas emissions.  So, at first, API’s point seems natural and convincing – a simple case of absolute numbers. But if you look at the data a different way, it tells a more nuanced story – that the problem can’t be reduced a simple comparison. Let’s look at our state:

Louisiana facilities produced more than 136 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2010. Similar to national trends, power plants reported the highest number of emissions, followed by chemical plants and refineries.  But when you break down each category and divide the total greenhouse emissions by the number of facilities – Louisiana refineries average 1.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gases per facility, power plants 1.4 million and chemical plants .5 million. In Louisiana – refineries, on average, emit the most greenhouse gases per facility. 

Examining EPA’s data in this way doesn’t undermine the fact that power plants produce a significant amount of greenhouse gases, but rather looks past the oil industry tactic of shifting blame and saying “they’re worse than us.” Instead, it frames the conversation in a way that illuminates the true scope of the problem and demands accountability from all polluters.

Many of us already understand that refineries and the oil industry are big polluters. Testimonials from community members living on the fenceline of industry or even refineries’ own documents offer an alternative narrative to the industry voices that dominate national media and influence Congress. Seeking out and sharing these narratives – and examining data more critically – helps undermine casual industry dismissals, like claiming they are in the “pee wee league” of polluters.

Environment vs. Job Creation

The oil industry is also particularly savvy at pitching pollution reduction and job/economic growth as mutually exclusive, convincing us that we can’t have one without sacrificing the other. Representatives for industry often matter-of-factly argue that investing in business practices and technologies that reduce pollution will curtail economic growth and force job cuts. They perpetuate a myth that economic growth and environmental protection cannot co-exist.

Unfortunately, these myths still permeate the oil industry’s influence in the media and Congress. Late last year, EPA delayed  regulations for the nation’s refineries to curb greenhouse gas and other emissions. The delay came, in part, due to industry advocates in Congress employing the same “job killing” and blame shifting rhetoric.

But cracks in the influence of these standard arguments are starting to show. There are more studies  providing evidence that environmental protection and job growth can go hand-in-hand. And even though refinery regulations were delayed, earlier this month EPA’s air toxics rule was officially enacted –requiring power plants to drastically reduce emissions by 2015. Part of this success was attributed to an unlikely force – support from within the industry.

Constellation power plant in Maryland had already met new rule’s requirements in than 3 years. According to EPA data, Constellation was once the nation’s largest polluter among power plants, but has reduced their hazardous emissions by more than 90% since starting renovations and technology upgrades in 2008. Constellation challenged the industry’s assertions that pollution control is “bad for business” and can’t be accomplished on a reasonable timeline. Their company spokesman even declared that, “It’s entirely possible to comply with these rules and remain a profitable company.”  Industry testimonials and new regulations for power plants can lay the groundwork for similar trends in the oil industry.

And we can take hope from these small victories to challenge ourselves – as advocates for environmental justice – to flood the public sphere and continue in push our legislators as well as corporations. It will take voices from all aspects of this battle – from fenceline communities, scientists, activists, and professionals within industry – to successfully chip away at the tired, empty arguments of oil companies. To create a new narrative – that demands accountability and measures success against a metric which values economic growth side-by-side the impact on the environment and our health.


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One Response to Searching For A New Narrative

  1. Fred Adamay says:

    Nice summary pointing out important details related to our addiction to oil. Unfortunately the network news media has done a thorough job duping the American public into seeing a much different picture by being very careful to divert blame on Big Oil. Now that fact checking is no longer important and career journalists are a dying breed, the news media industry has redefined the word ‘news’.
    Good luck to everyone at LABB to get articles like this out to the masses.

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