Bill Hicks once remarked ‘people who produce surveys get the answers they want’. Well there appears to be a spate of surveys from oil companies this year that are aimed at not only getting the answers they want, but promoting the message that fossil fuels are clean fuels.

One example is Shell’s survey below. The question is loaded: ‘Which new natural gas technology do you see contributing most to meeting the world’s rising demand for cleaner energy?’ The answers are somewhat immaterial. The message has already been communicated – natural gas is a clean fuel.

Shell – natural gas is so clean

Only the second option in Shell’s survey is a renewable solution. The others are not clean energy sources and may well not be cleaner energy sources. As this research shows, natural gas brings with it some penalties. One issue is that natural gas is largely composed of methane. Whilst not poisonous, it has a global warming potential of 11-72! That’s its greenhouse gas (GHG) effect compared to CO2. During the extraction and conversion of natural gas, leaks are inevitable. Of course, to give the full picture I should add that methane from natural gas production is only one of the many sources of methane in the atmosphere.

Chevron – we’re the good guys

Here’s a slightly different example from Chevron. There’s nothing wrong with supporting good causes, but the real positive impact that oil companies could have is in supporting legislation to reduce GHG emissions. Their clout in this area would have much more impact than from siphoning off a small proportion of their profits to support a few ‘good causes’. They won’t do that because that would impact their profits. I am not suggesting that they should become anti-capitalist NGOs, only that they should not try to con the reader into thinking they are good for society and the environment.

What should a good oil company do? Well apart from supporting legislation to reduce GHG emissions, as suggested above, it is a difficult question. Companies like BP have attempted to build a business in renewable energy but in reality, it is extremely difficult for a large multinational to make enough money from small-scale investments. Pumping oil into a thirsty cash-rich market is so much easier.