Chevron “Human Energy”

Refinery Tank Farm - click image for source

Chevron Richmond Refinery, Tank Farm - click image for source

In September 2007 Chevron Corporation launched a massive global advertising campaign “aimed at engaging people in today’s energy issues and highlighting the steps Chevron is taking to bring more energy supplies to the global marketplace. The campaign, called the “Power of Human Energy,” will launch on television in the United States on Sept. 30 and internationally on Oct. 5.”

I noted the glitzy new TV ads with irritation and skepticism. While I motored with Chevron products most of my adult life, my attitude changed with the dramatic surge of gasoline prices which began in the early years of 2000. Californians have long paid higher prices for fuel anyway; prices in the the Bay Area were even higher, and the feeling was and is that we’re being gouged. If that wasn’t irritating enough, Chevron dealers were almost always ten to twenty cents higher per gallon than the competition. Refiners blamed California environmental regulations (thank you, MTBE) and “Market Forces”. The “market forces” explanation comes across as particularly arrogant, patronizing and insulting.

Understanding market forces pricing mechanisms is one thing. Explaining why oil company profits also soared, hitting world records in 2001, is another matter. It got worse by 2006:

Oil Chart American Progress - click link for source

Oil Chart "American Progress" - click image for source

So, does Chevron’s “Human Energy” campaign mark a sea change of direction for Big Oil, or is this just more PR feel-good fluffery?

The TV ads are slick. They convey the impression Chevron is actively engaged in important alternative-energy projects, without actually saying so, and without specifying which projects, what kinds of alternative energy, or what kind of investment is being redirected to this brave new world. The ads are narrated by a soft, over-controlled male voice. The inflections do not convey relaxed confidence and assurance, like the ads of Men’s Wearhouse CEO George “We Guarantee It” Zimmer. The Chevron voice, hushed but slightly strident, hints at the excitement you would expect during an important putt at the Golf finals, but it also has the denial overtones of the teenager who has just been busted for shoplifting. Listen to the ad again, and decide whether you would buy a used car from the salesman.

How much truth is there in Chevron’s TV claims?

Chevron’s “willyoujoinus” site features an expensive, attractively arty multi-tab layout with sections on Demand, Population, Environment, Supply and Geopoliticswith carefully crafted say-nothing phrases like “Meeting the energy demands of the world continues to be a tremendous ongoing challenge.” There’s a submenu for “Other Alternatives“, listing Nuclear power and Hydrogen, without claiming Chevon is actually connected with either field. There’s a big emphasis on “Becoming More Efficient” – at producing refined petroleum products.

In fairness, there’s also a link to Chevron Energy Solutions with projects like this:

MILPITAS, Calif., December 15, 2008 — Milpitas Unified School District, Chevron Energy Solutions and Bank of America announced today the completion of a 14-site, district-wide solar and energy efficiency project designed to supply 75 percent of the district’s total annual electricity needs through solar energy.

The 3.4-megawatt solar parking canopies and shade structures generate what is believed to be the highest percentage of solar power for any K-12 school district in the United States and supplies 100 percent of the district’s power during the summer months when California’s peak-demand electricity needs are greatest.

HONOLULU, November 21, 2008 – Chevron Energy Solutions announced today the opening of a new office in Honolulu and its selection by the State of Hawaii as one of the state’s pre-qualified energy service companies. This selection allows the company to perform energy services – including developing and installing cost-reducing energy efficiency improvements and renewable power facilities – for public entities in the state effective December 1.

“We are very pleased to have the opportunity to work with Hawaii’s public education and government agencies to develop projects that will lower energy costs and reduce the carbon footprint of facilities,” said Jim Davis, president of Chevron Energy Solutions. “We are uniquely positioned to satisfy the unprecedented growth in demand for energy saving and renewable power projects and to work with the State of Hawaii to achieve their renewable energy and efficiency goals.”

Also listed are other projects sponsored at the county or school district level.

Chevron lists a very slick and educationally instructive page on Geothermal energy. Chevron geothermal plants are said to power 7 million homes in the Philippines and Indonesia. California’s only geothermal power plants are operated by Pacific Gas and Electric at The Geysers, California.

An article at UPI.com, “Chevron devotes $20M to renewable energy“, reports:

SAN RAMON, Calif., Feb. 18 (UPI) — U.S. supermajor Chevron announced a $20 million plan to develop a technology center in Qatar devoted to renewable energy and efficient technology.

Chevron issued a statement on its Web site saying the five-year plan envisions a partnership with the Qatar Science and Technology Park in Doha to work toward renewable energy and strategies to develop efficient technology for the regional climate.

“The center, expected to open in late 2009, also anticipates conducting research in the development and application of renewable power, such as solar, and developing and training Qatari engineers, scientists and students to build expertise and capabilities within the country,” Chevron said.

According to Wikipedia, “An oil-rich nation, Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world according to the CIA World Factbook.” Qatar’s economy is primarily based on exports of petroleum and natural gas. Chevron has Google listings of petroleum projects in Qatar as long as your arm.

According to CNNMoney.com’s “FORTUNE 500″ page on Chevron:

In an effort to clean up its image, Chevron launched its largest-ever global advertising campaign, called “The Power of Human Energy,” to prove that it too is concerned with climate change. The company’s progress is promising. With a net income of $18.7 billion in 2007, it was the fourth consecutive year Chevron achieved record earnings. 2007 revenues were $210 billion.

$20 million in Quatar, millions more to school districts and regional energy service investments: do the math. $20 million is roughly one tenth of one percent of 2006 net income.

To put this into scale, that’s proportionally about what a lower-profile company might donate to United Way or March of Dimes.

I didn’t find evidence of Chevron embracing wind, solar or other truly “green” technologies in any significant way. Is this Chevron’s answer to T. Boone Pickens’ “America is Addicted to Foreign Oil” Plan?

Pickens’ plan involves:

- Create millions of new jobs by building out the capacity to generate up to 22 percent of our electricity from wind. And adding to that with additional solar capacity;
– Building a 21st century backbone electrical grid;
– Providing incentives for homeowners and the owners of commercial buildings to upgrade their insulation and other energy saving options; and – Using America’s natural gas to replace imported oil as a transportation fuel.

As a replacement for gasoline, natural gas still adds to the CO2 buildup, but there is no additional refining overhead in energy costs and other pollutants, and natural gas burns clean. Pickens hopes to use natural gas as an auto fuel stopgap to wean us off foreign oil until we can develop truly green fuel sources and infrastructures.

Pickens apparently puts his money where his mouth is. According to CNN, his company, Mesa Power, has launched a multibillion dollar program to build the world’s largest wind farm in Pampa, Texas. Pickens’ initial investment was announced at $2 billion.

Big Oil interests are eventually going to have to follow suit, or perish, and we can be sure they know that. According to SFGate, Watchdog consumer organizations have placed Chevron “and eight other companies on a “climate watch list” of corporations that aren’t adequately addressing global warming.”

For the time being, it appears that Chevron is conducting “business as usual.” For my money, Chevron’s “Human Energy” ad campaign really is just more PR feel-good fluffery.

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