Many people believe an untrue story about fossil fuels: that fossil fuels are destroying the planet and that solar, wind, and electric vehicles are the only things that can save it. Investors and banks view energy companies as “sin” peddlers on a par with companies selling alcohol, tobacco, and pornography. They’re convinced fossil fuels are being phased out and perceive energy companies as riskier investments than alternative energy sources. As a result, asset managers are shifting away from traditional energy companies, and major banks are charging them higher rates for capital while aligning their lending portfolios with net-zero emission goals.
I, too, once believed that untrue story. In fact, my belief that fossil fuels are villains and solar and wind are heroes for many years guided my career.
I championed renewable energy for over two decades, first as executive director of a green building trade association, then as CEO of a consulting firm specializing in clean energy, and more recently as founder of a clean-tech startup. I used to believe the worst harm to the environment came from fossil fuels—and from greedy companies exploiting the land, polluting the air, and destroying ecosystems to get them.
I was wrong.
After many years, I finally recognized the crucial role that fossil fuels play in promoting human prosperity and protecting our environment. Fossil fuels are the lifeblood of modern civilization, and their use has improved our quality of life more than anything else in history. Thanks to fossil fuels, we’ve made huge advances in food production, healthcare, housing, sanitation, water quality, transportation, safety, communication, and economic opportunity.
But most people don’t recognize the benefits bestowed by fossil fuels because the opposition has conquered their mental space. As a result, the storytelling dominance of the opposition now limits the kinds of movements energy companies can make. The myths shape public policy and block new infrastructure development, and they provide the lens through which people interpret—or misinterpret—everything energy companies say and do. No matter how much a company lowers emissions or how many ESG strategies it implements, if it doesn’t control the overarching narrative, people will simply see it as a villain trying to look good—like a crooked politician seeking photo ops with children.
Energy companies need to recapture the narrative high ground and re-educate consumers about how much fossil fuels have contributed to human prosperity. If they don’t, U.S. companies are going to shrink and eventually be pushed out of the market by foreign competitors.
Re-educating the public involves more than PR and ESG checklists. It requires reframing the entire story about fossil fuel energy and crafting compelling counter-narratives, as happened when North Face refused to make a branded jacket for a fossil fuel company in 2020.
Industry representatives responded by placing the following billboard near North Face’s headquarters.
In addition, Chris Wright, the CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, made a video, Thank You, North Face, highlighting the many North Face products that depend on oil and gas.
Wright’s video enabled him to tell a different story about North Face that exposed its move as hollow virtue signaling. The fact is, North Face can’t make its high-performance products without fossil fuels, and the same is true of multiple other products in multiple other industries.
Here’s another example of a fossil fuel exec who is changing the narrative. Toby Rice, the CEO of EQT Corp., America’s largest producer of natural gas, created Unleashing U.S. LNG, a presentation that recasts natural gas as a hero instead of a villain. He argues that displacing coal with natural gas is the fastest way of reducing CO2 emissions. By 2030, his plan would reduce emissions equivalent to:
- Electrifying 100% of U.S. passenger vehicles;
- Powering every U.S. home with rooftop solar and battery backup packs, and;
- Doubling U.S. wind capacity by adding 54,000 industrial-scale windmills.
These two examples illustrate how the industry can challenge the opposition and reframe the narrative around energy to cast fossil fuels as heroes instead of villains.
When it comes to ideological warfare, whoever tells the best story wins. Energy companies need to stop fighting a defensive battle and go on the offensive. Recapture the narrative high ground and craft compelling counter-narratives to highlight the essential contribution of fossil fuels to human well-being. Remind the American public that energy companies play vital roles in improving our world beyond simply reducing CO2 emissions or producing high-performance outdoor products. Fossil fuel companies also help provide energy security, pull people out of poverty, create economic opportunity, improve water quality and sanitation, prevent deforestation, and promote habitat preservation.
When energy companies tell better stories and present a bold vision of a better future, they can free people’s minds from the false beliefs about fossil fuels that threaten our collective prosperity.