I was sitting on the couch one evening over the holidays, watching a college bowl game as one is wont to do. Football is usually my tune-out time where I can forget the world is on fire and the fossil fuel industry is hellbent on stoking the flames.
Like most folks, I don’t pay attention to the ads. So I tuned out the first few seconds of the ad below, but the moment I caught sight of the guy in the bright blue plastic-framed glasses with a gas station blurred artfully in the background at the 10-second mark, my climate spidey-sense started tingling. This was going to be an ad about the wonders of petrochemicals. Indeed, it was a Valero ad, complete with a website to visit: valeroforlife.com.
I’d soon learn that the commercial and the site are basically a funhouse view of how Big Oil wants the world to see it versus what it’s doing to the planet.
The fossil fuel industry has worked in very overt ways to maintain its market share. Those range from peddling in climate denial and lobbying against climate legislation. But Valero’s “Essential for Life” campaign represents a growing front in the industry’s efforts to keep turning out billions in profits at the expense of the climate. That front is one where the industry tries to convince the public that we simply can’t live without fossil fuels. (This is, in part, true because of the decades of efforts blocking action!)
The ad itself shows a dad imagining the life of his newborn child. Aside from the Valero station at the 10-second mark, the company’s logo doesn’t appear until the end. Instead, we’re treated to glimpses of a dad and his daughter growing up happy, with plastic items featuring prominently throughout as the daughter becomes a drummer. “Essential products, essential for life,” the ad’s narrator intones at the end as a child’s hand fades into the Valero logo.
“I’ve seen a lot of Big Oil ads, but this has to be one of the creepiest,” Jamie Henn, the director of Fossil Free Media, said in an email. “Valero wants us to feel like it isn’t just our cars, but the very lives of our children that depend on their product. There’s an unsaid threat in these commercials: transition to clean energy and the world as you know it will cease to exist. That’s of course false and in this case utterly ridiculous—as far as I can recall, drumming preceded the oil industry by a few millennia.”
The site itself only builds on these themes of plastic and gasoline being essential. It’s an incredibly deep site, with multiple pages laying out all the things Valero’s products are “essential” for, from bikinis (no, seriously. You can’t have a bikini without oil!) to travel photography to snow safety. That’s right, Valero would like you to know that you will only survive an avalanche thanks to the plastic it makes that can be used for avalanche beacons, rescue shovels, air packs, and more.
Some of the pages are simple lists like the aforementioned snow safety one while others are full-blown feature stories with beautiful photography like one about surfers on the Great Lakes. Some mention the words “petroleum” explicitly. Did you know, for example, that petroleum is “a helping hand to get bees where they’re needed?” Others, like one about the golden record on Voyager 1, don’t mention any petroleum-based products at all, instead just letting your mind wander. (The plastic on the probe? The fuel to get to space? How exactly was Valero essential for this?)
“Typically the approach of fossil fuel companies is to focus on a specific benefit of fossil fuels, while ignoring the negative impacts,” John Cook, a climate communication expert at Monash University, said in an email. “What is especially insidious about this type of advertising is the implicit message that fossil fuels are essential to maintain our current lifestyle. This is a false narrative. There are alternatives that can provide the same benefits without harming the environment.”
Cook co-authored a study released last year classifying types of climate misinformation. He said this ad campaign “would come under the claim ‘we need fossil fuel energy,’” and that “[t]his category of misinformation has been steadily increasing over the last 20 years.”
All in all, it’s a very sophisticated ad campaign. The site itself is registered to Campbell Ewald, a PR firm based in Detroit that’s part of the conglomerate Interpublic Group. The firm, which did not respond to Earther’s request to comment, has also done other work with Valero. It lists an ad called “Rescue Rides” about saving shelter dogs from euthanasia on its automotive work page. (It aims directly at your heartstrings, so you have been warned.) In 2015, Campbell Ewald was named the agency of record for Valero, which is two years before the firm registered the Essential for Life site.
Henn said the commercial and campaign are the “perfect example of the advertising industry’s hypocrisy on climate. Campbell Ewald’s parent company, Interpublic Group, loudly announced last June that they were signing Amazon’s Climate Pledge and will be ‘net-zero carbon by 2040,’ yet here they are shilling for one of the worst oil corporations in the world. If these commercials help increase Valero’s sales by 1% or keep them operating for another year, it’ll probably wipe out all of the emissions savings Interpublic is working on.”
Indeed, plastic production is slated to be a huge driver of carbon pollution in the coming decade. A report released last year found that carbon emissions from the U.S. plastic industry could eclipse those from coal by 2030.
Plastic production is often sited in communities of color, making Valero’s “essential for life” tagline ring even more hollow. A number of the company’s petrochemical plants follow that trend, including one in the predominantly Black part of Louisiana known as Cancer Alley and Port Arthur, Texas, a low-income community home to large Black and Hispanic populations. Petrochemicals are decidedly not “essential for life” in those places. Quite the opposite, in fact. During last winter’s deep freeze, Valero’s Port Arthur facility leaked 57,000 pounds (25,855 kilograms) of sulfur dioxide on one day alone, a pollutant that irritates eyes and the respiratory system.
The company has also showered millions of dollars on politicians blocking climate legislation that’s actually pretty essential for life to continue on Earth. Federal data shows the biggest recipient of money of Valero employees and PAC money in the 2022 election cycle is none other than Sen. Joe Manchin, who has spent the past year gutting the Build Back Better Act. During the 2020 election, the company poured nearly $3 million into PACs, state parties, and outside groups tied to Republicans—which have stood nearly in lockstep to block any meaningful climate legislation at the federal or state level—alone.
Taken together, it shows the two faces of the company. In its shiny ad campaign, Valero’s plastic and gas are huge gifts to the world. But behind the scenes, it’s also working to constrain the politics of what’s possible so that its core business remains indispensable. But as scientific report after scientific report has warned us, winding down Valero and other oil companies’ core business of digging up petroleum is what’s truly essential for life as we know it.