Chevron, Oil, and China

This is a guest post by Shepherd Bliss. We have discussed his work here before here at TOD, and we're happy to have him.

"It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil," notes Chevron Corporation's two full-page ad that began appearing in July in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Financial Times and elsewhere. "We'll use the next trillion in 30," the ad continues, thus quietly admitting to the Peak Oil that the industry has not previously disclosed.

"One thing is clear: the age of easy oil is over," the ad reveals in a folksy letter from "Dave," Chevron's Chairman and CEO David J. O'Reilly. Most Americans are still unaware of the pending Peak Oil or try to deny the tremendous impact it will have upon us. Chevron proudly presents itself as "the Good Guy" by informing the public of the lessening supply of petroleum at a time when the demand is soaring, especially in China, India, and other industrializing countries.

Chevron's multi-million dollar global corporate goodwill effort includes TV teaser ads throughout the US, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Airport locations in Beijing, Moscow, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere broadcast the ad, also available online. Yet as the prices of crude oil and gasoline soar—symptoms of Peak Oil—so do the profits of Big Oil.

Chevron is one of the world's four largest oil companies, so it should know a lot about petroleum. Chevron has half the story correct—that Peak Oil is upon us—but they may have the timing off, according to at least half a dozen recent books by oil experts.

"It is my opinion that the peak will occur in late 2005 or in the first few months of 2006," writes geologist Kenneth Deffeyes in his new book "Beyond Oil." Deffeyes was a Shell Oil company engineer and is a retired Princeton University professor.

This sooner-rather-than-later scenario is echoed by Houston-based investment banker Matthew Simmons in "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy." Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil producer. Simmons "argues that Saudi Arabian production is at or very near its peak."

The Earth may have another 30 years, more or less, of a dwindling supply, which will be increasingly difficult and expensive to extract. I wonder what Chevron's studies reveal will happen to civilization during that time. When they say that "easy" oil is over, how difficult do they think our petroeum-dependent lives will become as a result?

Exxon/Mobil has also recently admitted to Peak Oil, but without all Chevron's fanfare. Their report "The Outlook for Energy: The 2030 View" forecasts a peak in five years. "No oil company has ever discussed peak oil production before," writes energy consultant Alfred Cavallo in the May/June issue of the authoritative Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. "The public should heed the silent alarm sounded by the Exxon/Mobil report," he continues.

Meanwhile, Chevron CEO O'Reilly speaks out of both sides of his mouth. While sweet-talking to the world in the ad campaign, he is tough-talking against China's attempt to outbid Chevron for Unocal. After China's state-owned CNOOC offered $18.5 billion for Unocal, besting Chevron's $16.6 billion offer, the American suitor raised its bid to $17 billion. "Our increased offer has been driven by competitive circumstances," an aggressive O'Reilly stated on July 19, the day his folksy letter appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Behind the scenes Chevron and other corporations are pressuring Congress to reject the CNOOC offer as a national security risk and Un-American, should the Chevron shareholders accept the higher bid at their Aug. 10 meeting. The Chevron-China struggle to buy Unocal and thus control more oil is not over. Wall Street expects CNOOC to raise its bid. China has passed Japan as the world's second largest consumer of oil, behind the US, and is expected to take more assertive efforts to secure its energy needs. The Iraq War may expand from being partly a behind-the-scenes US-China conflict into a more hot war between the world's declining power and the world's emerging power.

The US and China seem headed into an escalating conflict over oil, currency, Taiwan, and other matters. The July 21 New York Times reports "that a Chinese general threatened the United States with a nuclear attack if the United States attacked China during a Taiwan crisis."

Meanwhile, the Chevron ad is classic green-washing. Whitewashing is a superficial coat that makes something appear cleaner than it is; green-washing is an attempt to present something that is environmentally damaging as clean. Now that most oil experts agree that Peak Oil will happen, Chevron wants to appear to be the oil company to act for the public good by informing people that we are indeed running out of oil.

"The same Madison Avenue firm, Young and Rubicom, that put together Bush's TV ads in 2004 and the Army's 'Be All You Can Be!' campaign prepared these ads," according to attorney Matt Savinar. He wrote the book "The Oil Age is Over" and maintains the web-site Savinar spoke to a grassroots Peak Oil group in Sonoma County, Northern California on July 20 at its fifth meeting.

We should ask "the tough questions," fatherly Dave advises in his friendly letter. "What role will renewables and alternative energies play? What is the best way to protect our environment? How do we accelerate our conservation efforts?"

One would almost think that the Chevron chairman was in fact the chairperson of the Sierra Club. Dave makes it sound like one of the world's most polluting companies in one of the world's most polluting industries is actually on the side of the Earth, rather than merely trying to maximize profits by extracting natural resources that lead to global climate changes.

"At Chevron, we believe that innovation, collaboration and conservation are the cornerstones on which to build (a) new world," the ad concludes. I wish that I could accept this as genuine corporate accountability. Chevron's past degradation of the environment leads me to believe that they are once again seeking to fool the public with carefully chosen words at a time when a Peak Oil movement is growing. In Europe and Japan and in some small towns on the mainland citizens and some government officials are making plans to mitigate the impact of Peak Oil.

What sort of "new world" might Chevron have in mind, this skeptic wonders. America's control of the world's oil supplies—which it seems to be loosing during oil's end game—enabled it to dominate the 20th century. As petroleum dwindles, so will US power, as China positions itself to be the superpower of the 21st century. Chevron's ad is part of Big Oil's struggle to maintain power. Dave's folksy letter seems inclusive when it talks about "every citizen of this planet" and even calls upon environmentalists to "be part of reshaping the next era of energy." Don't be fooled. Beneath it is an attempt to shore up Big Oil's threatened power base.

As the struggles around Peak Oil and its consequences heighten we can expect more such calculated public relations language to point to Big Oil as the Earth's friend. Seeing through such green-washing will be important. Lets not make the same mistakes during the 21st century that we made in the last century by letting one country, the US, hoard too much of the world's resources, and one industry, oil, concentrate too much power.

Look for yourself at the newspaper ad and see and listen to its television version by going to Chevron's friendly

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss,, teaches at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo and writes for the Hawai'i Island Journal.)

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If you bait them,
They will come.

Thanks for your excellent post, Shepard.

While I agree with your analysis of Chevron's hypocrisy in the general case, I believe that the actual advertisements are timed primarily to coincide with the soon to be successful Chevron bid for Unocal. Its not hard to imagine these oil lobbyists and marketers working with key congressmen on the one hand and planning these ad campaigns on the other in recent weeks.

Ironically, Unocal is a bit player that has assumed huge symbolic proportions due to these behind the scenes strategies by the energy establishment. When this is all said and done, China will understand what to do in the future. Their decision in the last few days to let their currency "float" just a little bit (2%) is probably related to what's going on with the CNOOC takeover bid. Maybe they're telling us something like "if we cripple WalMart, it's going hurt you (the US) more than its going to hurt us". But, that's just a guess.

thanks again, nice post.

I think Shepard makes a lot of good points, and I think Dave follows up on some likely scenarios. I'd like to add/point out that as a public company, Chevron literally has an obligation to be as profitable as possible, so to say that they're doing something in the name of profit is a bit of hand-waving. Of course they are, they have to. The bigger issue I see in this campaign is the huge players in Oil moving to grab market-share of alternative energy. Clearly they see the end of their oil profits, otherwise they wouldn't do this. The obvious response is the "Damn Oil Capitalists", but how much this reveals about what is going on behind closed doors is pretty amazing. They think they *must* be green to survive as a company. If they were doing something unprofitable out of the goodness of their hearts, they would find themselves at the receiving end of civil, at least, and likely, criminal litigation. God that was an awkward sentence.

Thanks for a thoughtful and well-written guest post!

One more thing to address Dave's WalMart comment: The thing that scares me is that they make stuff and we consume it. We like to forget that they consume it too. We're the expendable part of this equation to their economy.

- brian

I would like to believe Brian's assertion that Chevron sees the end of their oil profits and are trying to grab alternative energy market share. I would be happy to see more alternative energy investment and don't mind if Chevron does it. However, what I have seen of the actual dollar figures oil companies spend on renewables leads me to agree with the main post that the ad s basically greenwash.

I disagree with Dave's conclusion that the revaluation has anything to do with Unocal. Firstly, Unocal is a tiny issue for China, while the currency value impacts their entire economy. To devalue the currency in reaction to (what may be) a lost bid for Unocal, would be like one tail wagging all of the dogs. Further, since Bush, Snow and most US legislators have been pushing for a revaluation, it would be a case of punishment by reward.

Finally, I didn't think much of the article. It dragged on for 15 paragraghs belaboring the obvious. Then it abruptly ended with some strange call to action about not letting any one country dominate energy resources, but hardly explained what it meant, let alone providing any guidance on how.

I do agree that Chevron's ad is greenwash. But rather than reading it as some sort of global plot, I think they just realize that they are late to the game. Every other oil company, including Exxon, has run greenwash ads. Now that Chevron is in the public eye, I guess they want to try to soften their image as well.

I am a newbie on this Peak Oil stuff. Very interesting....Is this why we are in Iraq???

I just found your blog today after I saw that someone from your blog had visited mine. Thanks for stoppin by...opened a door and my eyes as to your blog and Peak Oil.

Have a good one.

Dwayne Clark

I've been waiting for you guys to report this.... I saw it in the new yorker and was, honestly, shocked.

I don't know the full details, but Chevron's parent company (Standard Oil) along with GM and Firestone supposedly had something to do with the destruction of the light rail systems in the US which coincided with the decline of towns and cities and the move to auto-dependency. As a gesture of good will maybe they should be working to help restore rail systems and the walkable, livable communities that the rail supported instead of flashy ads.

I think you guys are on the right track. This is all about optimizing profits which is of course their function. All of the oil companies have known about the phenomena that we refer to as peak oil for over thirty-five years now. In that time period, they have most likely spent a considerable amount of time and effort modeling how distortions of the production curves, influenced by demand will affect the total integrated profits over the lifetime of the resource. Of course they have little influence over China and India but they have influenced public policy in the US and indirectly consumption patterns. It is in the interests of maximizing profits for them to encourage consumption while we are on the left hand side of the production curve, when oil is a relatively cheap commodity. You do this by opposing CAFE standards, denying global warming, projecting limitless supplies of cheap oil etc. However, once you feel that we have reached the peak in production capacity, it is now in you best interests to switch gears and begin to council efficiency and conservation. Now, you have a scarce expensive resource and the goal is to make it last as long as possible. As we approach or are at the peak, the only reason that we see a difference in the behavior of the oil majors is that they all have slightly different estimations of just where on the production curve we happen to be. Within five years they will all be singing from the same hymn book.

I commend Chevron's effort to inform the public, whatever the motive, which is necessarily profit.

In some sense, I think it's absolutely WRONG to blame corporations for corporate behavior. It's like blaming a robot spot-welder for its part in building an SUV.

Remember the movie "The Corporation" this past spring/winter? ( See ) A corporation is a sociopathic psychopath (or was it the other way around?).

Corporations and their CEOs are very limited in their degrees of freedom. They *MUST* make a profit. They *CANNOT* worry about the environment or employees or anything else except as these things affect their profit.

People will be promoted to CEO rank to the extent that they can consistently improve profitability and scratch their way past other people who also want to be CEO. Corporations are mindless automatons.

We the citizens of democratic USA can redefine corporate law any way we want. We can impose regulations on them any way we want.

Of course, this is crazy talk. To get us Americans off our butts and spending hours each week on politics is a nutty dream. We have allowed corporate influence and power to grow so much it is unlikely we'll ever get control of them. And the citizenry needs a lot of education - remember, almost half the voting public voted for GWB.

But to sit back and issue negative opinions on the moral behavior of corporations seems to me to be - well, lazy.

It all depends on us little folks.

Sec. Energy Bodman July 22:

"It's hard for me to believe there will be a change in demand for oil," he said. "The demand for oil is created by economic growth, and the Chinese economy is already growing at a pretty good clip."

"The demand for oil in the world seems to be pressing the suppliers to the point of their having difficulty meeting the demand," -


"The problem is, it will take a long time," [expanding capacity on the back of high prices] he said. "We're gonna be years if not decades getting out of it."

He also spoke about renewables and ethanol. His comments, as well as those by most in the adminstration, keep pointing to a belief that the country merely faces a capacity problem, and is not facing the end of the ride.

Programming the public (err.. "educating" them) is hard hard work.
It is hard for large corporations.
It is hard for governments with large amounts of resource.

The more sophisticated operations employ focus groups
to discover what kind of language (which words) will trigger
the desired response from the target population

It is important to "frame" the issues with a carefully chosen metaphor

One can safely assume that the invitation card concept:
Will You Join Us?
was developed with the aid of many a think tank.
They didn't run out at the mouth with the first gusher.
They had parallel proposals running.
Some failed to provide desired results during focus group trials.
WillYouJoinUs succeeded in the lab.

There is no knowing how it will do in the wild.
Too many variables.
One minor variable is the effect of crazy fringe groups who start questioning the sincerity of the message. Will the public pay attention to the weirdo fringe groups or to the happy cartoon car you've come to love as part of the Chevron image? Time will tell.

Retro wrote: "We the citizens of democratic USA can redefine corporate law any way we want. We can impose regulations on them any way we want."

Retro, you are not as crazy as the noramalization programs in your head keep telling you are.

Unfortunately the laws of science apply to the reprogramming of mass population as they do to the reprogramming of a massive storage system in a computer.

It takes a finite amount of energy to change the state of each memory cell.
Some memory cells are more resistant to reprogramming than others.
In an intercommunicating system such as a free-press, open society, some thought patterns keep reinforcing themselves as individuals repeat the central mantra to their fellow citizens.

In US society we have been taught over and again that, "The Markets Will Provide"

You hear that same line everywhere you go. What does it mean? Where did it come from? Is it true? Will this invisible thing called "The Market" always and always "provide" that which we desire?

Maybe that is why that raving lunatic, Kunstler, is cussing and carrying on. He has a vision. No one wants to see his vision. How can it be possible that "suburbia" and our "American way of life" will not continue happily forever and ever?

Denial is the best defense.

P.S. Please erase from your head any inappropriate thought patterns that may have temporarily instantiated themselves as a result of this message. Thank you for joining us.

Jack said "Firstly, Unocal is a tiny issue for China..."

I've got to disagree with you on this point. China has expended considerable effort pursuing the Unocal deal including giving unsolicitied financial documents to the congress among other things. They are also considering upping the ante. As I said, Unocal is small potatoes as an acquisition but has assumed enormous symbolic importance. What is really at issue for China is whether they have the right (as they should have) to acquire energy properties in the world market. If the US decides that energy companies are some kind of strategic resource that can't be touched, that throws the gauntlet down to China and says to them explicitly that "America will be fighting you over energy every step of the way now and indefinitely in the future".

As far as the 2% currency revaluation, you're probably right, I was just hazarding a guess on this one.

Could it be that China has unpegged the yuan because they are losing faith in the US Dollar and dont want to go down with the ship? It seems to me also that a switch from USD to Eruo for purchasing oil would make economic sense very soon, and I dont imagine that would help the USD out any. This unpegging strikes me as being very ominous of things to come. The US seems all happy about it, but when I read it I felt it to be a huge deal, a precuror to something big, a required first step before the rest of a plan could unfold.

Hi Step Back

As usual I enjoyed your post. So interesting the way this blog works to keep us on our toes. Although I don't feel "programmed", who knows? It helps to be challenged. Years ago a friend identified lots of sexism in my thinking.

I was, I guess, pretending to be naive in saying we could redefine the legal basis of the corporation. The corporate forces now established are damn powerful, and we probably couldn't even bring to a Congressional vote any bill that might weaken corporate power. i.e. it's too late, maybe. (I read the book Gangs of America on this topic.) We can still invent regulations, which represent the will of the people in adding community / commonwealth values into corporate decision making (as legal constraints).

But I think things are so bad that unless and until there is a popular "awakening" things will go the way they have been.

I don't know how much "wiggle room" a CEO has today, to add a pro-environment progressive slant to his decision making. Mutual fund managers are going to pore over his financials and demand optimum share price (and I, as a holder of mutual funds for retirement, support this whether I know it or not!) I think the wiggle room consists of identifying areas which are good for humanity and also add to profit, longer term. For instance, global warming and expensive or hard-to-get oil are bad for most corporations... Environmental Defense claims to find some of these little crevices in the wall. When I see something like the Chevron ad I think here's some of that wiggle room showing. At least they're offering something of educational value.

Sorry for dropping the reference ("Gangs of America") with no explanation. This book describes how corporations have gained the legal status of a person, with Bill of Rights protection in some cases! Watch for some boycotting organization to be sued for violating some poor hapless corporations' civil rights!! Meanwhile if you watch the movie The Corporation you see Fox News getting off the hook (in preventing a Fox reporter from exposing some Monsanto issue) because a corporation (i.e. Fox) has a legal right to lie. Like you and me.

As a "reformed" corporate animal, in my view stereotyping corporations as being "without conscience" and driven "strictly by profits" is not only astute but accurate. Losing sight of this is what corporations count on when dealing with the general public. Focus groups and entire legions of PR folks worked on the "willyoujoinus" thing, I am sure, either directly or through an agency.

Always follow the money, whether it is a corporation or an individual. It is the only reason we work, and the only yardstick societal success is measured by in our materialistic world.

Hi everyone,

I saw this ad a few weeks back and was wondering when it would be discussed. Now, I am a believer in peak oil, trust me I can't shut up about it. I also watch the markets closely, and I have watched the energy company investors (XOM, COP, BP, CVX) grab a hold of this issue and work it for all they can. They are making a killing off peak oil buzz, and I think Chevron is the first to shift towards not only acknowledging it but promoting it. Others will soon follow. They are going about it in a crafty way, creating a sense of scarcity while trying not to induce panic.

Given the tendency of the American public to blame "greedy oil companies" whenever prices rise, could the WillYouJoinUs campaign be largely an attempt to head off criticism?

Of course, Chevron will probably make a lot of money for its shareholders for the foreseeable future, but maybe this way they won't take as much heat for it. No doubt they have a pretty good idea what they're doing.

I want to thank the people who have responded to my article. I am new to blogs, so this has been a helpful experience for me to get such immediate feedback. I will continue to follow this Chevron and China story. It is interesting to have such a powerful country competing directly with such a powerful corporation. The Wall Street Journal today (July 26) has two related articles, one entitleed "Unocal, Cnooc Had Come Close to Sealing a Deal" and the other entitled "Oil Profits May be Peaking."
Today's LA Times also has a great article on the matter by Robert Scheer entitled "On China at Least, Nixon Was Right." It is available online at

I live on the Big Island of Hawai'i during the academic year. It is the state that will probably be hit hardest by Peak Oil, since we import 90% of our food. I spend summers in Sonoma County, Northern California, where I used to live full-time. People here have been meeting about Peak Oil for months. Mayor Larry Robinson of Sebastopol is holding some town hall meetings to hear from the community about what the city should do. We are lucky that the author of "The Party's Over" and "Powerdown," Richard Heinberg, lives nearby in Santa Rosa. Matt Savinar, author of "The End of the Oil Age" also lives in Santa Rosa, where he hosts the website
Aloha, Shepherd Bliss