Assessing the Tone of ExxonMobil’s Environmental Reporting

I’ve been spending some time with corporate sustainability reports for a new research project. ExxonMobile’s 2009 Corporate Citizenship Report offers some interesting examples of rhetorical style that are worth considering if you are responsible for your company’s sustainability reporting.
ExxonMobil is bound to take a different tone than, say, Patagonia. After all, the oil and gas production have intrinsically high envronmental impact. And some of the practices involved, such as development of oil sands and hydraulic fracturing, are highly controversial in environmental circles.

Balancing Arguments Made by Environmentalists

The ExxonMobil report provides a useful counterbalance to some of the arguments made by environmental groups. Regarding oil sands, for example, the report states “there is concern among a range of stakeholders regarding the increased energy intensity and water use associated with developing oil sands.” It goes on to cite studies on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions by the Alberta Energy Research Institute and IHS CERA, suggesting that “the oil produced at the Kearl project [in northern Alberta] will have about the same life cycle greenhouse emissions as many conventional crude oils refined in North America.”

For context, it’s worth noting, though the report does not, that the Alberta Energy Research Institute is funded by the government of Alberta, which has a major economic stake in exploiting its oil sands reserve, and research and consulting firm IHS CERA’s major customers are energy companies such as ExxonMobil. But the broader point, that the correct basis for comparison is a full lifecyle analysis, is important and the possibility of achieving impact-parity is worth noting.

A Question of Tone

Yet the ExxonMobil report also raises an interesting question of tone.

Hydraulic fracturing is coming under increasing scrutiny by advocy groups, the media, political leaders and regulators. It’s safe to say that the practice is highly controversial. This search on the New York Times Web site today is illustrative. It turns up several articles with a negative cast linked to hydraulic fracturing, along with two upbeat sponsored links touting “proven technology” and “safeguarding a valuable resource.”

Search results for "hydraulic fracturing" on nytimes.com on March 3, 2011

The ExxonMobile report references this controversy with notable blandness, stating, “The industry has over 60 years of experience with the technique; still, the use of hydraulic fracturing in the growing development of unconventional gas resources has prompted public interest.” “Public interest” is an almost comically mild way of characterizing the debate over this practice.

This mild rhetorical style is not used consistently throughout the report, however. You only need only look at the company’s description of the public policy debate around the impacts of climate change to feel the rhetorical temperature rise. “Designing equitable policies to limit emissions and to create acceptable frameworks for the massive investments and financial transfers has been, and will continue to be, contentious.”

The inconsistent tone of the report is a relatively minor point. Far more important is a factual and comprenhensive discussion of what the company is doing and plans to do and what its results have been so far. But ExxonMobil and other companies would do well to attend to the tone of their sustainability reporting to make sure it portrays them as they intend.

UPDATE:

I just came across oil and gas industry guidelines for environmental reporting.

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Filed under hydraulic fracturing, oil, sustainability, water

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