For the past year, ExxonMobil has been at the center of a controversy over reports that it conducted groundbreaking research on climate change in the 1970s and 80s and then deliberately misled the public about the truth of global warming. Now, a top environmental group thinks it can make the controversy a voting issue.
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) launched a $200,000 campaign in Nevada this week targeting GOP Congressman Cresent Hardy with a focus on the ExxonMobil controversy. The ad, which will play as pre-roll in web videos and targeted on social media, explains the issue briefly before tying Hardy to the oil and gas industry. Hardy's congressional campaign has received nearly $30,000 in political donations from the oil and gas industry this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data. That includes $9,000 from Exxon Mobil's political action committee.
“Newly-released documents show oil giant Exxon had scientific evidence forty years ago that climate change is being fueled by carbon pollution and spent millions covering it up," the ad's narrator says. "Cresent Hardy protected big oil. Not us."
Hardy's campaign did not reply to a request for comment Thursday.
The ad campaign may represent a relatively small investment in the scheme of multi-million dollar congressional campaigns, but LCV leaders say they may soon be using the Exxon controversy in other federal races soon. The political dynamics and awareness of clean energy in Nevada made the state an ideal place to test the waters, says LCV National Campaigns Director Clay Schroers. Clean energy has become a key issue in the state with many residents installing residential solar panels and thousands of new jobs created in the industry.
"People across this country want representatives who are responsive to their needs," he says. "Nevada has a growing renewable energy economy and solar power is on the top of the mind for a lot of Nevadans."
The move to highlight ExxonMobil and allegations of its climate coverup is a new approach aimed at bringing attention to an issue often neglected on the campaign trail. Most messaging on the issue of climate change has focused on the catastrophic scale of the threat and the need for urgent action. (That language was a key part of how Hillary Clinton and Al Gore presented the issue at a rally earlier this month). But those messages tend to play best with voters who are already believe in climate change and want to see the government take measures to address the issue.
Highlighting the Exxon controversy could harness climate change as an issue while also playing into a number of other common campaign themes, says Anthony Leiserowitz, who runs a program on communicating about climate change at Yale University. Voters have expressed outrage big corporations and the role of corporate money in recent election cycles and Exxon's reputation is far from sterling even for those who have never heard the recent reports on the company's climate dealings, says Leiserowitz.
The reports published last year show that private research undertaken by Exxon in the 1970s and 80s demonstrated the threat of climate change, but the company cut off funding for that research and engaged in a public relations campaign to smear climate science in order to protect the oil industry. Exxon now faces investigations from 17 U.S. states and territories about whether it mislead investors. The company has pushed back against the investigations, asking a federal court to intervene, and the company's CEO called the charges "pretty unfounded, without any real substance at all."
LCV thinks the controversy will resonate with voters. Indeed, polling conducted this past summer on behalf of LCV found that 70% of respondents would view donations from Exxon unfavorably when they were informed about the controversy, including two thirds of independents and 58% of Republicans.
The ad's message may be somewhat of gamble even with those numbers given the challenge of distilling the complicated Exxon climate controversy in 30-second ad. Nonetheless, Leiserowitz says the unique message has a chance to cut through the barrage of campaign ads in an election year.
"This is one ad against a backdrop of what has to be a tsunami of political advertising," he says. "Cutting your signal through that noise has got to be challenging."