07/19/2005 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Is Chevron Changing Its Stripes?

“Energy will be one of the defining issues of this century, and one thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over. What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this century and beyond.”

Ah, yes. Another in a string of cautionary statements about the imminent peak in the rate of global oil extraction -- the point at which oil becomes increasingly scarce and expensive and we all, presumably, become nostalgic for $60-a-barrel prices.

So, who’s making this latest statement: A geologist? Physicist? Economist? Investment banker?

Nope. An oil company.

That’s the strange-but-true tale of, a bold ad campaign launched this past week by ChevronTexaco.

Up to now, Big Oil has pooh-poohed the notion that we’re running out of petroleum. There’s plenty more, they say, a proclamation usually followed by a litany of technological advances touting their ability to squeeze oil from heretofore uneconomical sources, such as Canadian tar sands.

Now comes ChevronTexaco, breaking ranks with its industry brethren through its heavily footnoted Web site and ad campaign that proffers a more-or-less honest assessment of the world of oil. It culls from the likes of the Worldwatch Institute, World Resources Institute, The Economist, and other credible and well-regarded resources to talk about:

the world’s increasing population . . .

At 6.4 billion and climbing, the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Yet our known fossil fuel reserves are in decline, and alternative energy sources are not expanding rapidly enough to meet future demand.

our huge appetite for energy . . .

By 2020, some experts predict the world’s energy consumption will be 40% higher than it is today. Efficiency, improvements, and conservation are part of the solution, but will not, in themselves, meet the need for more energy.

our dwindling supply of oil . . .

Fossil fuels currently supply most of the world’s energy, and are expected to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. While supplies are currently abundant, they won’t last forever. Oil production is in decline in 33 of the 48 largest oil-producing countries, yet energy demand is increasing around the globe as economies grow and nations develop. Abundant energy drives economic development, which in turn creates demand for still more energy. But it also puts pressure on supply and impacts the environment.

the challenges of global security . . .

Even if disruptions do not affect supply in any meaningful way over the long-term, they do create a psychological risk factor, which can lead to short-term volatility in energy markets, and a reluctance to invest in those regions.

and the environmental implications of it all . . .

The use of fossil fuels to meet the world's energy needs has contributed to an increase in greenhouse gases -- mainly carbon dioxide and methane -- in the earth's atmosphere. Many think this increase is leading to climate change, with potentially adverse effects on people, economies, and the environment -- from coastal flooding, to droughts, to changes in ecosystems and biodiversity. Many governments and businesses agree on the importance of addressing the risk of climate change. The challenge is to do so while still providing the energy required to meet the demands of growing populations and economies.

The site has been buttressed by a new ad campaign (estimated by one source at $50 million) that includes print, television, outdoor (billboards), and online ads.

Chevron isn’t the first big oil company to commit glasnost through a campaign to position itself as a beacon of honesty and social concern. Shell launched a “Tell Shell” campaign in the late 1990s that included uncensored public comments on its Web site -- and effort to improve its images after social and environmental missteps in Europe and Asia. And BP has gotten considerable mileage out of its “Beyond Petroleum” tagline and an aggressive ad campaign that touts its efforts in the renewable energy arena.

But such campaigns are risky. Shell, for one, seems to have stopped actively promoting its Tell Shell site -- perhaps not liking much what people had to say. And BP’s ad campaign risks overreaching, since only about 1% of the company’s revenue comes from “beyond petroleum” products. For all the hype, it’s still overwhelmingly an oil company.

So I’ll watch ChevronTexaco’s current campaign with high interest to see where it goes -- and how much change is apparent in the company’s actions, including its commitment to mitigating climate change. Does signal a significant shift in policy and practices -- or a means of buying a little time from critics? Will the company promote its concern about climate change but lobby against climate regulations and other commitments at the national or state levels? Stay tuned to see if ChevronTexaco will really walk the walk.

In the meantime, the company seems to have done a pretty good job of talking the talk. Its Web site seems an honest and authentic assessment of today’s energy realities and is based on real facts, not just vague marketing platitudes.

So, to borrow from ChevronTexaco’s earlier ad campaign: do people in giant oil companies have the ability to speak candidly about the state of the world? Possibly, people do.