Reporting

‘Gracias a Petroleo’: Fossil Fuel Ad Campaign Claims the Taco Truck

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chela's tacos
Celia Davis of Chela’s Tacos hands down a plate of tacos in a Look Beyond video promoting fossil fuels. Image: Look Beyond

‘Look Beyond’ celebrates the cause of climate breakdown while spotlighting agreeable local businesses.

Greg Harman

Perhaps nothing demonstrates more the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry than the fact that it remains unnamed in global climate agreements. In some ways, this comes as no surprise. At the recent COP26 climate negotiations the swarm of paid O&G lobbyists outnumbered the reps attending from any of the nations represented.

Thanks to their incredible wealth, oil and gas companies have kept governments functioning in their interests while dampening public alarm around seemingly unmanageable problems caused by oil, coal, gas, and plastics through massive advertising campaigns. For instance, as global climate disruption became a point beyond debate—fossil fuels are the largest contributor to our inflamed planetary systems—BP introduced people to the idea of individual “carbon footprints.”

These efforts helped shift the conversation about blame from the companies to the individual. But as scientific consensus and public opinion have increasingly pointed to climate change’s corporate-led causes, the industry’s propaganda has grown increasingly sophisticated, diffuse, and subtle, often avoiding branding entirely, as well as the actual issues.

Increasingly, the industry does its dirty work down at the community level.

In one recent example, the American Public Gas Association (APGA) sought to make its interests invisible by paying social-media influencers to talk up fossil fuels on its behalf as means of countering a national push toward electrification of buildings as a climate response (since made illegal for Texas cities by state lawmakers). As Mother Jones reported last year, foodies earned payments in exchange for making claims that food cooked “faster” or “tasted better” with gas.

Gas ban monitor via S&P Global Market Intelligence.

During this period, lawmakers passed laws in nearly 20 states to make it illegal to electrify buildings without including gas hookups as well.

In San Antonio, a series of business profiles branded as the “Look Beyond” campaign reflects this advertising trajectory from the overt to the subtle, from clear advocacy to … inspiration? For those not from here, understand that in San Antonio few things are more revered than a good taco. Yeah, gas pushers went there.

“The most important thing for me is to cook with natural ingredients our delicious recipes from our Mexican Republic,” says Chela’s Tacos owner Celia Davis in a video with no obvious corporate backer. “And a very important detail is that I’m cooking with natural gas. And that is the taste, part of the taste, our Mexican food provides.”

In addition to the taste of gas, the viewer is reminded about the role of petroleum in the plastics that are part of the credit-card machine and the plastic-wrapped bendy forks and knives, already overwhelming so many of our kitchen cabinets, all as part of that profit-making infrastructure.

“My business is more profitable thanks to petroleum,” Davis says.

Transparency isn’t the strong suit of Look Beyond. Whether it’s the product of an independent author, a PR firm, or an outgrowth of established greenwashing pro-gas efforts like Life:Powered from the hard-right Texas Public Policy Foundation, this isn’t apparent. An interview request submitted through the site’s contact form didn’t elicit a response before press deadline. The campaign’s mission shared in a bottom corner of the site lists the goal of sharing stories “that highlight the many amazing ways that oil & natural gas products make our greatest moments possible.” We can guess but aren’t explicitly told who funds this work until we locate and click through very small font at the bottom of the page, which reads simply:

PARTNERSHIPS

Clicking here, we find the American Petroleum Institute, the oil and gas industry’s largest trade organization, and the South Texas Energy and Economic Roundtable (STEER), a coalition of most of the major oil and gas interests fracking the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, among others.

Gini Garcia, Garcia Art Glass. Image: Look Beyond

San Antonio Entrepreneur Series

Look Beyond’s “San Antonio Entrepreneur Series” highlights two local businesses whose owners were apparently either willing to either give the petroleum industry an unqualified endorsement (Chela’s Tacos) or have their gas-reliant work profiled with the understanding their story would to be used for that purpose (Southtown’s Garcia Art Glass).

Picking up on the theme of ubiquity is Gini Garcia:

“It’s amazing all the different things we use that are oil and gas based—everything from the safety equipment, the helmet that they put on, the Kevlar gloves,” Garcia says in the Look Beyond video. “Then what happens when they come into the gallery? We have to bubble wrap it, we have to shrink wrap it.”

She’s not wrong. But in some ways that act of making visible what ordinarily flies under the radar is discomfiting, drawing attention to Look Beyond’s real agenda and the problems it invisibilizes. The stuff is everywhere we look, literally. It’s not just in the products we’re using today, our kitchen appliances, car parts, toothbrushes, and clothes. It’s also in the reality that discarded plastic tools and toys break down fairly quickly to a microscopic level.

A pair of researchers from University of Southern Denmark writing in The Conversation point out that plastics are not only filling our oceans and the most remote beaches but raining from the sky in the most seldom visited in-land wilderness areas, including the Grand Canyon, Iranian Lut Desert, and the Alps and Arctic.

Communications scholars define propaganda as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” Propaganda is de-fanged as a tool for manipulating the public once it is understood as propaganda—as more than simply someone’s story.

The gas propagandists, their Instagram influencers, and the carefully anonymized boosters of Look Beyond are one or more steps removed from an easily vilified industry. They stand in as closely as possible for the lived experience of friends and neighbors who we are more likely to trust and identify with. Increasingly, they may actually be our friends and neighbors.

And they ask only one thing from us on behalf of the most heavily subsidized and violent industry on earth: Forgiveness.

Humble Oil advertisement. 1962. Life Magazine

In a recent article for the Guardian, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes trace the arc of oil and gas advertising messaging about global warming. A quick scan shows why making the industry less visible is good strategy. Here we see Humble Oil bragging of its glacier-melting power in 1962, when the industry’s key scientists and CEOs well knew their product would soon be overheating the planet but the rest of us remained largely in the dark.

As Supran and Oreskes write:

“In 1959, America’s oil bosses had been warned that burning fossil fuels could lead to global heating ‘sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York.’ Their knowledge only grew. A 1979 internal Exxon study warned of ‘dramatic environmental effects’ before 2050. ‘By the late 1970s,’ a former Exxon scientist recently recalled, ‘global warming was no longer speculative.'”

In Deceleration‘s recent profile of outgoing CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams, we reported on the efforts of “clean” coal holdover Randy Eminger, who was soliciting funding in Wyoming coal country in exchange for helping keep San Antonio’s last remaining coal plant burning. (JK Spruce is our largest regional climate offender, emitting in 2020 about 5.8 million metric tons of climate-warming greenhouse gases.) Eminger claimed to be working with the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the notorious Texas Public Policy Foundation (among “other interested parties”). But the Hispanic Chamber denied any relationship with him.

Look Beyond’s unidentified creator seems to function in a similar space as Eminger. Funded by industry, eager to do more, but only loosely influential. The most successful video appears to be Davis’s most blatantly pro-oil/gas/plastics polemic. The captions-free Spanish-language video lists views more than 480 views; the translated version of the same video has about 20.

The release date for these profiles is similarly murky and has to be inferred: Look Beyond joined Vimeo in 2018, and the Chela’s Tacos videos were uploaded in 2019. A teaser posted to the campaign’s Facebook page promises a series of four videos in the San Antonio Entrepreneur Series, but Look Beyond only produced two. This discrepancy may be attributable to the collapse of oil and gas prices in 2020, which potentially constrained the fracking industry’s budget for spending on such decentralized propaganda efforts.

Look Beyond grew out of California-based work, where it profiled women exclusively—their vineyards and farm-to-table restaurants, for example—and the role of gas and plastics in their work and work-outs, as well as efforts at “entertaining” and child rearing. The move to Texas-based subjects two years ago tracks with a large influx of Californians to Texas.

It would be a mistake to focus blame on any of the women, often women of color, whose stories the Look Beyond campaign targets. Clearly, taco trucks and glass blowers are not responsible for melting down the planet. And a just transition away from fossil fuels necessarily means acknowledging how much we do rely on destructive products so that we might find affordable alternatives. We must be able to recognize the fossil fuel propaganda that slows action and reject it as such. Only then will we be able to lean in fully to develop the across-the-board, community-level solutions we need.

Locally, one of these solution-seeking efforts is the Volver a Tierra (Return to Earth) program funded by the San Antonio-based, pan-Indigenous Society of Native Nations, with support from the international Break Free from Plastic Movement. The program helps families create their own clay dishes explicitly to help replace plastics in the home. (Read: “Breaking Free From Plastic, Returning to Earth.”)

Such global-to-local anti-plastics work, to highlight just one effort, is about finding ways to be “more in sync with Mother Earth,” in the words of Society organizer Frankie Orona, “and what’s in the best interest of our next generation.”

Future generations. Precisely what Look Beyond wants us all to overlook.

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