Climate Activists Say Big Oil Is Taking Cycling Fans for a Ride

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Sports sponsorships have emerged as a major battleground in the push to ban fossil fuel companies from advertising their brands.

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(Bloomberg) — It was around noon on Sunday and the crowds had gathered in Adelaide for the first day of Australia’s Tour Down Under. As the cyclists whizzed past, a group of elderly women turned their backs and pulled down their skirts. Beneath their naked bottoms, six big letters spelled out Santos —  the oil and gas company sponsoring the first major race on the professional cycling calendar —  to chants of “we got rid of Big Tobacco, we’ll get rid of Santos too.”

Santos did not respond to a request for comment. But the Australian protest sets the stage for a year of radical action by climate activists who are pushing to end advertisements and sponsorships they say allow fossil fuel companies to burnish their reputations while profiting from products that heat up the planet. The campaign is beginning to gain traction as a year of extreme weather, from floods to droughts, keeps climate change in the headlines. 

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Vox Media said this month it would formalize its ban on ads from fossil fuel companies, following a similar decision from The Guardian newspaper in 2020. London’s National Portrait Gallery ended its 30-year partnership with British Petroleum in December and the British Museum is facing pressure from activists to do the same. Governments that have pledged to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, caused in large part by the burning of oil, gas and coal, are also starting to take notice.In August, France became the first country in Europe to prohibit the advertising of fossil fuel products altogether. The Dutch city of Amsterdam has passed similar legislation as has the Australian city of Sydney. Those bans don’t, however, cover sponsorship deals for sports competitions and teams, which are often worth hundreds of millions of dollars and are emerging as a key battleground.

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Climate group Dernière Rénovation disrupted last year’s Tour de France, with activists setting off flares and gluing themselves to the road, halting the race on three different occasions. The same group also protested at the French Open semifinals and, in March, a Just Stop Oil activist disrupted a Premier League football match by tying himself to a goalpost.

“Sponsoring sports events and teams, as well as arts and cultural events, is a trick the fossil fuel industry took straight from Big Tobacco’s playbook,” said Silvia Pastorelli, a Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner in Brussels. “They create a sense of familiarity with their brand, while at the same time disassociating it from the catastrophic impacts that their products have on the environment.”

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Tobacco company sponsorship, like advertising before it, largely disappeared from sports and cultural events in the 2000s as governments around the world passed increasingly strict legislation on the display and sale of products known to be harmful to health. Activists are hoping that similar legislation will eventually limit the promotion of planet-warming fossil fuels. 

Yet even as the effects of climate change become harder to ignore, oil sponsorship in sports shows little sign of abating. Take cycling alone.  

France’s TotalEnergies began sponsoring Team TotalEnergies in 2016. UK chemical producer Ineos took over title sponsorship of Team Sky in 2019, providing an annual budget of €50 million ($54.2 million). A team owned by Norway’s Uno-X, a fuel station chain,  will race at the Tour De France for the first time in 2023. Three of the last four Tours de France were won by riders whose teams were sponsored by companies or countries with links to fossil fuels.

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TotalEnergies said its sponsorship choices are moving towards decarbonized sports to reflect its own transformation; the company is investing $5 billion a year in solar and wind energy, as well as hydrogen, biofuels, batteries and electric vehicle-charging. Uno-X said it was also using cycling to promote its long-term transition to clean energy. A company official said it allocates 75% of its capital expenditure to eco-branded car wash and electric vehicle charging. Ineos didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Cycling teams draw most of their budgets from sponsorship, making them a particular target for Big Oil dollars simply because it’s so hard to turn the money away. Unlike sports like football that allow teams to sell tickets to their stadiums, the most popular cycling races take place on public roads over thousands of kilometers and are rarely ticketed. Prize money is also limited. In 2022, the Tour de France, the biggest event on the cycling calendar,  divided up just over £2 million ($2.45 million) in prize money, one-twentieth of the roughly £40 million split among the top tennis players at Wimbledon. 

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Besides the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Norway lists Spanish oil and gas firm Repsol as its general partner. The Tour De France, Giro d’Italia and Spain’s La Vuelta are sponsored by car manufacturers including Skoda. 

Skoda said it provides the Tour de France with about 250 mostly electric and hybrid vehicles to accompany riders and is looking to halve its fleet emissions in Europe by 2030 and introduce three electric models through 2026. Its sponsorships aim to promote that shift. Repsol said its campaign was part of an effort to engage with local communities.

These races are global events, with a combined viewership estimated at over half a billion. The Tour de France, the most watched competition, had 41.5 million viewers in France alone in 2022. 

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The sport is attracting particular scrutiny because it is one of the least polluting forms of transport, and many cities are trying to boost cycling as part of broader efforts to decarbonize transport. At the same time, the top races are outdoor endurance events, exposing riders to the extreme weather made worse by climate change. Organizers of last year’s Tour De France had to cool road surfaces with thousands of liters of water when temperatures hit 40C along parts of the course.

“Just at the point where you would think there would be a movement away, there seems to be an aggressive push by major polluters to reestablish themselves,” said Andrew Simms, coordinator at the Rapid Transition Alliance, a network of non-profit organizations focusing on climate research and activism. “It feels it’s a last roll of the dice from the fossil fuel companies to use sponsorships to normalize themselves.”

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A ban is inevitable, but it’s five to 10 years out, said Madeleine Orr, a researcher focusing on sports and climate issues and the lead author of the United Nations Environment Program Sports for Nature report. Faster change would require the the governing bodies of major sports to take action, she said.  For now, some non-fossil fuel companies wary of reputational damage have started to say they don’t want to be associated with events and organizations sponsored by oil and gas, as have consumers, fans and athletes.

When Shell UK entered an eight-year partnership with British Cycling, the UK’s governing body for the sport, in October, cyclists flooded social media with accusations of greenwashing and protestors took to the roof of the UK’s National Cycling Centre to demand Shell’s exit. The organization’s CEO Brian Facer left his post shortly after though the arrangement remains in place.

“With cycling you get double bang for your buck,” said Alex Howes, who won the U.S. National Road Race Championship in 2019. “You get to do sportswashing and greenwashing all in one.”

—With assistance from Akshat Rathi, Stephen Treloar, Jonas Ekblom and Krystof Chamonikolas.

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