Could Musk's oil conspiracy against Tesla end with Saudi billions?
Elon Musk has always hated the fossil fuel industry. His stated mission for Tesla is to hasten its demise, and more than once he’s blamed the “unrelenting and enormous” power of oil interests for sabotaging his efforts. But now, in his bid to take Tesla private, Musk is courting billions of oil dollars.
After a week of playing coy about who he’s been trying to enlist to help buy out Tesla’s publicly traded shares, Musk revealed at least one potential partner: Saudi Arabia.
It’s hard to think of a more perfect symbol of Big Oil and its money than a sovereign wealth fund created by the world’s biggest oil producer. Musk said in a blog post on Monday that he’s been in talks with Saudi Arabia “going back almost two years.”
Constructing the appearance of a high-stakes struggle between Tesla and the fossil fuel industry has always been key to Tesla’s brand strategy. In the age of global warming, Musk has argued over and over again, you are either part of the solution with civilization hanging in the balance or you are the problem. Every time he unveils a new Tesla product -- be it a battery for your home or an expensive sports car -- he’s careful to lay out the case for how it helps the worldwide transition to sustainable energy. The idea that oil money was arrayed against him made buying his products seem like choosing a side in an epochal struggle.
By now it’s clear, however, that the battle lines can’t be quite so neatly drawn. Some of the very parties Musk has been condemning as threats to the planet want to be seen as part of the solution, too.
'Big Oil' conspiracy
To get a sense of Musk’s distrust of the fossil fuel industry, you don’t have to go back far.
In an email to his work force in June, Musk alleged attempts by a former employee, later identified as Martin Tripp, to “sabotage” the company. The letter described “a long list of organizations that want Tesla to die,” including, Musk said, the oil industry. Tripp has since filed a whistle-blower complaint with the SEC claiming Tesla made misstatements to investors and is seeking $1 million in damages from Musk’s public condemnation.
From Musk’s email:
"The oil and gas companies, the wealthiest industry in the world — they don’t love the idea of Tesla advancing the progress of solar power and electric cars. Don’t want to blow your mind, but rumor has it that those companies are sometimes not super nice. Then there are the multitude of big gas/diesel car company competitors. If they're willing to cheat so much about emissions, maybe they're willing to cheat in other ways?"
With Musk’s new disclosures about his talks with Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that this email was written long after he knew the biggest pool of oil money was interested in financing, not destroying, his company.
This wasn’t an isolated suggestion that oil was out to get him. A month earlier, Musk had attacked the credibility of journalists by arguing that the media industry was beholden to fossil fuel advertisers. Musk’s solution was to threaten to launch a website, pravduh.com, that would let users rate journalists and their editors as a way to correct for the corrupting influence of oil money.
These examples stretch back years. In 2013, while opening a Tesla showroom in London, he decried attacks by the oil industry on electric vehicles and climate science. “It's kinda like the battle against big tobacco in the old days, and how they would run all these ads about how tobacco’s no problem,” he said.
In May 2016, just weeks after Tesla unveiled its Model 3 electric car, Musk was especially critical of the oil industry. “It is quite worrying, the future of the world,” he said. “We need to appeal to the people and educate them to sort of revolt against this and to fight the propaganda of the fossil fuel industry, which is unrelenting and enormous.”
Four months later, Tesla accused a former executive from an oil-and-gas services company, Todd Katz, of impersonating Musk in an email to get private data about the company. Tesla alleged he was part of an effort to undermine cleaner transportation.
Making peace with oil money
The fossil fuel industry, just like the media Musk likes to attack, has never been the monolith he made it out to be. Yes, oil companies have at times lobbied to protect their business and pushed the politics of climate change away from stringent regulation. But some of the biggest innovations and sources of funding for climate solutions have also come from Big Oil.
Take the lithium ion battery at the core of all Tesla vehicles. That technology was first developed by a chemist at Exxon in the 1970s. Even today, at a time when electric vehicles are poised to cut demand for oil, there are tens of thousands of electric-vehicle charging stations across Europe owned and operated by Royal Dutch Shell, Engie and Statoil ASA.
That’s why it’s not totally surprising to learn from Musk’s blog post on Monday that Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund first approached him in early 2017. The Saudi Public Investment Fund, or PIF, recently accumulated an almost 5 percent stake and is interested in taking the company private, as Bloomberg News first reported Sunday. The Saudis aren’t even the only ones putting oil money to work for Tesla: The Norwegian sovereign-wealth fund, created by that country’s oil wealth, held 0.48 percent of Tesla’s stock at the end of 2017.
While Saudi Arabia’s economy is built on crude exports, the government has acknowledged that the source of its prosperity is also doing environmental harm and can’t continue forever. Diversification is central to the kingdom’s Vision 2030 program. The country is already investing in solar power, smart cities, and the future of transportation. Saudi Arabia hopes to sell shares of the state oil company, Saudi Aramco, to help expand its sovereign wealth fund to eventually control more than $2 trillion.
It makes sense that a portion of that money would find its way to electric vehicles, which are forecast to increased from global sales of 1.1 million last year to 30 million by 2030, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. A bigger investment to help take Tesla private would hand some part of the operating control of the world’s biggest electric-car maker over to the world’s biggest oil producer.
That’s the kind of shadowy influence that Tesla’s CEO might have once framed as a threat. But with traditional automakers researching battery technology to compete with Tesla, and oil states pouring money into Musk’s vision, it’s starting to seem like a vast electric-vehicle conspiracy is underway.