New York: Elon Musk has always hated the fossil-fuel industry. His stated mission for Tesla Inc. 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 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’re either part of the solution with civilization hanging in the balance or you’re 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.
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 workforce 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.
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.