Though Big Oil increasingly acknowledges the threat of climate change, and the corresponding need to do its part to reduce emissions, trillion-dollar business-as-usual production plans, a low-bar emphasis on emissions intensity, and buck-passing to consumers and society at large remain the industry’s primary order of the day.
Now significant producers of cognitive dissonance, reports InsideClimate News, “major oil companies have announced a series of commitments to reduce their emissions, even as they continue to invest in new projects that will boost production of the very fossil fuels that are driving climate change.” After decades of promoting climate science denial, all the major investor-owned producers are now publicly behind the Paris Agreement goals and have announced plans to cut emissions. But “nearly all those plans are limited in scope, some of them extremely so.”
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As recently as October, Chevron’s general manager for environmental, social and governance engagement, Michael Rubio, confidently told the New York Times that “you can increase your fossil fuel production, deliver superior returns for your shareholders, and still be compliant with Paris.” Yet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting average global warming to less than 2.0°C will require fossil fuel burning “to peak and fall rapidly within a couple of decades,” notes InsideClimate. The world is currently far from that trajectory, largely because Big Oil is “on track to produce more than 40% more oil and gas by 2040” than the Paris accord permits, thanks to recent billions invested in massive new projects whose longevity and expense “present the highest risks for the climate and for investors,” according to Carbon Tracker analyst Mike Coffin.
The details behind the fossils’ carbon reduction promises tell the story.
Of the oil and gas “majors,” only BP and Total “have actually committed to reducing their emissions,” while “each of the others—ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and, by some counts, ConocoPhillips and Eni—generally have pledged to lower their ‘emissions intensity,’ or the amount of pollution for each unit of energy they produce,” InsideClimate writes.
Chevron, for example, intends to “cut the emissions intensity of its oil production by 5.0 to 10% and of its gas production by 2.0 to 5.0% by 2023,” but the resulting climate benefits will likely be cancelled out by the company’s plans to expand production, causing emissions to stay flat or even grow.
And even in the absence of accelerating production, cutting emissions intensity during extraction and refining “addresses only a tiny piece of the emissions pie,” given that “the vast majority of the emissions associated with oil—roughly 80%—come when it’s burned, not from its production.”
In apparent acknowledgement of this gap, InsideClimate notes, Shell has pledged to “cut the emissions intensity of the full life cycle of its products by 20% by 2035, and roughly in half by 2050,” a promise that would likely dictate an active transition away from fossil fuels. Pointing to recent investments in cleaner energy and electric vehicle charging networks, Shell claiming to be well-positioned for that shift.
But the company is only devoting one-twentieth of its capital investment to clean energy, and its actual emissions have so far “remained essentially flat since 2015,” as have those of most of its peers.
At the other end of the spectrum, InsideClimate identifies Exxon as the highest emitter of all investor-owned oil and gas producers. The colossal fossil has limited its commitments to reducing the emissions intensity of its catastrophically polluting tar sands/oil sands projects by 10%, and cutting methane emissions and gas flaring by 15% and 25% respectively, from 2016 levels by the end of 2020.
Exxon’s success to date with even those sparse promises remains uncertain, writes InsideClimate: while the company self-reported a 9% reduction in 2017 methane emissions from its eastern U.S. shale fields, a New York Times analysis of 2018 industry data found that “the company’s venting and flaring in the three largest shale fields was 70% higher than a year before”.
Then there is the persistent inclination to shove responsibility for fossil emissions downstream to consumers and society at large. In an email to InsideClimate, Jason Klein, vice president for energy transition strategy at Shell U.S., said while the company seeks compliance with Paris, “our ambition largely depends on society making progress toward these goals overall and choices from consumers. Both energy demand and supply must evolve together.”
InsideClimate adds that the investor-owned fossil majors are “only part of the problem”. Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund, said the bulk of American oil and gas actually comes from a multitude of smaller producers who “often burn and vent with impunity”. Among those less visible operators, he added, it is “much less clear that there is a consensus around the need to act on climate change”.
Outside the U.S., Brownstein added, state oil companies control more than 70% of global oil reserves. While “there’s a huge range within these other companies’ efforts to transition to cleaner products,” he told InsideClimate, a sense of urgency in the face of the climate crisis is being exhibited by none.
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