Fossil Fuel Giants Are Pumping Out Greenwashing—Their Tricks Won’t Work

November 13, 2018 | 9:43 am
Roy Luck/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

In recent months, we’ve seen fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil leave the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), pledge $1 million to support a carbon tax, announce measures to reduce methane emissions, and join the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI). Is the company finally getting serious about addressing climate change? Um, no. ExxonMobil is finally responding to mounting pressure from shareholders, law enforcement, and the public to clean up its climate act. So are other major fossil fuel companies. That was one of the key findings of the 2018 update to UCS’s Climate Accountability Scorecard, an in-depth analysis of eight major oil, gas, and coal companies’ climate-related positions and actions. But unfortunately, we also found that these companies still appear to be trying to trick us with greenwashing. (Read my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel’s blog breaking down the ways that many of these companies continue to distort climate science here.)

Here are six tricks by ExxonMobil and some of its key competitors that we’re countering with our public exposure and organizing.

Trick 1: Look over there—squirrel!

Each of ExxonMobil’s announcements followed news about the severity of the climate crisis and the outsize role of major fossil fuel producers in creating it: Baltimore and Rhode Island suing to recover the costs of climate damages and preparedness, the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the dangerous consequences of global temperature increase of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the New York state attorney general filing a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for defrauding its shareholders by downplaying expected climate risks to its business. In this context, it’s hard not to see the company’s moves as public relations distractions.

Trick 2: Putting their money where their mouths aren’t

This election season, major fossil fuel companies fueled the opposition to I-1631—the ballot initiative in Washington state for a carbon fee that went down to defeat despite heroic organizing by a broad grassroots coalition. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), which counts BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil among its leaders and ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell among its members, was the sponsor of “No on I-1631” leading the charge. BP spent a staggering $13 million to fight the carbon fee, directly contradicting its claim that “carbon pricing provides the right incentives for everyone—energy producers and consumers alike—to play their part in reducing emissions.”

Trick 3: Putting their mouths where their money isn’t

ExxonMobil’s pledge of $1 million to lobby for a carbon tax is dwarfed by the $36 million the company has donated over the past 20 years to groups that spread climate disinformation.

Similarly, the $100 million pledges by ExxonMobil and Chevron to the OGCI Climate Investments fund might sound like a lot… that is, until you compare them with the companies’ planned spending on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure in 2018: $28 billion for ExxonMobil, $15.8 billion for Chevron. And while “climate investments” might evoke renewable energy resources like wind and solar, the OGCI fund focuses instead on reducing methane leakage, promoting energy efficiency, and developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to sequester global warming emissions from fossil fuels by storing them underground. The pot of funding pledged to date by the 13 OGCI members seems little more than a token—particularly when you consider that Shell’s scenario for limiting global temperature increase to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels relies on a 200-fold increase in deployment of CCS by 2070. Meanwhile, when it comes to renewables, ExxonMobil seems content with supplying lubricants for wind turbines.

Trick 4: Empty promises

Like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell have long professed to support a price on carbon. And like BP, these companies have yet to back up their stated support with consistent policy advocacy.

BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell have also publicly committed to uphold five “guiding principles” to reduce methane emissions—including to support “sound” and “effective” methane policies and regulations. Yet as the Trump administration proposes to weaken and even eliminate methane regulations, these companies have failed to step up to defend them. In fact, all four of these companies maintain leadership roles in the American Petroleum Institute (API), which is pushing for the rollback of methane rules.

Trick 5: Hiding behind front groups

Major fossil energy companies have a long history of funding campaigns to sow doubt about climate change. Much of this disinformation has been disseminated by third-party groups, including trade associations, think tanks, and other nonprofits.

This trick remains in the fossil fuel industry’s playbook. A recent investigative piece by ProPublica found that Big Oil and other industries are getting around Facebook’s new ad transparency rules—in some cases with “a digital form of what is known as ‘astroturfing,’ or hiding behind the mirage of a spontaneous grassroots movement.”

UCS’s 2018 scorecard found that all eight companies in our sample maintain membership in trade associations and other industry-affiliated groups that spread disinformation about climate science and seek to block climate action. Each company holds at least one leadership position in groups such as ALEC, API, and WSPA.

The influence of industry groups is a major obstacle to achieving the “rapid and far-reaching” transitions across major sectors of the global economy that the IPCC special report says are now needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C. While the report acknowledges that industry group lobbying was a factor in reducing political space for some major emitting nations to maneuver, the IPCC has faced criticism for ignoring academic research into fossil fuel-funded climate science denial campaigns.

Trick 6: Mum’s the word

More than a dozen coastal and inland communities in the US have now filed lawsuits to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damages and the ongoing costs of mitigation and preparedness. Last week, New York City appealed to overturn the dismissal of its lawsuit by a federal district court. Although such lawsuits generate substantial media visibility, require significant legal efforts, and expose companies to the possibility of enormous payouts, BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil failed to disclose their potential climate litigation liability to shareholders in their securities filings.

The Climate Risk Disclosure Act aims to end such incomplete and uneven disclosures. Introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and seven co-sponsors and supported by UCS and dozens of other organizations, the bill would require public companies to disclose critical information about their exposure to climate-related risks. In the face of stricter transparency rules, silence will no longer be golden for fossil fuel companies.

We’ve got the major fossil fuel companies right where we want them—starting to say some of the right words. They have only come this far thanks to public, investor, and legal pressure. Now we need to ramp up the pressure to turn those words into meaningful actions. The IPCC 1.5°C report is a stark reminder that there’s no (more) time to lose.