What to Expect—and Not to Expect—in ExxonMobil’s 2019 Climate Risk Report

January 31, 2019 | 10:03 am
Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

The release of ExxonMobil’s 2019 Outlook for Energy and its 2019 Energy and Carbon Summary may come as early as this week. Published in response to shareholder demands, the 2018 Energy and Carbon Summary was supposed to disclose the company’s plans for a world in which global temperature increase is kept well below two degrees Celsius (2°C). Drawing on UCS’s 2018 Climate Accountability Scorecard and our ongoing engagement with the company, here are four things to expect—and one thing not to expect—in ExxonMobil’s 2019 Energy and Carbon Summary.

1) Lip service to renewables

When I read ExxonMobil’s Energy and Carbon Summary last year, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry about the sidebar touting the company’s role as a supplier of lubricants for wind turbines. ExxonMobil hypes its investment of more than $9 billion in lower-emission energy solutions since 2000. But that investment amounts to less than 2% of the company’s spending on oil and gas exploration and infrastructure during that timeframe. And every time I see an ad highlighting ExxonMobil’s research on algae biofuels, I can’t help but wonder which is higher: spending on the R&D, or spending on the ads? (I have similar questions about the ad campaign BP launched last week).

2) Trying to have it both ways on climate disinformation

Last year, ExxonMobil finally quit the anti-climate lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Yet unlike Shell, ExxonMobil did not explicitly state that it left the group because of its position on climate change. In fact, ExxonMobil’s annual charitable giving report revealed $1.5 million in 2017 contributions to think tanks and lobby groups that reject established climate science and oppose climate action, for a total of $36 million donated to such groups over the past 20 years.

ExxonMobil also tried to have its cake and eat it, too, with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) proposed rollback of rules meant to limit the release of methane from oil and gas extraction. While getting credit for supporting the existing rules, the company simultaneously endorsed comments by the American Petroleum Institute, the trade group leading the drive to gut them.

And like other major oil and gas companies we studied in our scorecard, ExxonMobil still subtly misrepresents climate science in its own communications (read more in this blog by my UCS colleague Brenda Ekwurzel).

3) Self-congratulation for self-serving actions

ExxonMobil made headlines with its pledge of $1 million to a lobbying campaign for a federal carbon tax. (See above to compare this commitment with the company’s spending on fossil fuel extraction or climate deception.) This particular carbon tax plan looks like a sweet deal for ExxonMobil. Sure, it includes a relatively high starting price of $40 per ton, but it would also roll back the EPA Clean Power Plan and enable the fossil fuel companies to escape liability for climate damages.

ExxonMobil pats itself on the back for “facilitating the switch to cleaner-burning natural gas”, which now represents nearly half of the company’s proved reserves. Yet natural gas is not the ultimate answer to climate change. Not only does methane emitted throughout the production process contribute to global warming, but increasing reliance on natural gas could also delay the development and deployment of cleaner renewable energy like wind and solar.

4) Mum’s the word on climate liabilities

Since releasing its 2018 climate risk report, ExxonMobil has been sued by the New York state attorney general for defrauding shareholders by downplaying expected climate risks to its business. The company also faces lawsuits by more than a dozen coastal and inland communities in the US seeking to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate damages and the ongoing costs of mitigation and preparedness.

What did ExxonMobil have to say about climate litigation in its climate risk report last year? Crickets.

What not to expect

One thing I’d be shocked (but delighted) to see in ExxonMobil’s 2019 climate risk report: a company-wide plan to bring ExxonMobil’s global warming emissions from its operations and from the use of its products to net zero by mid-century, consistent with the Paris climate agreement’s global temperature goal.

ExxonMobil’s 2018 Outlook for Energy report proposed no emissions reductions from the energy sector through 2040—and no date by which energy sector emissions must reach net zero. The company’s 2018 Energy and Carbon Summary falsely implied that this trajectory “would result in an average global temperature increase of approximately 2.4°C by 2100 from the pre-industrial age.”

More than three years after the adoption of the Paris climate agreement, it’s no wonder the company’s shareholders are running out of patience. Last month, the New York State Common Retirement Fund and the Church of England’s investment fund filed a shareholder proposal calling on ExxonMobil to set and disclose greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets aligned with the Paris climate agreement’s global temperature goals.

The findings of recent climate science studies (read more here and here) underscore the urgency of climate action by all sectors of society—but so far, the producers of the fossil fuels primarily responsible for climate change haven’t risen to the challenge. Investors, policymakers, and the public should closely scrutinize ExxonMobil’s 2019 Energy and Carbon Summary. If the report doesn’t lay out a plan consistent with keeping global temperature increase within the Paris climate agreement’s limits, the company should be sent back to the drawing board.