The world’s highest-polluting oil companies are promising big but delivering very little on climate change, according to damning new research published today.

Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and BP are failing to meet green energy investment pledges and lack consistent transparency in their reporting of investments, the researchers say in science journal PLOS ONE.

They say fossil fuel production was maintained or increased by Chevron, Shell and BP between 2009 and 2020, despite committing to, or in Chevron’s case “aspiring to”, net-zero emissions by 2050 or before.

To reach these conclusionsresearchers from Tohoku and Kyoto University looked at the activities of Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and BP between 2009 and 2020.

They focused on these four because they’re the highest greenhouse-gas-emitting investor-owned energy companies globally.

Specifically, the researchers tallied the frequency that climate change and clean energy-related keywords were referred to in those companies’ annual reports during that 2009-2020 period, and what each company pledged to do to decarbonise and invest in clean energy.

They then compared that to each companies’ actions during the same period — their investments and profits from fossil fuels, and investments in clean energy.

a graph.
Clean energy generation in megawatts by each company between 2009 and 2020.(Supplied: PLOS ONE/Li, Trencher, Asuka)

Neither of the American companies — ExxonMobil and Chevron — disclosed the size of their clean energy investments for any years during the period, “despite claims of increasing investments for low-carbon energy and technologies”, the researchers said in the paper.

European companies Shell and BP disclosed sporadically, and the researchers took data for all four companies from external sources where it wasn’t disclosed.

The researchers concluded that accusations of greenwashing against these companies “appear well founded”.

No indication of shifting away from fossil fuels

Between 2009 and 2020, none of the four companies generated renewable energy on a scale that would “indicate a shift away from fossil fuels”, despite all showing a significant increase in references to “climate change”, “transition”, “emissions” and “low carbon energy” in their annual reporting.

According to the research, ExxonMobil generated no electricity from clean energy sources between 2009 and 2020. Chevron generated just 65.5 megawatts.

Of the four, BP generated the most with around 2,000 megawatts, or “the equivalent of around two large gas-fired power-plants”, the researchers said.

In energy equivalent terms, this pales in comparison to the 2 million or more barrels per day each company produced on average during the study period.

YOUTUBEBetween 2010 and 2018, more than 98 per cent of Shell’s investments were in oil and gas

It’s also at odds with the image these companies are trying to project to the public, the researchers said.

“Over the study period that we looked at — 12 years — there’s been a big increase in green rhetoric,” said study co-author Gregory Trencher from Kyoto University.

“If that was reflected in actions, we would expect in the same period, to see a big surge in green activity.

This is despite the websites of BP and Chevron stating that they support the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement; Shell’s website says the company’s net-zero aim supports the Paris Agreement; and ExxonMobil says it is  “advancing effective solutions to address climate change”.

Among the Paris Agreement’s goals are to limit warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and to pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5C.

We’re currently on track to hit 1.5C in the early 2030s.

BP, Shell say change is happening

The two European companies — BP and Shell — had the most ambitious clean energy pledges of the four, which the researchers still described as “highly conservative”.

“Even with these very conservative indicators, [we] don’t see much action, especially in the US,” Dr Trencher said.

“[With] BP and Shell, it’s really only in the last two years that we see meaningful action occurring, but that’s obviously far from sufficient, and there are still contradictions.”

Both BP and Shell met their targets of investing more than 1 per cent of capital expenditure on clean energy for multiple years throughout the study period.

But they failed to meet other targets. Shell’s investment of $0.9 billion on clean energy in 2020, for instance, fell short of its pledge of $1 billion-$2 billion annually between 2018-2020.

The companies’ investment data from 2018 and 2019 was not published, according to the researchers.

A spokesperson for BP said that because the study was between the years 2009-2020, it didn’t take recent “developments and [their] progress fully into account”.

“In 2020, BP set out our new net-zero ambition, aims and strategy, and in 2021 completed the largest transformation of the company in our history to deliver these,” the spokesperson said.

In 2020, BP’s new chief executive officer Bernard Looney claimed the company could get to net zero.

He laid out a raft of measures, which included reducing future production by 40 per cent, or about 1 million barrels, of oil a day, and selling off about $25 billion in fossil fuel assets by 2025.

A Shell spokesperson also said they had taken big steps recently that wouldn’t have been captured by the study.

“Shell’s target is to become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050, in step with society,” they said.

A comparison of capital expenditure on “low-carbon” investments by each company as a percentage of total capital expenditure.(Supplied: PLOS ONE/Li, Trencher, Asuka)

“Our short-, medium- and long-term intensity and absolute targets are consistent with the more ambitious 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement.”

If both BP and Shell are to reach their net-zero emissions by 2050, Dr Trencher said it would be “an amazing challenge” given their continued interests in fossil fuels.

Chevron, ExxonMobil dragging the chain

Investment in “clean energy” by the two American companies — Chevron and ExxonMobil — made up less than a quarter of a per cent of their total capital expenditure.

But the researchers urged caution even over these modest figures.

“We can have one company claiming that it’s invested, you know, X amount of dollars in clean energy, but we don’t really know what’s meant by clean energy,” Dr Trencher said.

Chevron has expanded its gas interest in Australia, including at Wheatstone and its troubled CCS facility Gorgon.(Chevron)

It could include research and development, business development, and controversial carbon capture and storage technologies, which made up a large proportion of clean energy investment by Chevron, they said.

ExxonMobil has made no secret that it lacks interest in some renewable technologies, said study lead author Mei Li from Tohoku University.

“ExxonMobil is the only major [oil company] to refuse to invest in solar and wind. It’s quite a surprising thing for me,” Dr Li said.

Attempting to derail climate action

According to ExxonMobil’s website, the company is “working to be part of the solution”.

“ExxonMobil scientists have been involved in the forefront of climate research for four decades, understanding and working with the world’s leading experts on climate,” the website states.

But ExxonMobil has also been accused of funding climate sceptic organisations, and promoting climate disinformation.

Back in 2006, the Royal Society slammed the company for promoting “inaccurate and misleading” climate information.

ExxonMobil said it would stop funding such groups in 2007 after pressure from activists, but was accused of the same thing again in 2009.

Last year the City of New York filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute for “systematically and intentionally deceiving” New Yorkers about the impact their products have on climate change.

Similar lawsuits have previously failed.

Oil companies are accused of ‘greenwashing’ while continuing with business as usual.(AP: Nabil al-Jurani)

And ExxonMobil has been reticent to address climate change in its annual reporting, according to the researchers.

“Only in 2018 did ExxonMobil recognise, indirectly and weakly, the link between fossil fuels and climate change in its annual report,” they said.

“This position did not carry over into the 2020 version.”

But a spokesperson for ExxonMobil said the company had “new greenhouse-gas emissions reduction plans through 2030 that are consistent with our support for the goals of the Paris Agreement”.

“Our commitment to emissions reduction isn’t new; we have supported the Paris Agreement from its inception and made consistent progress on short- and medium-term emissions reduction plans, including meeting our 2025 plans four years early.”

The spokesperson also said the company had “long supported an explicit price on carbon” and that a range of technological solutions were needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“Society is beginning to recognise there is a significant challenge beyond the roles that solar and wind and electric vehicles will play.”

But it’s not just ExxonMobil that has been accused of attempting to derail climate action. It’s an industry-wide practice, according to Polly Hemming from independent think tank The Australia Institute, based in Canberra.

She said there were plenty of examples in Australia where companies had campaigned against climate action.

A Woodside ad.
Woodside ran a campaign against an EPA proposal for offsetting all emissions on new large projects.(Supplied)

“[In 2019] the Western Australian [Environmental Protection Agency] suggested that all high-carbon activities would be completely offset,” she said.

“Woodside [Energy] in The West Australian newspaper ran a scare campaign and within a week it was ditched.”

A concerted effort by the industry has held back action on climate change in Australia, according to Ms Hemming.

“I would say [fossil fuel lobbyists] have been behind the last 10 years of delay on climate change [in Australia].

The fossil fuel industry’s assertions that they can continue to produce oil and gas with zero net emissions — described by Ms Hemming as “a complete fantasy” — allows governments to continue supporting the industry, she said.

“Our own government’s net-zero plan — there’s a sentence in there that says that gas and coal production will continue.

“No fossil fuel company is proposing to offset all their emissions. Even if they were, there wouldn’t be enough offsets in the world to do that.

“It might work on paper, but in reality, the physics don’t work.”

In response to questions from the ABC regarding today’s research, a spokesperson for Chevron said it was difficult to respond without first seeing the report, but the company was committed to reaching net-zero in 2050 on its scope 1 and scope 2 emissions — that’s emissions from its owned or controlled sources, and indirect emissions from the generation of energy it has purchased.

Scope 3 emissions are those produced by burning the fuel by consumers, such as in vehicles.

“Chevron is focused on lowering the carbon intensity of our operations and seeking to grow lower carbon businesses along with our traditional business lines,” the spokesperson said.

“Globally, the corporation is planning $10 billion in lower carbon investments by 2028.

“In Australia, we are working to advance a lower carbon future using our unique capabilities, assets, and expertise.”

Extracted in full form: Big oil all talk, no action on climate change? Researchers say they’ve got the proof – ABC News