Clean Energy Claims by Big Oil Companies Don’t Match Their Actions, Study Finds

Climate activists protest against greenwashing
Extinction Rebellion climate activists protest against London’s Science Museum accepting sponsorships from fossil fuel companies such as Shell and BP, on Oct. 24, 2021. Martin Pope / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Greenwashing accusations leveled against four major oil companies that claim they are actively transitioning to clean energy are valid, according to a comprehensive new study.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, found that the actions of BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell didn’t match their promises. Researchers examined data from 2009 to 2020 for clues as to the companies’ level of clean energy transition and decarbonization. They found that there had been an uptick in their use of words like “climate,” “low-carbon” and “transition” — especially by Shell and BP — while the companies increased their oil exploration.

The number of times BP referenced “climate change” increased from 22 to 326 during the study period.

Together, the four oil giants are accountable for more than 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965, reported The Guardian.

“We thus conclude that the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse,” said the researchers from Japan’s Tohoku University and Kyoto University, NPR reported.

According to a statement by the International Energy Agency last year, if the global target of net zero by 2050 is to be met there is no room for new oil, gas or coal developments, reported The Guardian.

But, as evidenced by their annual reports, actions and earnings, the companies don’t seem to be moving in the right direction.

“Until there is very concrete progress, we have every reason to be very sceptical about claims to be moving in a green direction,” said professor Gregory Trencher, one of the study’s researchers, as The Guardian reported.

“If they were moving away from fossil fuels we would expect to see, for example, declines in exploration activity, fossil fuel production, and sales and profit from fossil fuels,” Trencher said. “But if anything, we find evidence of the reverse happening.”

The study found that there wasn’t any indication that the oil companies were investing enough in renewable sources for them to be able to make the transition to clean energy, reported NPR.

“Glaringly, ExxonMobil generated no clean energy during the decade,” the researchers said, as reported by NPR.

In fact, NPR reported that the global capacity of BP’s clean energy was just 2,000 megawatts, which has the output “of about two large gas-fired power plants.”

According to the researchers, Shell and BP — the two companies in the study from Europe — made more clean energy investments and recognized climate science more readily than Chevron and ExxonMobil, reported NPR. The study found that the two American companies “exhibit defensive attitudes” when it comes to clean energy investments and taking steps to give up fossil fuels.

As Shell and BP made commitments to invest less in extraction of fossil fuels, researchers said that in recent years both companies had increased their holdings for new exploration projects, reported The Guardian.

“Unfortunately, the way the energy markets are structured around the world, fossil fuels still enjoy many [regulatory and tax] advantages and renewables are still disadvantaged,” said Trencher, as The Guardian reported.

The researchers also found that the amount of fossil fuels produced by BP, Chevron and Shell had gone up during the years examined in the study.

“Recent pledges look very nice and they’re getting a lot of people excited, but we have to put these in the context of company history of actions,” said Trencher, as reported by The Guardian. Trencher said it was like a student “telling the teacher ‘I promise to do all my homework next week,’ but the student has never worked hard.”

After reviewing its strategy on climate issues, Edelman — the PR firm that represents ExxonMobil and some of the other major oil companies and is the biggest PR firm in the world — expressed that it “may have to part ways in a few instances” with some of the clients it works with that are heavy polluters, reported CNBC.

“Until actions and investment behaviour are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded,” said the study’s researchers, as The Guardian reported.

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