Big oil companies are spending millions to portray themselves as taking action on climate change, but their investments and lobbying activities don’t live up to their planet-friendly claims, according to a new report.
An analysis from London-based energy and climate think-tank InfluenceMap found that the amount of climate-positive messaging used by five major oil and gas companies – BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies – is inconsistent with their spending on low-carbon activities.
The report comes as scientists have grown increasingly urgent in their warning that the world must slash the use of fossil fuels to prevent catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis. It also comes amid fresh criticism of oil companies’ growing profits as consumer energy costs soar.
The think tank analyzed 3,421 items of public communications materials for 2021 across the five companies and found that 60% of their messaging contained at least one “green” claim.
InfluenceMap then calculated the amount of money the energy companies expected to spend on green investments last year and found on average just 12% of their capital expenditure budgets were going toward what the companies themselves consider low-carbon or renewable activities.
In some cases, those figures are on the rise. Shell, for example, says it plans to spend 12% of its capital expenses on renewable energy this year, up from 10% in 2021. And the company noted the InfluenceMap analysis does not account for investments outside of its Renewables and Energy Solutions division – investments such as electric vehicle charging, biofuels and sustainable aviation fuel, all of which climate scientists have said are important in the effort to wean off fossil fuel.
Still, InfluenceMap says the companies’ imbalance between “green” messaging and investment is striking.
It appears to be part of a “systematic campaign to portray themselves as pro-climate to the public,” InfluenceMap program manager Faye Holder told CNN. “In the meantime, what we see is continued investment into this unsustainable energy system – predominantly for fossil fuels.”
InfluenceMap also estimated the companies are spending around $750 million each year cumulatively on climate-related communication activities, based on the number of communications staff the companies employ. The think tank said in a statement that figure doesn’t include the cost of external advertising or PR agencies, so the true amount is likely “significantly higher.”
“It seems to be just an evolution in the tactics that Big Oil is using to try to delay action on climate change,” Holder said.
Overemphasis on green messaging
The five major oil companies are “misrepresenting their primary business operations” by “overemphasizing energy transition technologies” and green campaigns in their public relations, InfluenceMap said.
The report revealed several different types of “green” claims used by oil and gas companies in their 2021 public communications, the most popular of which was highlighting their support for the effort to transition away from fossil fuel and toward renewable energy. The second most popular type of claim was focused on support for emissions reductions.
Some of the companies’ planet-friendly claims portrayed gas as a climate solution, according to the think tank. Natural gas, which typically emits less carbon dioxide than coal, is still a fossil fuel and is primarily made of methane – a significant contributor to the climate crisis.
Among the five companies, Shell had the biggest mismatch between pro-climate messaging and investments into “low carbon” activities, according to InfluenceMap, followed by ExxonMobil.
The analysis found that Shell used “green” claims in 70% of messaging, while only 10% of its spending is on low-carbon investments. Shell says it expects that figure to rise to 12% in 2022.
Meanwhile, Exxon had green claims in 65% of messaging, compared to 8% of spending on green investments. ExxonMobil told CNN it is “investing more than $15 billion between now and 2027 on lower-emission initiatives,” and the company expects its green investments to triple by 2025.
Lobbying reveals focus on fossil fuels
InfluenceMap also noted that these five companies continue to lobby policymakers to lock fossil fuels into climate policy.
“The science is very clear” that “the use of fossil fuels needs to decrease significantly and rapidly,” Holder told CNN, citing the most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “But what we see from these companies is – particularly in the US and from industry associations – a real push for fossil gas to be included and to be considered as a ‘green’ or low-carbon solution.”
The report noted that InfluenceMap “found evidence of each company, with the exception of TotalEnergies, engaging policymakers directly to advocate for policies encouraging the development of new oil and gas in 2021-22.”
Four of the companies – BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell – are members of the US trade association group American Petroleum Institute (API), which scientists and climate advocates have criticized for opposing regulations aimed at combating climate change.
The World Resources Institute, which was not affiliated with the analysis, has previously highlighted the issue of major oil and gas companies strategically using trade associations, including the API, to engage in greenwashing – deceptive advertising practices that make companies seem like their products are more climate-friendly than they actually are.
“We urge all companies to re-examine their lobbying, political spending and participation in trade associations to ensure that their actions are fully aligned with their public statements on climate change,” said WRI in a 2021 statement.
“API member companies continue to make investments towards innovation, research, and best practices to further reduce GHG emissions and tackle the climate challenge,” API’s senior vice president of communications Megan Bloomgren told CNN in a statement.
In a statement to CNN, a Shell spokesperson said the company is “already investing billions of dollars in lower-carbon energy.”
“To help alter the mix of energy Shell sells, we need to grow these new businesses rapidly,” the spokesperson said. “That means letting our customers know through advertising or social media what lower-carbon solutions we offer now or are developing, so they can switch when the time is right for them.”
A spokesperson for Exxon told CNN the company is shooting for net-zero emissions in its operations by 2050, and noted that it achieved its 2025 emissions reduction goal four years early.
“ExxonMobil is investing more than $15 billion between now and 2027 on lower-emission initiatives, and we anticipate a tripling of investment by 2025,” the spokesperson said in an email. “This reflects our commitment to reducing our own emissions and confidence in the market adoption of lower-emission solutions, such as [carbon capture and storage], hydrogen, and biofuels.”
A TotalEnergies spokesperson said, “Our public announcements policy reflects the transformation of TotalEnergies in a multi-energy company.” TotalEnergies also noted that the report shows it has the largest forecast renewable energy capacity among the oil companies analyzed.
CNN also requested comment from BP and Chevron but did not receive a response.
“The world will still need oil and gas for many years to come,” the Shell spokesperson added. “Investment in them will ensure we can supply the energy people will still have to rely on, while lower-carbon alternatives are scaled up.”
Yet the UN Environment Programme has noted that current worldwide levels of oil and gas production would not meet climate ambitions under the Paris Agreement.
“The world’s governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C,” according to the UNEP’s Production Gap report, adding that “most major oil and gas producers are planning on increasing production out to 2030 or beyond.”
The International Energy Agency has also reported that oil and gas companies must stop drilling now if the world hopes to prevent a climate catastrophe. Investment in new fossil fuel supply projects must stop immediately, the IEA said in 2021, and no new coal-fired plants should be approved.
Soaring Energy Prices
The InfluenceMap report, which highlights companies’ relatively low levels of spending on green investments, comes as energy prices soar in Europe, while Big Oil continues to report high profits.
Energy prices have been increasing in Europe since last fall, driven by a spike in demand as countries lifted pandemic lockdowns. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent drop in Moscow’s oil and natural gas exports to Europe in 2022, have pushed prices even higher.
Meanwhile, a perfect storm has resulted in windfall profits for the oil industry: the highest oil prices in a decade, huge demand for refining crude so it can be used as fuel, plus governments’ renewed focus on energy security.
Exxon made nearly $17.9 billion in profit between April and June, almost four times what it earned during the same period in 2021. Chevron booked a profit of $11.6 billion, while Shell earned $11.5 billion.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the American Petroleum Institute.
CNN’s Anna Cooban and Julia Horowitz contributed to this report.