Big Oil’s New Slate of Desperate Buzzwords Are Greenwashing at Its Worst

Pumpjacks work in a field near Lovington, N.M.
Pumpjacks work in a field near Lovington, N.M.
Photo: Charlie Riedel (AP)

The past year has been not great for oil companies. Between financial losses from the pandemic and increasing pressure from investors and the public at large to do something about how their product is messing up the planet, fossil fuel producers are feeling the heat.

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Big Oil’s new act appears to be convincing the public that not only is it thriving, but that it’s a driving force for good in the carbon-free revolution. Among the new language are commitments to carbon neutrality, “net zero,” and more terms that obscure the true risks of continuing to extract fossil fuels.

Tuesday’s panels of CERAWeek, one of the industry’s biggest conferences that is taking place virtually this week, shone a light on some of the language the industry is using to sell its new, wholesome image in an attempt to greenwash a path out of the dirty hole it’s dug.

“When you think about our stakeholder being the world, you do things differently than you did before,” Vicki Hollub, the CEO of Occidental Petroleum, said at one of two discussions on Tuesday on how the industry can get to net zero. And companies like Occidental seem to be introducing a whole new set of lingo to lull the public into a false sense of security that the industry won’t continue to turn the planet into a tire fire.

First off, the industry’s big names want you to know that they’re not just Big Bad Oil Companies. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods, speaking on a panel on the future of the industry, stressed that the company was “working on the evolution” towards lower-emission energies. Woods drew back to the company’s historic roots as a way to insinuate that it wasn’t just a fossil fuel producer, but rather a technology company that innovates different ways to provide energy throughout the decades.

“People think of us as being just an oil and gas company,” he said. “But if you go all the way back to our very roots, we started off by making kerosene to replace whale oil in lamps, and then Edison invented the light bulb and electricity came.” Exxon’s website echoes Woods’s language, with a red banner on the home page bragging that the company’s “scientists and engineers are pioneering new research and pursuing new technologies to reduce emissions while creating more efficient fuels.”

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Meanwhile, Hollub announced at her panel that Occidental doesn’t “expect to be an oil company in the next 15-20 years. We’ll be a carbon management company.”

What, exactly, does a “carbon management company” do? Based on Hollub’s answers, it seems the task involves mostly wrapping fossil fuels in a nicer-looking package. In January, Occidental completed its first shipment of what the company is calling “carbon-neutral oil,” which seems to be just normal oil that comes bundled with a bunch of carbon offsets for both the production and usage sides. Next, Occidental is apparently looking to start producing “net-zero oil,” which will be oil made with carbon capture and sequestration technologies attached to its production. (No fancy labels can do away with the fact that that oil, eventually, gets burned, and that downstream burning is the biggest source of emissions.)

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The idea of simply stopping emissions at the source or even more wildly, sucking carbon out of the air, is the great white whale for oil companies who want, above all else, to keep producing their product while telling us they’re doing good and cutting emissions. Since emissions come from the production, transport, and burning of fossil fuels, there are two avenues the industry wants to deploy. The first is capturing carbon at the source of fossil fuel production, to either be stored permanently or used in a different way later. The other is a larger idea of simply removing carbon from the air more generally. Unfortunately, the former technology is tricky, expensive, and tough to implement; the latter has never been proven at scale.

You’d never know that from how industry representatives talked at CERAWeek, though. There are several panels on various forms of carbon capture this week, signaling that the fossil fuel industry is throwing everything it has at all the different forms of technologies that could possibly help them, even if they don’t currently exist or work at anywhere near the level needed. (It doesn’t seem like an accident that Bill Gates, one of the high-profile billionaires who has been juicing up hype for carbon capture technology, was Monday’s keynote speaker.) The industry’s concept of “net zero”—a term open to various definition regarding getting overall carbon emissions to zero via actually reducing them and a variety of offset measures—leans heavily on moving these technologies along as quickly as possible. It’s clear that when oil and gas companies talk about net zero, they’re leaving out the part where we ultimately use less of their product. 

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“There is no credible way of reaching global climate goals without advancing the widespread adoption of CCS,” Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, CEO of Abu Dhabi’s national oil company, said on his net zero panel Tuesday. Hollub, meanwhile, proudly announced that Occidental was building a carbon capture project in the Permian Basin in partnership with United Airlines, another big name in an industry that’s facing similar pressure to quickly decarbonize.

Renewable energy—a solution readily available to deploy at scale right now—was mentioned in both of Tuesday’s net zero panels, but played second fiddle to exciting pie-in-the-sky ideas about cleaning up dirty fuels. Most of the executives on each panel spoke earnestly about the need to bring renewables into the mix in order to reduce the carbon footprint of the production of fossil fuels rather than ending their production completely—a way of getting other versions of “carbon-neutral oil,” if you will. At least one member of each panel brought up the possibilities of blue hydrogen, a very expensive and early-stage technology that creates a cleaner version of natural gas, but the potential of renewable batteries and energy storage weren’t mentioned at all.

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“We should not be talking about eliminating fossil fuels,” Hollub said during her panel. “What we should be talking about is eliminating emissions.”

The problem, of course, with that assumption is that it creates a hypothetical world where burning fossil fuels will somehow be harmless or neutral, which, of course, they can never be. The math is pretty clear: We currently don’t have the technical capacity to offset the amount of fossil fuels that we currently consume.

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And even if we were able to magically scale up carbon capture technology for widespread use tomorrow, it would be an awful waste to then use that technology simply as a get-out-of-jail free card to keep burning fossil fuels with zero regard for the consequences outside of the climate crisis, including air and water pollution. Focusing so much money, attention, and time on technologies that are not yet ready for the limelight, let alone sufficient enough to dig us out of the massive carbon hole we’re in, only serves to buy the industry time to keep polluting while they convince us they’re the good guys.

Writing about climate change, renewable energy, and Big Oil/Big Gas/Big Everything for Earther. Formerly of the Center for Public Integrity & Nexus Media News. I'm very tall & have a very short dog.

DISCUSSION

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Let’s hope sometime soon there’s an almost perfect mix of communications, policy and technology efforts working in concert, like a well oiled machine, to back out of this climate ditch.