Exxon Thinks You're Stupid

Protesters stoke a fire with tires and block the access to the Exxon Mobil refinery in France. It is also a metaphor for how Exxon treats the atmosphere.
Protesters stoke a fire with tires and block the access to the Exxon Mobil refinery in France. It is also a metaphor for how Exxon treats the atmosphere.
Photo: Carly Triballeau (Getty Images)

In March, Exxon CEO Darren Woods whined that other oil companies drafting climate plans were simply engaging in a “beauty match.” Now, Exxon has a climate plan of its own. But it’s the ugliest and most craven of the bunch because it actually says nothing about reducing emissions.


Now, to be fair to Woods, it’s pretty easy to criticize other oil companies’ climate plans. We do it all the time here! The difference is, Earther is not a ruthless, multination corporation dedicated to strangling out competition, committing gross human rights violations, and lying to the public to entrench our business and bottom line.

For Exxon to talk trash about its fellow planetary death dealers pretending to dole out a kinder, gentler death sentence is rich. But now it seems Exxon has come around to the PR value of crafting a climate plan. On Monday, it dropped a vision for humanely destroying the biosphere. While other oil companies have said they’ll reach some far-off target of net-zero emissions by 2050, Exxon is here to let you know it is focused on “meaningful near-term emission reductions.” But the catch is that the plan includes zero reductions in emissions.

Rather, it calls for reducing the emissions intensity of its operations by 15% to 20% by 2025, which is entirely negated by its plan to increase oil production. It also includes methane targets that are again focused on reducing intensity rather than overall emissions. That gives Exxon the wiggle room to keep ramping up its emissions as long as they are less intense. And plan to do that it does, according to leaked documents viewed by Bloomberg in October. They show that Exxon’s business plan would result in a 17% increase in total carbon emissions. It’s the equivalent of someone who’s lactose-intolerant chugging a gallon of half-and-half instead of a glass of heavy cream and pretending that’s somehow better for them and everyone around them.

Exxon’s pledge to mainline half-and-half is also focused solely on “upstream” operations—everything from taking the oil out of the ground to getting it to the refinery—which account for roughly a fifth of total emissions tied to a barrel of oil. Most emissions come downstream from the transport and use of said oil, a chunk of emissions known in oilspeak as Scope 3. If we want to keep the dairy analogy going, Scope 3 emissions are like the butter of carbon pollution. Exxon’s offering on those emissions isn’t even an intensity reduction. Rather, it’s “providing Scope 3 emissions.” So Exxon’s plan is to keep shoving butter down your throat while sternly telling you it’s bad and asking why you won’t stop eating it.

The methane intensity reductions—the targets include a 40% to 50% intensity dip and 35% to 45% lower flaring intensity by 2025—are also comical. Oil companies, including Exxon, begged Donald Trump to not rollback rules to limit methane emissions because it could damage natural gas’ reputation as a cleaner form of fossil fuel. President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly said he will crack down on the potent greenhouse gas, and it features prominently in his climate plan. In essence, Exxon is committing to something it’s almost certainly going to have to do anyways. And again, reduced flaring intensity does nothing to actually reduce production.


The clearest sign Exxon’s plan is a cheap PR stunt is actually how it’s presented. The page has beautiful pictures of the Eiffel Tower to symbolize the Paris Agreement and a somewhat blurry photo of people lounging in Central Park amidst green grass—it’s standard pablum for this type of thing. But the real tip is the little share icons for every section, indicating Exxon has a message it would very much like out in the world. Click them, and you can post the following to your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn page:

“Builds on success of existing efforts to reduce methane emissions and flaring, and supports the goals of the Paris Agreement”


It’s a word salad of hazy words that mean nothing with a link to the nothing plan. Fittingly, the Twitter share option doesn’t even include a link back to that, though, because Exxon can’t even be bothered to pretend it cares. Exxon lied about climate change for decades and is historically the biggest investor-owned source of emissions and the third-biggest cause of ocean acidification. This is not a company that does anything in good faith.

The final insult comes from Woods himself. In a pull quote in the climate plan, he notes that “we respect and support society’s ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” something that Exxon explicitly says in its plan it will take no part in. This is the Big Oil version of thoughts and prayers. And if this plan is the best Exxon can come up with, we’re going to need those thoughts and prayers unless policymakers take meaningful steps to wind down oil production, protect workers, and hold companies like Exxon accountable.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


Dense non aqueous phase liquid

Crude oil source weighs heavily on life cycle carbon footprint (i.e. wells to wheels). A conventional light crude oil will have lower wells to wheel emissions than an unconventional heavy crude oil goo.

Carnegie Endowment has a pretty neat interactive website called Oil-Climate Index, which gives the supply chain carbon emissions for all types of crude oil found all over the place.

The problem is that a lion’s share of carbon emissions from crude oil comes from the end user oil petroleum products. The biggest (highest yield) petroleum product from the refinery is gasoline for internal combustion engine (ICE) cars (or light duty vehicles). There’s about 200 million of those in the US alone that need to be replaced by something. In total, there’s about 275 million registered vehicles (of all types) burning either gasoline or diesel (and some ethanol). And there’s shitloads more all over the world. It’s going to take awhile to transition away from fossil fuel. Oil companies might as well wring out as much carbon throughout the supply chain as possible.

On the solutions side, Earther should become a Tesla fan blog. Then again, Tesla doesn’t spend much on advertising. So there’s probably little incentive for doing that.

eta: cleaned up some lousy wording