Five of the world’s biggest fossil fuel giants aren’t putting their money where their mouths are. Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies are all spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year to look better on climate change—while at the same time investing a relative pittance in their own company-identified, low-carbon or renewable energy activities, according to a new report.
The analysis from InfluenceMap, a UK-based climate think-tank, found that an average of 60% of 2021 public communications from the five companies contained at least one “green” claim. For instance, that the company is moving away from polluting fuels toward a renewable future. Or that that company is supporting reduced emissions. In contrast, less than a quarter of communication materials promoted oil and gas directly.
The report estimates that, combined, these companies are spending about $750 million annually on their climate messaging. Further, the authors point out that “this should be viewed as a conservative estimate of the total resources allocated to climate-related PR and marketing, as it does not include the use of any external agencies for PR, marketing, and advertising.”
Yet notably, while hyping up a supposed climate-friendly shift, oil company investments remained firmly in the realm of fossil fuels. Just 12%, on average, of the corporations’ projected 2022 capital expenditures are forecast to go toward “low carbon” activities, according to InfluenceMap. Note: Low carbon investment basically means money spent on developing energy sources other than oil and gas, and can still include greenhouse-gas emitting fuels, like blue hydrogen.
In other words, five of the largest fossil fuel producers are staying committed to the energy strategy that’s given us climate change in the first place, while outwardly projecting a façade of environmental good. And all at a time where the necessity of combatting climate change and ceasing fossil fuel reliance has never been more apparent.
Not to mention, this has been a banner year for Exxon and Chevron’s profits, as they benefit from global discord and the resulting inflated fuel and energy prices.
Communications spending is part of a “systematic campaign to portray themselves as pro-climate to the public,” Faye Holder, InfluenceMap program manager, told CNN. “In the meantime, what we see is continued investment into this unsustainable energy system — predominantly for fossil fuels.”
To come to their conclusions, the report authors looked at 3,421 items of public communications material from 2021, including marketing, public relations, and policy engagement actions. They further analyzed company staffing data to come up with estimates on the cost of all of that communication.
Separately, the think-tank assessed the amount of money each company is reportedly expected to spend on green investments this year. And the resulting disconnect is striking, albeit not particularly surprising.
Oil companies like Exxon have a long history of greenwashing and deceptive advertising, meant to obscure their actual, worldwide environmental harms. These corporations spent decades on coordinated campaigns to combat climate science and spread disinformation, and they still are. Recently, Chevron has even gone as far as to start its own “newsroom,” spreading local news and propaganda in Texas.
These companies are “misrepresenting their primary business operations by overemphasizing energy transition technologies,” says the report. The authors further add that their “findings raise serious and persistent questions for regulators and the companies’ shareholders, as well as PR and advertising agencies, the media, and social media platforms that work with the companies.”
Of the companies examined, Shell had the largest discrepancy between “saying” and “doing”—spending only 10% of its capital expenditures on “low carbon” work, while making “green claims” in 70% of its public communications. ExxonMobil wasn’t far behind, spending only 8% on its self-proclaimed green investments, while putting dubious climate declarations in 65% of its communications.
Of all five corporations, the French-owned TotalEnergies was projected to spend the most on its energy transition, with a quarter of its 2022 capital expenditures slated for “low carbon” investment.
Aside from TotalEnergies, all four companies were found by InfluenceMap to be lobbying for the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction.
Gizmodo reached out for comment to each of the five fossil fuel companies and did not immediately receive a response. However the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. trade group which BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell are all members, directed Gizmodo to its “Climate Action Framework.”
Megan Bloomgren, an API communications exec, also told Gizmodo the following in an emailed statement:
API member companies continue to make investments towards innovation, research, and best practices to further reduce GHG emissions and tackle the climate challenge. In reality, the International Energy Agency estimates that natural gas and oil will account for nearly half of the global energy mix by 2040 even if all 193 parties meet their Paris-based climate commitments. Our industry has contributed to the significant progress the U.S. has made in reducing America’s CO2 emissions to near generational lows with the increased use of natural gas.
Important to state: natural gas is still a deeply polluting fossil fuel. The Paris Agreement benchmarks are not nearly enough to stave off catastrophic global warming. And counter to what API says, we can’t keep extracting coal, oil, and gas, even from already developed mines and wells, if we want to avoid the worst-case scenarios.
One 2022 report from Oil Change International estimated that about half of all fossil fuels that could be pulled out of the ground with current infrastructure need to stay there, if we’re going to have any chance of avoiding temperature rise over 2 degrees Celsius.