Oil and gas firms’ green investments fail to match promise of publicity – study

BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and TotalEnergies spend $750m a year burnishing climate credentials but only 12% of capital on low-carbon development

Big oil and gas companies are spending tens of millions publicising their environmental work, while only about a 10th of their investment goes into low-carbon development, a report claims.

A comprehensive study of public communications from five oil and gas firms by InfluenceMap, a climate finance thinktank, found that 60% of the publicity made at least one claim highlighting the companies’ positive climate actions. But on average, the five companies devoted only 12% of capital expenditure to low-carbon activities – and this included some gas projects.

Less than a quarter of the publicity material highlighted the companies’ fossil fuel activities, InfluenceMap said, which suggested that the companies were spending about $750m a year on communications aimed at burnishing their climate credentials.

Researchers looked at 3,421 public communications materials published by BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell and TotalEnergies in 2021, including articles and blogposts on corporate websites, press releases, reports, speeches and company and CEO social media accounts.

The researchers did not look at adverts as it was not possible for them to obtain a full dataset of any company’s global advertising

They found that 60% of the publicity material made at least one green claim, with the most popular being centred on efforts to “transition the energy mix”. However, analysis of the capital expenditure of the five companies found that all were forecast to increase their oil and gas production, with the exception of BP, which was expected to have similar levels in 2026 as in 2021.

“Essentially, we found that big oil is spending millions of dollars on this green PR, and it is a really systematic campaign to portray themselves as pro-climate,” said Faye Holder, programme manager at InfluenceMap. “But at the same time, they are still lobbying to lock in fossil fuels and investing in a really unsustainable energy future with high levels of oil and gas, and very low spend on low-carbon activities.”

None of the “About us” pages on the firms’ websites described them as oil and gas companies, Holder said. “The best instance, in my mind, was BP – on their ‘Who we are’ page, they only mention the word ‘oil’ twice. And it’s at the bottom of the page, under a section called ‘Our history’, where they describe how they have always been a transitioning energy company, from coal to oil to gas to this lower-carbon future.

“So it’s really clear they want to dissociate themselves from oil and gas, and attach themselves to this climate agenda.”

Shell made the most green claims, with 70% of public communications stressing pro-environmental activities, while just 10% of capital expenditure was invested in low carbon, which included some gas projects, according to InfluenceMap’s report. ExxonMobil made green claims in 70% of its communications, while devoting 8% of capital expenditure to low carbon. For TotalEnergies, 62% of communications made green claims, with 25% of capital investment going towards low carbon.

Shell contested the findings, saying InfluenceMap had failed to take into account low-carbon businesses included in its marketing division, including EV charging and low-carbon fuels, and a joint venture in Brazil that is a world-leading bioethanol producer. The company has previously said more than 35% of capital expenditure in 2022 would go towards low-carbon energy, as well as “non-energy products”.

“We are already investing billions of dollars in lower-carbon energy,” a spokesperson said. “To help alter the mix of energy Shell sells, we need to grow these new businesses rapidly. 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.

“The world will still need oil and gas for many years to come. Investment in them will ensure we can supply the energy people will still have to rely on, while lower-carbon alternatives are scaled up.”

A spokeperson from TotalEnergies told the Guardian: “Our public announcements policy reflects the transformation of TotalEnergies in a multi-energy company.

“As an evidence of this, the InfluenceMap report releases a forecast that ranks TotalEnergies as the frontrunner among the supermajors in terms of renewables assets-based capacities.”

A spokesperson for ExxonMobil said: “ExxonMobil continues to mitigate emissions from its operations and achieved its 2025 emission-reduction plans four years earlier than planned.

“This progress supports the company’s more aggressive 2030 emission-reduction plans and its ambition to achieve net zero scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions from operated assets by 2050. ExxonMobil is investing more than $15bn between now and 2027 on lower-emission initiatives, and we anticipate a tripling of investment by 2025.”

Chevron and BP did not respond to requests for comment.


Damien Gayle

The GuardianTramp

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