'Tricks of the Trade' Analysis Shows Why Big Oil 'Cannot Be Part of the Solution'

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The nonprofit Earthworks on Tuesday revealed how eight fossil fuel giants use “confusing jargon, false solutions, and misleading metrics” to distort “the severity of ongoing harm to health and climate from the oil and gas sector by helping companies lower reported emissions and claim climate action without actually reducing emissions.”

“Words will not save us from climate catastrophe, only greenhouse gas emissions reductions that meet science-based targets will.”

The group’s report—entitled Tricks of the Trade: Deceptive Practices, Climate Delay, and Greenwashing in the Oil and Gas Industry—focuses on BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Shell, and TotalEnergies, which are all top fossil fuel producers in the United States.

The analysis comes on the heels of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said last week proves “we are headed in the wrong direction, fast,” and “solutions to solve this crisis exist but political courage and policy creativity are lacking.”

Pagel, in response to Tuesday’s report, reiterated that solving the global crisis “will require strong government intervention on multiple fronts” and specifically called on the Biden administration “to quickly correct the problems the oil and gas industry has created by declaring a climate emergency and beginning a managed decline of fossil fuels.”

Earthworks’ document details the corporations’ spurious accounting strategies that “creatively reclassify, bury, and entirely exclude their total emissions” rather than cutting planet-heating pollution in line with the 2015 Paris climate agreement goals of keeping global temperature rise by 2100 below 2°C and limiting it to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

The report highlights that “every company’s climate ambitions fall far short of the IPCC target of reducing emissions 50% by the end of the decade because they omit scope 3 emissions.” While scope 1 refers to direct emissions from owned operations and scope 2 refers to indirect emissions from the generation of electricity purchased by a company, scope 3 refers to all other indirect emissions in a firm’s supply chain.

“Scope 3 emissions make up between 75-90% of emissions associated with oil and gas production,” the paper says, noting that for these firms, the category includes emissions from the fossil fuel products they sell. “Excluding scope 3 emissions allows oil and gas companies to make goals that sound like real progress while pushing off responsibility for most of their emissions onto consumers and allowing them to continue to grow their operations.”

“While all of the eight companies reviewed in this report have set intermediate (2030 or sooner) emissions goals, none of them have set goals that include scope 3 emissions and only five companies (Shell, BP, Equinor, TotalEnergies, and Occidental) have ‘net-zero’ targets that cover any (but not all) scope 3 emissions by 2050,” according to Earthworks.

The corporations “make it very difficult to evaluate their performance on overall emissions reductions,” the analysis notes, explaining that just TotalEnergies, Shell, Equinor, and Chevron have publicly available data for scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions for 2016-19, “of which only one company (TotalEnergies) actually reduced overall emissions, and that by less than 5%.”

The companies also have other methods of concealing their true contributions to heating the planet. The paper points out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas reporting system which “allows half of the oil and gas industry’s methane pollution to go unreported has helped the industry to portray itself as a climate solution.”

Additionally, as the paper outlines:

One of the most common ways oil and gas companies are reducing emissions is by selling off their assets, i.e. their unextracted oil and gas. In fact, four of the companies in this report that provided this data publicly last year (Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Equinor) divested assets [which] made up more than 50% of their claimed emissions reductions. But selling assets doesn’t reduce pollution, it merely moves them from one company to another.

“By passing off their pollution rather than reducing it, oil and gas companies are showing us why they cannot be part of the solution and signaling that they care more about their image than the climate,” asserted Josh Eisenfeld, Earthworks’ corporate accountability campaign manager. “At best what we found was a small handful of companies are making inadequate climate commitments, providing inadequate data transparency, and continuing their long history of deceptive PR tricks.”

Along with exposing how these eight firms are “keeping emissions off the books,” the analysis shines a light on “climate commitment word games.” For each company, Earthworks shares various climate pledges and then spells out “what that means” as well as what the firm “is actually doing.”

“This report is another wake-up call that these lying corporations must be held accountable.”

“Words will not save us from climate catastrophe, only greenhouse gas emissions reductions that meet science-based targets will,” the report warns, offering “four immediate steps the Biden administration can take to address the gap between words and actions, and slow down the worst impacts of fossil fuel extractions.”

The paper is endorsed by 14 groups, including the Center for Climate Integrity, whose president, Richard Wiles, emphasized that “major fossil fuel polluters are continuing exploration, hoarding leases, increasing production, and dodging responsibility for emissions from their products.”

“They then cloak this failure in deliberately misleading ‘zero emissions’ claims meant to deceive the public and policymakers,” he added. “This report is another wake-up call that these lying corporations must be held accountable.”

Fossil Free Media director Jamie Henn, whose organization also backed the report, declared that “industry greenwashing has become one of the greatest barriers to climate action.”

“These ‘tricks of the trade’ show how oil companies use deceptive language and false promises to pretend they’re solving the climate crisis, when in reality they’re only making it worse,” he said. “Policymakers should study this report closely and get to work on solutions that really work: keeping fossil fuels in the ground and transitioning to 100% renewable energy for all.”