Seemingly a month ago, on Tuesday, Exxon Mobil released its annual Energy & Carbon Summary. For the first time, the company reported its Scope 3 emissions. Those are emissions generated across the so-called value chain of its products, from the steel it buys to build drilling rigs to the emissions given off when the oil Exxon sells is burned in a gas tank on the highway. Traditionally, Exxon has reported only emissions from its production process and energy use, holding out as competitors began disclosing end-use emissions as well. As it happens, Exxon’s Scope 3 emissions for 2019—the year this report analyzed—were roughly on par with the national emissions of Canada.
This was the detail most coverage focused on. But in fact, the report is a much stranger document than that single statistic suggests. Its 54 pages are an example of a slick new public relations campaign, dressed as scientific pragmatism. Conveniently, the report ignores that Exxon spent years funding groups that cast doubt on the scientific consensus about the climate crisis. And it deflects questions about what kind of action is now needed to respond to it.
Boasting that the company is “proactively engaging on climate-related policy,” Exxon states that it has “participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since its inception in 1988.” What exactly was it doing there?
Exxon Mobil was an early member of the Global Climate Coalition, or GCC. Members of the innocuous-sounding and now defunct nonprofit, founded in 1989, included some of the most carbon-intensive companies on earth, from fossil fuel producers to electric utilities to car companies. A primary goal was to undermine the IPCC process, sending large delegations to IPCC meetings, targeting IPCC scientists with accusations of “scientific cleansing,” and cherry-picking data to suggest warming might simply be “part of a natural warming trend which began nearly 400 years ago.” The group’s “IPCC Budget Tracker” received two and a half times the average funding of other program areas. At one point, Exxon appealed to the White House to block the reappointment of IPCC chairman Robert Watson. (It did.)
Exxon climate scientist Brian Flannery served in the IPCC’s working group III—dealing with mitigation—from 1998 through 2004, having previously argued that there was too much “scientific uncertainty” to justify the emissions reductions outlined in the IPCC’s first report. Contradicting evidence found internally at Exxon more than a decade previously, he stated in a 1996 speech that “observations do not confirm that human activities have led to any global warming.” The same year, Exxon Biomedical Sciences’ D.J. Devlin gave a presentation to the GCC undermining emerging scientific consensus that climate change could have a disastrous impact on human health.
Exxon’s “proactive” engagement with climate policy has usually meant blocking it. George W. Bush administration officials credited Exxon Mobil for the White House’s decision to reject the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States had signed onto during the Clinton administration in 1997. Exxon for years denied it had any involvement in the government’s choice, but State Department briefing notes obtained by Greenpeace strongly suggest otherwise. “Potus [the president of the U.S.] rejected Kyoto in part based on input from you [the GCC],” reads one. Exxon, administration officials said, believed joining “would be unjustifiably drastic and premature.”
Exxon representatives didn’t necessarily argue that the climate wasn’t changing or that every piece of data about warming was bunk. Instead, they created enough plausible deniability to confuse the public and policymakers and stop anything being done about it. This meant weaponizing uncertainties that are a standard part of scientific knowledge production. The GCC accordingly informed lawmakers and journalists in 1989 that the “role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood.”
Exxon’s new report, despite its green language, tells a similar story. This time, the company isn’t debating the scope and scale of climate change itself. The planet is certainly warming, and that needs to be addressed, it underlines. But who’s to say how the world should do that?
Limiting the world to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, the reports argues, is a complicated matter with few clear directives. “Given a wide range of uncertainties, no single pathway can be reasonably predicted,” the authors write. “A key unknown relates to yet-to-be-developed advances in technology and breakthroughs that may influence the cost and potential availability of certain pathways toward a 2°C scenario. Scenarios that employ a full complement of technology options are likely to provide the most economically efficient pathways.” What Exxon seems to be arguing here is that the best pathways—the ones it’s choosing to base its plans around—are the ones that rely most on unproven negative emissions technologies rather than limiting fossil fuels.
The report then proceeds to paint a wildly optimistic picture of both negative emissions technologies and the future of oil and gas over the next several decades. Far from curtailing its oil production, Exxon seemingly intends to increase it: The report predicts climbing fossil fuel demand for the next 40 years. Staying under two degrees, it argues, still requires “significant” new investment—$12 trillion worth, according to the International Energy Agency—in new fossil fuels. That means not only can all Exxon’s reserves be safely exploited, but plenty of new exploration can be greenlit as well. As even BP has gotten nervous about the prospect of stranded assets (meaning, for example, reserves that couldn’t be profitably exploited if certain climate policies are put in place), Exxon is focused on acquiring new assets, replenishing “existing proved reserves entirely by 2040.”
For reference, the latest United Nations Production Gap report finds that the world is currently on track to produce 50 percent more fossil fuels than is consistent with a world warmed by just two degrees Celsius, and 120 percent more than is consistent with capping warming at 1.5 degrees. Nevertheless, Exxon Mobil reports that its own plans—which, again, include massively increasing production—are perfectly consistent with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. As sustainability nonprofit Ceres’s Andrew Logan said of Exxon’s recently announced emissions reduction pledge, “Nothing suggests any change in strategy.… They are just optimizing the path they are already on.”
None of this is all that unique for fossil fuel companies, which, for years now, have been advocating for climate policies that will keep their profits flowing. But it’s a striking reminder of just how much cognitive dissonance the company is willing to pack into a report claiming to show its good intentions. And as a new administration prepares to take power, peppered with officials keen to include oil companies in policy discussions, it’s a good reason for skepticism.