Bulletins

Big Oil is spending big on climate spin

The biggest oil companies are pouring hundreds of millions into climate PR while, behind the scenes, doubling down on fossil fuel production.

An oil derrick in front of the setting sun.

Big Oil is spending hundreds of millions on climate PR.

Photo: Zbynek Burival/Unsplash

Surprise, surprise. Big Oil is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing and PR to promote a green image. A new report shows that image, though, is totally inconsistent with oil companies' actual climate-related actions.


The nonprofit InfluenceMap analyzed 3,421 pieces of public communications materials from BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon and Total and found that 60% of them contained at least one "green" claim, while only 23% promoted oil and gas. Examples of green claims include companies promoting efforts to transition their energy mix to include more renewables as well as emissions reductions. Some materials even falsely promoted fossil fuels as green energy, calling liquefied methane gas "low carbon."

Yet as companies have increasingly presented themselves as holders of solutions to the climate crisis, InfluenceMap's report published on Thursday shows their actions beg to differ.

Only 12% of the five companies' 2022 capital expenditures are forecast to be spent on actual low-carbon technology or no-carbon renewables. Additionally, none of these companies are on track to meet the International Energy Agency's Net Zero by 2050 target. In fact, nearly all of them are planning on increasing oil and gas production between 2021 and 2026. (BP is the outlier, and it's forecast to maintain similar levels of production.) A special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows oil and gas use need to fall 37% and 25%, respectively, in order to have a decent shot at limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A 2019 InfluenceMap analysis found that these five companies had invested over $1 billion in misleading climate-related branding. Its analysis found that Exxon and Chevron were both engaged in lobbying that was predominantly oppositional to the goals of the Paris Agreement. The five companies are members of trade associations, including the American Petroleum Institute and FuelsEurope, that have been vocally opposed to Paris Agreement-aligned climate policies.

Today's report shows that these companies are spending around $750 million annually on climate-focused communications, a number InfluenceMap based on the number of communications and PR staff the companies employ. The organization emphasized the estimates are conservative since they don't include external PR, marketing and advertising agencies, which Big Oil also relies on heavily.

The group graded the companies based on their messaging compared to, among other things, their actual investments and whether their policies align with the Paris Agreement. Of the five, Chevron received the lowest grade, a D-, with 49% of its public communications making green claims, while only 5% of its total spending is forecast to be directed toward green investments.

Meanwhile, all these companies are making a concerted effort to distance themselves from their bread and butter: fossil fuels. Only 23% of the communications analyzed by InfluenceMap included pro-oil and -gas claims. Examples include highlighting the benefits of oil and gas for the economy, energy independence and maintaining a high quality of life.

In fact, analyses of the companies' "About Us" pages revealed major rebranding efforts, with sparse references to the words "oil" and "gas" and a much greater reliance on the terms "energy" and "integrated energy."

"The research suggests a systematic misalignment between the companies’ business models and how these are being representing to the public, with the supermajors seemingly misrepresenting their primary business operations by overemphasizing energy transition technologies," report authors wrote.

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