Big Oil pledged to fight climate change, but do their actions line up?

To prevent catastrophic global warming, international groups say there should be no new investment in fossil fuel projects. The world's biggest energy companies support those goals publicly, but their spending and lobbying suggest they have no plans to slow down oil and gas development. Ali Rogin explores new data showing a disconnect between what major industry players are saying and doing.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    To prevent catastrophic increases in global temperatures, international groups say there should be no new investment in fossil fuel projects. The world's biggest energy companies support those goals publicly. But their spending and lobbying suggests they have no plans of slowing down their oil and gas development. Correspondent Ali Rogin explores new data showing a disconnect between what major industry players are saying and what they're actually doing.

  • Ads:

    The roads to carbon neutral —

  • Ali Rogin:

    On TV, social media, and across the internet.

  • Ads:

    Our renewables business is part of the world's energy transition.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Ads for oil and gas companies promoting everything except oil and gas.

  • Ads:

    Keeping vehicles moving on the road to net zero.

    Investing in lower carbon technologies, and exploring renewable fuels of the future.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The Climate Action advocacy group Influence Map studied over 3000 ads and other public marketing materials from the top five oil and gas companies in 2021, 60% of those had at least one claim about how the companies were helping fight climate change. But only 12% of those companies spending this year is dedicated to those types of activities.

  • Faye Holder, Influence Map:

    This is how companies are pitching themselves to the public

  • Ali Rogin:

    Influence Map analyst, Faye Holder, wrote the report.

  • Faye Holder:

    There's this real mismatch between what the companies are suggesting they're doing and what they're actually doing. And if we brought that more in alignment, we would expect to see a lot more spend on genuinely low carbon alternatives.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And Influence Map says it estimates are conservative. They relied on company's financial disclosures which Holder says are not always transparent.

  • Faye Holder:

    It's really hard to figure out even with that 12% that we had in the report, how much of that is actually going towards things like renewables.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends substantial reduction in overall fossil fuel use to limit future global warming to less than two degrees Celsius. That's the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, which the United States rejoined last year. To achieve that, the global energy sector must stop new fossil fuel projects now, in order to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That's according to the International Energy Agency. It's a vision that companies embrace publicly.

    Ben Va Beurden, CEO of Shell: Becoming a net zero emissions energy business by 2050.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But contradict privately. Influenced Map's analysis found that four of the top five companies plan to increase oil and gas production over the next five years. And they've made that clear to lawmakers.

  • Gretchen Watkins, President, Shell USA:

    The government should continue to advance the approval and permitting of otherwise ready oil and gas projects.

  • Darren Woods, CEO, Exxon Mobil:

    In the near term, the answer is straightforward. If we want to reduce prices, we need to increase supply.

  • Ali Rogin:

    The need for more oil and gas reflects several realities, says Ryan Kellogg Professor at the University of Chicago who studies the economics of energy. First, renewable energy isn't as readily available as oil and gas.

    Ryan Kellogg, University of Chicago: The issue with sort of low emission energy or zero emission energy is trying to deliver both reliability and sort of low expense at the same time. It's that combination that's really difficult. And something we haven't really done yet as a society.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And energy companies have to answer to shareholders.

  • Ryan Kellogg:

    If I'm a fossil fuel company, I'm not going to invest in these technologies if I don't make money doing it, and that's certainly not what my shareholders are going to want me to do.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Those priorities are laid out in new internal documents from the energy companies released by Democrats on the House Oversight Committee. In a 2020 memo, Shell urged employees not to give the impression that Shell is willing to take actions that do not make business sense. It also asked employees not to imply that net zero emissions is a Shell goal or target. And that Shell has no immediate plans to move to net zero emissions in the next 10 to 20 years.

    A 2019 Exxon memo suggested avoiding language that would commit the industry to enhanced climate related governance. When asked for comment, a Shell spokesperson said the company has invested billions of dollars to transform its portfolio and accelerate a net zero future. And that by 2025, half of total expenditures will be on low and zero carbon products. The company also said the documents released by House Democrats are actually evidence of Shell's efforts to set aggressive targets evolve its portfolio and meaningfully participate in the ongoing energy transition.

    And Exxon Mobil spokesman criticized Influence Map's report, saying a selective study without context is a deliberate attempt to generate a narrative. But Influence Map isn't alone in its conclusions. At least four attorneys general have ongoing lawsuits against oil and gas companies, citing misleading claims about climate change.

  • Faye Holder:

    We've seen the regulation of advertising, famously be used to try curb the disinformation and propaganda coming out of the tobacco industry.

  • Ali Rogin:

    But those sorts of regulations take decades to put in place. And activist and international organizations say more needs to be done now to avert climate disaster.

    For PBS News Weekend, I'm Ali Rogin.

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