Exxon crashes COP28 to “fight for its life”
ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods is on a mission to defend fossil fuels and deny science during his debut at the UN climate conference.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead.
Will COP28 be a climate denial superspreader event, or the death knell for Big Oil? The fossil fuel industry is doing all it can to ensure the former and prevent the latter. At least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to the conference — nearly four times more than any previous year. COP President and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) CEO Sultan Al Jaber proclaimed that there is “no science” to back up the need to phase out fossil fuels in order to keep warming within the 1.5 degree threshold, accused his interviewer (Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland) of lying about ADNOC’s increasing investments in oil, and insisted that ending fossil fuels would “take the world back into caves.” He then launched yet another “net zero” emissions commitment, joined by about 50 major oil companies, which the UN secretary-general swiftly condemned as greenwashing.
All in all, it’s shaping up to be the worst takeover of COP by fossil fuel interests yet, with oil and gas representatives boring like hungry termites into policy discussions concerning their companies’ profits — just the kind of thing ExxonMobil wouldn’t miss for the world.
A debut of desperation
This year is Exxon’s CEO Darren Woods’ first at COP, and he has been on quite the press tour. Woods’ mission is like those of other major oil company representatives at the conference: to defend the continued expansion of fossil fuel production against the irrefutable scientific consensus calling for its end.
“This is a desperate attempt to prolong his company’s destructive, fossil fuel-dependent business model,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director for the Climate & Energy Team at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The unprecedented nature of an Exxon CEO’s appearance at a U.N. climate talk seems consistent with the unprecedented nature of this year’s talks themselves,” said Geoffrey Supran, a Professor of Environmental Science & Policy at University of Miami and researcher of Exxon’s disinformation campaigns.
This particular COP is a “potential watershed moment, where Big Oil’s products finally become the target of international climate policy. That’s got to have oil executives up at night,” he said.
In conversations with multiple major media outlets, the oil executive said that policymakers were focusing too much on reducing fossil fuels and not enough on their emissions.
The talks in Dubai have “put way too much emphasis on getting rid of fossil fuels, oil and gas, and not . . . on dealing with the emissions associated with them,” Woods told the Financial Times in one interview.
“I actually think that part of the thing that has slowed us down is this focus on making a step change and getting out of our existing energy system and starting something brand new,” he told CNBC in another. “I think what society ought to focus on is the true problem here, which is emissions.”
Woods’ approach “appears to be an attempt to delay the urgent phase out of fossil fuels,” said William J. Ripple, a Distinguished Professor of Ecology at the University of Oregon and Director of the Alliance of World Scientists. Ripple was lead author on a report signed by more than 15,000 scientists last month that concluded that “the significance of immediately curbing fossil fuel use and preventing every further 0.1°C increase in future global heating cannot be overstated.”
International scientific bodies agree. “The uncomfortable truth that the industry needs to come to terms with is that successful clean energy transitions require much lower demand for oil and gas, which means scaling back oil and gas operations over time – not expanding them,” International Energy Agency executive director Fatih Birol wrote in the foreword to a report the agency published just before COP.
As has been its pattern for decades, Exxon is well aware of the science demanding the phase-out of its products — it’s just doing everything in its power to stop that science from leading to action, critics say.
“This is what they do: confuse and corrupt, deny and delay,” said Supran.
Confuse and corrupt, deny and delay
“The idea of taking advice on climate action from an oil boss is like inviting an unrepentant con artist to lead a fraud protection bureau,” said Mulvey, of UCS.
Woods, who just sealed a $60 billion deal to acquire Pioneer Natural Resources and produce more oil — a merger that is now being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission — has no plans to transition away from fossil fuels. Exxon was one of the 50 oil companies to sign on to Sultan Al Jaber’s voluntary emissions reduction pledge, called the “Oil and Gas Decarbonisation Charter,” which critics say rehashes old commitments and would do nothing to curb fossil fuel production. A letter from more than 300 advocacy groups called the pledge a “smokescreen to hide the reality that we need to phase out oil, gas and coal.”
“Oil and gas companies are under pressure, desperately trying to preserve their social license through recycled pledges,” said David Tong, Global Industry Campaign Manager at Oil Change International, which last year published a report finding that Exxon’s climate commitments are “grossly insufficient” to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Woods and his fellow oil company representatives are also using COP to push for unproven technologies that will prolong the lifespan of climate-wrecking fossil fuels. In an interview with Bloomberg at COP, Woods said the energy transition would require an assortment of “solutions” — including hydrogen and carbon capture — and “we need big companies to help with that.”
Woods rejected the IEA’s recent assessment of carbon capture as an “illusion,” telling Reuters that “you could say that about electric vehicles, about wind, about solar.” But according to the IEA, “The key actions required to bend the emissions curve sharply downwards by 2030 are well understood, most often cost effective and are taking place at an accelerating rate. The scaling up of clean energy is the main factor behind a decline of fossil fuel demand of over 25% this decade.”
“It’s no surprise that Exxon is pushing for the continued use of fossil fuels,” said Jessica Green, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. “Exxon is in a fight for its life. Real progress on climate change isn’t about more carbon markets or net zero pledges, it’s about putting the oil and gas industry out of business.”
A larger strategy
Woods’ deflections at COP are part of a larger strategy of “corporate issues management,” said Supran, which “the fossil fuel industry has been pioneering for decades.”
“It means having your fingers in all the pies, anticipating future threats to your business and neutralizing them through decades of 360-degree public affairs strategies,” he said.
Exxon has been working to shift the narrative outside of COP, too. “On November 30, the first day of COP 28, The New York Times included a full-page greenwashing ad from ExxonMobil,” Brad Johnson documented in Hill Heat on Monday. “Reuters coverage of Al Gore’s criticism of ExxonMobil’s presence at COP 28 was smothered by greenwashing ads from ExxonMobil. The Punchbowl News political newsletter today is Presented by ExxonMobil.” Yesterday’s Power Switch newsletter from Politico was Presented by ExxonMobil, too.
While the oil giant’s greenwashing may have ramped up around COP, it’s also a years-long affair — aided in large part by many of the same media outlets interviewing Woods at the conference. A major analysis of Big Oil’s advertising between October 2020 and October 2023 found that “many of the world’s most trusted English-language news publications help fossil fuel companies mislead readers about topics like the promise of carbon capture, the potential of ‘renewable biogas,’ and how much the industry contributes to the energy transition,” according to Amy Westervelt and Matthew Green. The analysis, published by Drilled and DeSmog this week, found that Bloomberg Media Studios last year created a video for Exxon promoting carbon capture and hydrogen; Politico organized 37 e-mail campaigns for Exxon; and Exxon sponsored more than 100 editions of Washington Post newsletters in 2022 alone, as just a few examples.
Ultimately, it’s up to the media, policymakers, and other major institutions to determine whether the oil companies still responsible for fueling climate catastrophe are allowed to have a platform to stand on — or whether, like Big Tobacco, their time to influence the debate about their products’ harm is finally up.
ICYMI: If you want to learn more about the language being used by oil companies at COP this year, here’s a helpful guide from NPR.
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