Exxon’s new emissions targets are more smoke and mirrors
Earthworks campaigner Josh Eisenfeld discusses the company’s latest pledge.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Last week, oil giant ExxonMobil announced a new emissions reduction pledge — its latest attempt to placate growing calls to hold the company accountable for its immense contributions to the climate crisis.
The new targets are technically Exxon’s most ambitious to date — a comically low bar, if you take a closer look at the details.
Exxon is now aiming to reduce its 2016-level greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2030 — a goal that relies on “measuring the intensity of its emissions,” which could leave room for an overall increase in pollution if the company’s oil production increases.
The pledge also takes into account pollution from only its operations, otherwise known as Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which comprise an estimated 17% of Exxon’s total 2020 emissions. The other 83% — the Scope 3 emissions released when consumers use the industry’s fossil fuel products — are completely unaccounted for in Exxon’s announcement.
Once again, Exxon is shifting responsibility for addressing climate change to consumers — even as the company continues to lobby against alternatives to fossil fuels, greenwash their dangerous products, and refuse to significantly change their business model to respond to the crisis.
I spoke with Josh Eisenfeld, Corporate Accountability Communications Campaigner at the nonprofit Earthworks, for his take on Exxon’s latest greenwashing. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
EK: Exxon’s latest targets rely on emissions intensity metrics. Can you explain what that means?
JE: Reducing carbon emissions intensity doesn't mean reducing total carbon emissions. It means reducing the emissions associated with getting a barrel of oil to market. So things like leaking less of their product out or switching from diesel engines to pump oil out of the ground to solar powered engines. If they reduce that intensity metric while increasing their total production of oil and natural gas — which Exxon has indicated they plan to do — they will still increase their overall carbon footprint. We have seen other companies, like Chevron, do exactly that. Between 2016 and 2020 they reduced all of their intensity metrics and still drastically increased their overall carbon emissions because they increased their drilling and production.
Exxon is also promoting a heavy reliance on unproven technology like carbon capture and storage. This allows them to continue to produce fossil fuels under the guise of “we’ll be able to take the carbon out of the atmosphere, so you don’t have to worry.” It’s 100% designed to make the company look good while continuing their bad behavior.
Exxon has known about climate change for half a century. I think this is just more of the same. They denied climate change. Now they’re delaying climate action, and this is just another example of that.
How has Exxon performed on previous pledges?
The data that we’re going off of is the data they’re providing us. There’s no watchdog checking to make sure that their numbers are correct. There is no standardized reporting in the United States. Until we open up the data to be more transparent, there’s no way for any person to know for sure whether they’re hitting these goals.
The numbers they do account for, like methane numbers, are extremely underreported. What they say is coming out of their oil and gas wells is far, far lower than what is actually coming out based on satellite imagery and scientific studies. When you factor that in too, it’s really hard to know whether any company has hit their mark.
What’s the difference between a pledge and a commitment?
All of these terms mean whatever the industry says they want it to mean. There’s nothing that binds them by law to define or deliver on their promises. It’s one reason a lot of NGOs and activists are pushing on the FTC to create reporting protocols. History shows us that when there is obscurity in rules, companies take advantage of that. That's what’s happening right now.
These pledges come about a month after ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods faced questions before Congress about the company’s efforts to spread climate disinformation. Exxon also faces lawsuits from communities across the country seeking to hold it accountable for those lies.
What do you say to the idea that this pledge demonstrates that the company is at least taking steps in the right direction?
History tells us that the words that come out of the mouth of the CEO of ExxonMobil are not gonna be the truth. They come with an asterisk: these words are designed to increase Exxon’s profits, and that’s it. What they do is all that should matter. It is good that communities are stepping in and fighting back, but ultimately I don't think it’s reasonable to expect a company like ExxonMobil to just fold over and succumb to that pressure. It’s going to take a reigning in of the industry as a whole by government, geopolitical forces, and investors pulling their money out.
These pledges are doing a lot of things for the industry, and that’s why they continue to put them out. They’re fighting a battle for their social license to operate, and they’ve been losing ground. These pledges are a way to remedy that — for their consumers, for politicians who have to answer to their constituencies when they hand out more tax breaks to fossil fuel companies, and for investors who have to justify their complicity in this. It gives them the disguise of change without any pressure to actually act on that change. As we’ve seen, even the investor pressure applied from Engine No. 1 hasn’t really amounted to any real change in Exxon.
This is the first pledge that’s come out since activist hedge fund Engine No. 1 members, who intended to push Exxon to significantly reduce its emissions, were elected. Why hasn’t there been more change?
Two reasons: they only got three board members, and that’s not a majority. These three are gonna come in with an image that others are probably not going to be too warm to in the boardroom. They’re going to have a tough time explaining why doing the right thing is doing the right thing financially. The idea of being able to change a company from within has good intentions, but I don’t see it playing out in a way under the given rules that actually makes change happen fast enough.