New report accuses fossil fuel companies of greenwashing, but profits are up 

A new report by the Senate Committee on the Budget details how fossil fuel companies have avoided tackling the climate crisis. Isaac Hanson reports.  

Aerial view of Shell Pernis in Rotterdam, 2023. Credit: Aerovista Luchtfotografie/Shutterstock

Last month, US Democrats released a report three years in the making detailing the ways that large fossil fuel producers including Shell, BP and Exxon have sought to avoid responsibility for the climate crisis. 

The 65 page-long report, jointly authored by the Democrats House Committee On Oversight And Accountability and the Senate Committee on the Budget, contains files subpoenaed from big oil companies that “demonstrate for the first time that fossil fuel companies internally do not dispute that they have understood since at least the 1960s that burning fossil fuels causes climate change and then worked for decades to undermine public understanding of this fact and to deny the underlying science”. 

Previous documentation has shown that companies including Exxon knew about human-made climate change since at least 1981, and files released earlier this year suggest it may have been known since the 1950s. The importance of this report lies in proving that fossil fuel companies not only knew, but privately believed the science despite public rejection. 

The files also show the tactics used by major fossil companies to discredit climate activism, the report says, among them “pivot[ing] from outright climate denial to a new strategy of deception. Instead of misrepresenting the science and the consequences of climate change, they pivoted to misrepresenting their business plans, their investments in low carbon technologies, the alleged safety of natural gas, and their support for various climate policies and emission reduction targets”. 

Net zero? 

Most major oil companies have made net zero pledges based on the Paris Agreement goal of net zero by 2050, but the report claims they are unlikely to be met. BP, for instance pledged to reach net zero on oil and gas by 2050, but is at the same time ramping up oil production. 

The New York Times reported earlier this year that BP’s interim CEO Murray Auchincloss was clear that it would pursue an increase in fossil fuel production to meet demand, and internal documents gathered by the committees show that it was unwilling to publicly state a commitment to net zero in 2019. 

In an internal email thread discussing a press request for comment, an official said “it goes a bit too far to state or imply support for net zero by 2050, because that would require policy likely to put some existing assets at risk, and we haven’t discussed that internally”. 

This lack of action is further highlighted in a report released by thinktank Carbon Tracker in March, which suggests that companies including Shell and BP are far from hitting Paris Agreement goals. 

Will it matter? 

In a statement to Energy Monitor, a Shell spokesperson disputed the conclusions drawn by the report, saying: “Of the nearly half-million pages provided to the Committee, the small handful they chose to highlight are evidence of Shell’s efforts to set realistic targets, high grade its portfolio and meaningfully participate in the energy transition. 

“Within that pursuit are challenging internal and external discussions that signal Shell’s intent to form partnerships and share pathways we deem critical to delivering more value with less emissions. Shell’s decisive leadership in pursuit of Paris goals is well documented the unveiling of internal, piecemeal documents do not suggest otherwise.” 

BP and ExxonMobil did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Whether or not fossil companies’ responses convince activists and politicians may not matter much to them economically, however. Shell released its Q1 2024 earnings last week (2 May), hitting adjusted earnings of $7.7bn, beating predictions by over $1bn. In conjunction, it announced a share buyback programme to the tune of $3.5bn, suggesting faith in its long-term prospects. 

ExxonMobil’s earnings, also announced last week, were 28% lower than in 2023, but still very healthy at $8.22bn. The company is also continuing to expand its oil and gas production capabilities through new fields including the Whiptail project in Guyana