Big oil companies are spending millions to appear ‘green.’ Their investments tell a different story, report shows
The think tank analyzed 3,421 items of public communications materials for 2021 across the five companies and found that 60% of their messaging contained at least one “green” claim.
InfluenceMap then calculated the amount of money the energy companies expected to spend on green investments last year and found on average just 12% of their capital expenditure budgets were going toward what the companies themselves consider low-carbon or renewable activities.
In some cases, those figures are on the rise. Shell, for example, says it plans to spend 12% of its capital expenses on renewable energy this year, up from 10% in 2021. And the company noted the InfluenceMap analysis does not account for investments outside of its Renewables and Energy Solutions division — investments such as electric vehicle charging, biofuels and sustainable aviation fuel, all of which climate scientists have said are important in the effort to wean off fossil fuel.
Still, InfluenceMap says the companies’ imbalance between “green” messaging and investment is striking.
It appears to be part of a “systematic campaign to portray themselves as pro-climate to the public,” InfluenceMap program manager Faye Holder told CNN. “In the meantime, what we see is continued investment into this unsustainable energy system — predominantly for fossil fuels.”
InfluenceMap also estimated the companies are spending around $750 million each year cumulatively on climate-related communication activities, based on the number of communications staff the companies employ. The think tank said in a statement that figure doesn’t include the cost of external advertising or PR agencies, so the true amount is likely “significantly higher.”
“It seems to be just an evolution in the tactics that Big Oil is using to try to delay action on climate change,” Holder said.
Overemphasis on green messaging
The five major oil companies are “misrepresenting their primary business operations” by “overemphasizing energy transition technologies” and green campaigns in their public relations, InfluenceMap said.
The report revealed several different types of “green” claims used by oil and gas companies in their 2021 public communications, the most popular of which was highlighting their support for the effort to transition away from fossil fuel and toward renewable energy. The second most popular type of claim was focused on support for emissions reductions.
Among the five companies, Shell had the biggest mismatch between pro-climate messaging and investments into “low carbon” activities, according to InfluenceMap, followed by ExxonMobil.
The analysis found that Shell used “green” claims in 70% of messaging, while only 10% of its spending is on low-carbon investments. Shell says it expects that figure to rise to 12% in 2022.
Meanwhile, Exxon had green claims in 65% of messaging, compared to 8% of spending on green investments. ExxonMobil told CNN it is “investing more than $15 billion between now and 2027 on lower-emission initiatives,” and the company expects its green investments to triple by 2025.
Lobbying reveals focus on fossil fuels
InfluenceMap also noted that these five companies continue to lobby policymakers to lock fossil fuels into climate policy.
The report noted that InfluenceMap “found evidence of each company, with the exception of TotalEnergies, engaging policymakers directly to advocate for policies encouraging the development of new oil and gas in 2021-22.”
“We urge all companies to re-examine their lobbying, political spending and participation in trade associations to ensure that their actions are fully aligned with their public statements on climate change,” said WRI in a 2021 statement.
“API member companies continue to make investments towards innovation, research, and best practices to further reduce GHG emissions and tackle the climate challenge,” API’s senior vice president of communications Megan Bloomgren told CNN in a statement.
In a statement to CNN, a Shell spokesperson said the company is “already investing billions of dollars in lower-carbon energy.”
“To help alter the mix of energy Shell sells, we need to grow these new businesses rapidly,” the spokesperson said. “That means letting our customers know through advertising or social media what lower-carbon solutions we offer now or are developing, so they can switch when the time is right for them.”
A spokesperson for Exxon told CNN the company is shooting for net-zero emissions in its operations by 2050, and noted that it achieved its 2025 emissions reduction goal four years early.
“ExxonMobil is investing more than $15 billion between now and 2027 on lower-emission initiatives, and we anticipate a tripling of investment by 2025,” the spokesperson said in an email. “This reflects our commitment to reducing our own emissions and confidence in the market adoption of lower-emission solutions, such as [carbon capture and storage], hydrogen, and biofuels.”
A TotalEnergies spokesperson said, “Our public announcements policy reflects the transformation of TotalEnergies in a multi-energy company.” TotalEnergies also noted that the report shows it has the largest forecast renewable energy capacity among the oil companies analyzed.
CNN also requested comment from BP and Chevron but did not receive a response.
“The world will still need oil and gas for many years to come,” the Shell spokesperson added. “Investment in them will ensure we can supply the energy people will still have to rely on, while lower-carbon alternatives are scaled up.”
Yet the UN Environment Programme has noted that current worldwide levels of oil and gas production would not meet climate ambitions under the Paris Agreement.
Soaring Energy Prices
The InfluenceMap report, which highlights companies’ relatively low levels of spending on green investments, comes as energy prices soar in Europe, while Big Oil continues to report high profits.
Exxon made nearly $17.9 billion in profit between April and June, almost four times what it earned during the same period in 2021. Chevron booked a profit of $11.6 billion, while Shell earned $11.5 billion.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the American Petroleum Institute.
CNN’s Anna Cooban and Julia Horowitz contributed to this report.