Climate Change

Big Oil’s climate PR strategy is greenwashing, study finds

Big Oil companies with greenwashing PR represent as environmentally responsible

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker from Flickr

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September 10, 2022

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Published:

September 10, 2022

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The new Influence Map report shows that the five largest oil companies continue to disseminate disinformation to present themselves to the public as environmentally responsible companies, while at the same time lobbying the decision maker for fossil fuels continuously. The report reveals a systematic mismatch between “green” public communication and lobbying activities.

The Influence Map report reveals that the so-called Big Oil companies (BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and TotalEnergies) are spreading disinformation to present an environmentally responsible public image, while continuously lobbying governments and decision-makers to ensure that countries remain locked on fossil fuels for decades to come.

Big Oil continues to invest in oil and gas

The study shows that Big Oil companies spend hundreds of millions on climate-responsive messages to create a positive image in climate campaigns. However, companies continue to invest in oil and gas.

CAPEX in fossil investments

The latest climate think tank report compares and juxtaposes public communication, business operations, and the political engagement of the five largest oil companies.

The report analyses 3,421 items of public communications materials of Big Oil in 2021 and compares them with their capital expenditure (CAPEX) forecasts for this year.

The report reveals that 60% of the PR materials of five companies during 2021 contained at least one green claim, while 23% of claims promote oil and gas.

However, it is projected that only 12% of the CAPEX of these five companies in 2022 will be invested in low-carbon activities.

PR for green promotions

The analysis included orders from the company and the CEO on social media, press releases, speeches, and secondary websites intended for information purposes.

Allegations highlighting companies’ support or participation in energy mix transition efforts were by far the most popular type of green claims.

However, there were significant differences between the five companies. About 70% of Shell’s messages contain at least one “green” claim, while Chevron had 49% of “green” claims .

An in-depth analysis shows that three European companies, Shell, BP, and TotalEnergies, focused more on energy transition claims than their US competitors.

In most of its public messages, ExxonMobil had a reduction in emissions, as the company’s strategy is to present itself as a low-emission oil and gas producer, the report noted.

The impression is that Chevron is less concerned about promoting its climate credentials than the other four companies. The company used 37% pro-oil and gas messages, more than any of its competitors.

Shell, followed by ExxonMobil, had the greatest divergence between green claims and low-carbon CAPEX.

Using cost estimates, Influence Map’s analysis concludes that companies spend about USD 750 million each year on public communications services related to climate activities.

Contrary to Paris Agreement

The forecasted oil production by Big oil companies is not in line with the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) zero-emission plans for 2050, according to the analysis, while several of these companies plan to expand oil and gas production through to 2026.

Also, none of the oil majors lobbied for strengthening regulations for stricter methane emissions, despite the importance of methane mitigation “being a key claim” in the fossil fuel industry.

Influence Map found that none of the companies have aligned their climate policy engagement
activities with the goals of the Paris Agreement. On contrary, Big Oil companies have retained membership in a dense network of industry groups that are actively engaged in blocking or watering down climate policy.

Most companies in the large oil quintuple are members of Australian and Canadian oil producers’ associations, FuelsEurope, and the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers.

All companies, except TotalEnergies, are members of the American Petroleum Institute (API), which according to the ranking conducted by Influence Map is one of the most strategically opposed industry groups at the global level on climate policy issues.

Lobbying is completely different story

The world’s big oil and gas companies spend huge amounts of time and money talking about their “green” credentials, while their business investments and lobbying activities tell a completely different story, says Faye Holder, programme manager at Influence Map.

These companies talk about reducing emissions and transitioning the energy mix, but at the same time they continue to invest in new fossil fuel infrastructure, she added.

PR strategy can sound convincing, but it doesn’t change the fact that companies are out-of-step with pathways to net-zero

Such a PR strategy may sound convincing, but it does not change the fact that companies are out-of-step with scientifically based pathways to zero-carbon emissions, Holder said.

The findings of this research raise serious and persistent questions for regulators and shareholders of companies, as well as for PR and advertising agencies, media, and social media platforms working with companies, the authors conclude.

Oil companies are trying to present an overly positive self-image as leaders of the green energy transition, while researchers expect litigation against climate-related greenwashing to accelerate in the future, Influence Map said.

The analysis focuses on the main channels of corporate communication of companies and their North American and European communications. Future research will focus on how the companies communicate in the global South, analysts noted.

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