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Exxon deep dive part 2: Their product is the problem

In part 1 of this piece, I explored how the American oil and gas giant Exxon Mobil has, after decades of outright hostility, begrudgingly started clenching their teeth and pretending to care about climate.

Much of that is being realised by focusing solely on the process of producing their products, oil and gas. But the vast majority of the impact of their emissions comes from the use of their products — when they’re burned as part of their normal use. This isn’t an accident or a design flaw. It is the inalterable chemistry of their business model.

The act of supplying a harmful product to the world is part of the reason that harm occurs. This is true whether you’re a country suppling shiploads of crude oil or whether you’re a drug dealer on a street corner. The emissions associated with the use of the thing Exxon sells are commonly referred to as ‘scope 3’ emissions.

As Bloomberg’s David Fickling and Elaine He wrote in October last year, it’s not that hard to sketch an estimation of the climate damage done by fossil products. However, the companies themselves have mostly refused to disclose their own estimations of these figures. Part of the problem lies in the fact that global climate agreements account for emissions on the basis of who burns them, not who brought them from the ground into our hands.

Of course, it doesn’t matter who does the spreadsheets and to which cells the Excel formulas point. What matters is who holds the keys to the core of the climate problem. Inarguably, it is those most enriched by the problem, and those acting most aggressively to delay its resolution. It is the fossil fuel companies, and understanding the chain of events they spark through their business is the heart of the focus on the emissions impact of their product.

The harm Exxon enables by supply fossil fuels

Fickling and He estimated in their Bloomberg piece that Exxon’s scope 3 emissions were around 528 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent each year; roughly the same as Australia’s entire domestic emissions.

After a long and torturous fight with shareholders, Exxon finally agreed to release its scope 3 emissions — begrudgingly, and packed with caveats about not being able to control what its customers do with its product. This came out a few weeks ago, in their 2021 ‘Energy and Carbon’ report.

With regards to the emissions from producing its products, the figure reported by Exxon for 2019 ended up at 570MTCO₂-e. In fact, this ends up at 730 if you include both the refining and sales of oil and gas that it wasn’t directly responsible for extracting. We should really include this, but let’s err on the side of generosity and go with the number relating to the fossil fuels extracted by the company.

It’s important to get a sense of scale of this number. We can, for instance, compare them not only to Australia but every country with lower domestic emissions:

To formulate it another way, Exxon’s 2019 emissions are responsible for the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the entire country of Sri Lanka from 1995 to 2017. It’s big.

Where the burden lies

Part of the reason fossil fuel companies struggle so intensely with the entire underlying concept of ‘scope 3’ emissions is that they’ve put most of their effort over the past few decades ensuring that whatever happens after their product changes is the moral responsibility of whoever’s hands have taken hold of it.

UK fossil fuel company BP popularised this with its push to yell at consumers for their ‘carbon footprint’ in the 90s.

That was a long time ago, but it has well and truly stuck. The most recent purveyor of the concept was Dutch fossil fuel company Shell, who wisely posted this, on Twitter:

Some of the best responses are unpublishable, but please have a poke around in the replies. Essentially, most people aggressively disagree with the moral calculus happening here. Exxon, in disclosing their Scope 3 emissions, reproachfully re-plead this:

“Ultimately, changes in society’s energy use coupled with the development and deployment of affordable lower-emission technologies will be required to drive meaningful Scope 3 emissions reductions”

Of course, it’s precisely those societal changes that Exxon really puts its back into opposing. Reducing the demand for oil by electrifying transport, for instance, is something leaked documents revealed they’ve lobbied hard against for quite some time. Ditto for any threat to the power plants that burn the fossil gas it sells.

That they’re operating on pure self-interest but trying to feign outward-facing generosity through climate concern becomes its clearest when you notice the whiplash-inducing contradictions.

Exxon says, in their ‘Energy and Carbon’ report, “increased natural gas sales by ExxonMobil that reduce the amount of coal burned for power generation would result in an overall reduction of global emissions but would increase Scope 3 emissions reported by the Company”, arguing against the use of Scope 3 emissions as a meaningful metric.

It’s ludicrous on two levels. First, because they already make this argument sincerely, when defending their actions to sell fossil gas. Second, because we don’t measure emissions by hypotheticals; we measure them by, well, emissions. Globally, the burning of gas is well on its way to becoming the top source of CO2 emissions:

Disclose the future instead of empty promises

There’s little doubt that companies like ExxonMobil have detailed internal forecasts of their fossil fuel production and sales, going well into the future. That would necessarily include estimates of all emissions — from the fossil fuels they extract, to the total emissions from the products they sell.

These companies need to begin disclosing this as soon as possible. Whether they intend to contract or expand their business of supplying the root cause of climate change is, of course, extremely relevant to the safety and health of our entire species. This isn’t a small issue.

Unfortunately, most companies, even the ones doing better than the worst, are leaning into marketing and distraction. The idea is, roughly, to argue that because a fossil fuel product was made using less polluting tactics than competitors, that makes the product acceptable.

Hence, the rise of “carbon neutral” or “clean” fossil fuel products. These are either produced using zero emissions energy (like wind and solar), or the emissions from production (or even use) are offset using a range of highly suspect schemes. Exxon also just announced a new venture called “ExxonMobil Low carbon Solutions”, pledging to spend a whopping 5% of their budget from 2021 to 2025 on existing carbon capture projects, some of which are in doubt and on hold.

Should we judge them on their performance so far? Here’s Exxon carbon captured, relative to their emissions, for the past decade:

In 2019, ExxonMobil captured 6.8 megatonnes of CO2-e. In that year alone, they released 690 MTCO2-e. Over the lifetime of their business, they have released 52,817 MTCO2-e (that’s 394 times the cumulative ~134 MTCO2-e captured to date). So you understand what we mean when say that their carbon capture aspirations are purely marketing.

Exxon may be among the worst of the lot, but it’s a bad pack, and there’s going to be a lot to expose and criticise as faux-climate-action become the norm among the world’s big polluters.

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