The Nordic Model: How Equinor is obscuring its fossil expansion

Ketan Joshi
LobbyWatch
Published in
10 min readJul 10, 2021

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The gullfaks field — “Interest in this acreage was very high, and it had been nicknamed the Golden Block before being awarded”

I’m confident that the fossil fuel industry is the only powerful industry in the world that has convinced nearly everybody of their own powerlessness.

They are not powerless. Companies that sell fossil fuels are very good at influencing demand for their product. They have marketing arms and they lobby and capture regulators such that any fossil fuel competitors, like electric cars, are stifled.

They have spent almost a half-century now aggressively stamping out efforts to rapidly shift society away from fossil fuels, including the deployment of the most deadly and consequential pseudoscientific misinformation campaign in the history of our species, in which the science proving their product is harmful was denied.

They are very good at influencing demand for their products.

Here’s a nice illustration of this principle: recently, Channel 4 news and Greenpeace’s Unearthed duped an ExxonMobil lobbyist into admitting that, well, yeah, they really did do a whole bunch of climate change denial:

“Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science? Absolutely not. Did we join some of these shadow groups to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true. But there’s nothing, there’s nothing illegal about that.

We were looking out for our investments. We were looking out for our shareholders.”

He also details how ExxonMobil impacts efforts to reduce fossil fuel demand by casting doubt on the capability of fossil fuel replacements to function:

“…you’re not going to be able to just switch to battery operated vehicles or wind for your electricity. And just having that conversation around why that’s not possible in the next 10 years is critically important to the work that we do”

‘Possible’ is the key word there: these companies control discourse what’s commonly accepted as feasible in the short term. They control ‘possible’.

Much of this comes down to a really simple calculus. They would very much like to continue doing what they’re doing. Ideally, expanding their activities, but they’ll settle for running in the same spot, or very slightly reducing it. They’ve kept this going for two decades by stamping with very big boots on any effort change demand for their product.

In 2021, that continues, but it isn’t enough. Now, the largest investor-exposed fossil fuel supplier companies need sell their actions as climate-aligned, to keep the firehose of fossil fuels gushing into human society. The companies leading these greenwashing efforts — European oil and gas companies — are vital subjects of scrutiny. Let’s scrutinise one that’s close to my home: Equinor.

Is Equinor leading a total transformation of the industry?

Recently, the Norwegian oil and gas company Equinor declared an update on its climate plans.

“Equinor has set a clear ambition to become a net zero energy company by 2050, including emissions from production and final consumption. Today, Equinor also sets interim ambitions, aiming to reduce net carbon intensity with 20% by 2030 and 40% by 2035”

Equinor is presenting itself as doing what is asked, here — that they are transforming from selling fossil fuels to selling zero-emissions energy.

Equinor is Norway’s partly state-owned oil company, and on the global scale of things, really isn’t one of the reviled ones. Exxon, Shell, Chevron et al tend to get plenty of attention, but Equinor simply does not seem to draw the same response, least of all here in Norway.

Part of the reason could be that Equinor is doing more than other large oil and gas companies to invest in the energy transition.

In the piece above, Bloomberg’s Nat Bullard details the fact that in Q1 2021, almost half of Equinor’s total revenue came from selling off several wind farm development projects.

Isn’t that what we’re demanding of fossil fuel companies? Sell something else, instead of fossil fuels? The offshore wind farm projects Equinor is offloading will generate notable amounts of clean energy, reducing demand for coal and gas power generation specifically, but also cleaning up grids so that when transport and buildings are electrified, the emissions from the electricity used are much lower.

Here’s the problem: they aren’t winding down their fossil fuel business at the same time. They rode through the COVID19 pandemic and have kept their fossil sales pretty steady:

They are continuing their fossil business essentially unchanged. It is worth noting that Equinor’s purported ‘renewable’ transformation does not come from them selling energy, but from selling in-development wind farm projects. “Equinor’s capital gains in renewables came from “farm downs,” i.e. the selling of assets at various stages of development to new owners”, wrote Bullard at Bloomberg.

So: what about the energy from renewables that Equinor sold? That data’s buried in their quarterly reports too.

The number of gigawatt hours of renewable energy here is nothing to sneeze at, when viewed on its own. But what happens when we compare it to the amount of oil and gas they’re selling?

I used a conversion factor of x4 so I could compare renewable output to oil and gas (which includes some energy that’s wasted when it’s burned, and therefore unusable). This over-estimates renewable output to be favourable to Equinor, but a range of conversion factors make no visible difference to this chart because renewable output is so relatively small. The boundary for OG production is equity, as this is all that’s made available in their quarterly reports. Operational boundaries, arguably more accurate in terms of their responsibility, would be higher.

I mean, yeah. We can sneeze at that. Of the total energy sold in the first quarter of 2021, 0.54% of it was zero carbon. That is far from a transformation.

0.54%. For the hundreds of tweets published by Equinor featuring pictures of wind farms, they sold around 88 times more gas and around 96 times more oil than the energy they sold from operating wind farms.

Equinor used to be known as ‘Statoil’. Why did they spend $33 million on the rebrand? Because they were transforming into a “broad energy company”. Three years later, we know that to be a shameless (and predicted) fiction.

Equinor admit as much. In the company’s 2020 Sustainability Report, they outline their share of energy production from renewables, for 2020 and what they’re planning in 2026:

“The increase to 4% of renewable energy share in 2026 is on top of an increase in the oil and gas portfolio of 3% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) in the period 2020–2026, which illustrates the relative importance of the future renewable share of production”

Yes, you read that right. Even as the company’s renewable output will increase, their oil and gas production will increase, too. While the share of renewables in their energy sales in 2020 is rounded down to a simple 0%.

A 3% annual growth rate means the amount of oil and gas Equinor sells goes from 1,106 millions of barrels of oil equivalent (mmboe) in 2020 to 1,321 mmboe in 2026. If renewable energy is 4% of that, it will have grown from roughly four mmboe in 2020 to 55 in 2026 (depending on the conversion factors Equinor uses).

Noting that much of this is illustrative because we can’t see the raw numbers underneath Equinor’s calculations, their energy sales will look, by my reckoning, something like this:

There’s a reason it takes so many back-of-the-envelope calculations to find out something that should be disclosed in its entirety by the company.

Tactically, percentages, proportions and relative values obscure two really important and simple facts:

  • In the next decade, Equinor plans to sell way more fossil fuels than they sell today
  • In the next decade, Equinor’s total zero carbon energy sales will remain a miniscule proportion of total energy sold

“Growing cash flow and returns going forward” really doesn’t sound quite as threatening as “we’re going to sell 20% more fossil fuels in 2026 as we sold in 2020”, does it? Total honesty would be a counter to creating the perception of a transformation, rather than actually transforming.

As a recent analysis by Climate Action 100+ showed, Equinor, despite having a net zero by 2050 plan, still ranking 7th worst in terms of how much future capital expenditure breaches a 1.75C climate scenario (85% of it)

Equinor are not interested in selling fewer fossil fuels. They’re planning to supply the raw materials for a dangerous future, and when you look past the shiny comms materials, they’re not even really trying to hide it.

The climate impacts of Equinor’s climate plan

Equinor is doing almost nothing on climate, at the moment.

This is reflected relatively clearly in the company’s greenhouse gas emissions. Scope 1 and 2 are from extracting and processing the fossil fuel products, and Scope 3 emissions are when their product is burned.

Okay — Statoil didn’t change, when it became Equinor.

But what about the future? We know they’re building a small sliver of renewables on top of their plan to grow their fossil business, but do they have any climate targets that might help push further ambition?

This may look familiar to you. Equinor’s climate targets are presented as “net carbon intensity” (NCI) targets. These aren’t targets to reduce emissions. They are targets to reduce emissions per unit of energy sold.

Fundamentally, a carbon intensity target provides plenty of wiggle room to either increase or flatline fossil fuel sales, as I wrote in my two posts about Shell’s climate plans. Shell calls it a ‘net carbon footprint’. But their roadmap to 2050 is pretty much the same as Equinor’s:

As I showed for Shell, these ‘intensity targets’ create a system through which these companies can claim they’re aligning to a net zero plan, while ensuring the continued growth of fossil fuels, at least in the next decade.

Equinor’s intensity targets were announced at their ‘Capital Markets Day’ in June 2021. They also announced a new renewable energy target — from 4–6 gigawatts in 2026 up to to 12–16 gigawatts in 2030. But as we saw above, that’s likely to be only a tiny proportion of total energy sold by Equinor in 2030.

Elsewhere, caveats abound. In their net carbon intensity method, they include a cop-out clause whereby they can blame any failure on their climate targets on society (again, just like Shell):

“The achievement of Equinor’s net zero and net carbon intensity ambitions depends, in part, on broader societal shifts in consumer demands and technological advancements, each of which are beyond Equinor’s control. Should society’s demands and technological innovation not shift in parallel with Equinor’s pursuit of significant greenhouse gas emission reductions, Equinor’s ability to meet its net zero and net carbon intensity ambitions will be impaired”

Equinor’s scope 1 and 2 emissions are in their climate targets, too — with a promise for the company to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030 — in absolute terms, not in ‘intensity’ terms. That’s good, right? But buried in the footnotes:

“Remaining emissions will be compensated through quota trading mechanisms and offsets”

Equinor’s carbon capture plans, like their renewable plans, are simultaneously relatively substantial compared to the other oil majors but barely-noticeable relative to their own emissions. They are leading a 1 kilometre sprint in which no one has moved more than a millimetre.

Their 2035 target for carbon capture, 15 to 30 megatonnes of CO2-e, is between 6% to 11% of their total 2020 emissions. Their progress on carbon capture to date — total amount captured is around 3% of the company’s total emissions, according to ClientEarth.

Without setting an absolute emissions reductions target, Equinor’s climate plans end up looking very much like Shell’s climate plans. The commitments to renewable energy are, at least, specific. But ultimately they don’t mean very much when the company plans to significantly increase its fossil fuels sales well into this decade.

In addition to avoiding any talk of absolute emissions reductions, Equinor reacted nervously and unhappily to a recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), which found that for the world to achieve net zero by 2050, new fossil fuel exploration needs to stop today.

In an interview with Norwegian media outlet Klassekampen, Equinor’s Chief Economist, Erik Wærness, was frank. “We will maintain profitable production for many decades to come”.

They don’t model a 1.5C scenario in their various scenarios — and as such, even their ‘best case’ vision of the future sees significantly more oil and gas demand well into the future, compared the IEA’s net zero report:

There is, in the view of Equinor’s analysts, a “wide outcome space for oil and gas demand”, with “large oil and gas investments in all scenarios”, and a special section showing that producing hydrogen using fossil fuels could play a major role in future energy systems.

This scenario-driven wish fulfilment is something Shell does, too. It ensures that visions of the future that are very specifically beneficial to fossil fuel producers place boundaries on futures that can be imagined.

For Shell, this greenwashing exercise was badly ruined by the finding of a Dutch court, which ruled that the company has to reduce its absolute emissions by a whopping 45%, by 2030. Shell simultaneously accepted the ruling, and promised to aggressively appeal it.

It comes back to a refusal for people at these companies to disengage from their core business. They dig up fossil fuels, and they sell them. Their energy is dedicated to that, and to little else.

As long-time campaigner Tzeporah Berman said recently:

“The majority of the world’s financial, political and intellectual capital at this moment in history is going to produce three products, oil, gas, and coal, which are responsible for 80% of the emissions trapped in our atmosphere.

Three products, which we can’t use to have a stable climate”

Equinor are not earnestly or actively trying to wind down their fossil business. They are growing it, even in the knowledge that rising fossil fuel extraction is a deadly curse. That is nothing to celebrate.

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Ketan Joshi
LobbyWatch

Anecdata analysis, research, writing, caffeine. Science, tech and data communications professional in Sydney.