‘All Rhetoric and No Action’: Oil Giants Spent $1 Billion on Climate Lobbying and Ads Since Paris Pact, Says Report

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climate policy grades for five major oil companies

A new report by a British think tank estimates that since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the world’s five largest listed oil and gas companies spent more than $1 billion lobbying to prevent climate change regulations while also running public relations campaigns aimed at maintaining public support for climate action.

Combined, the companies spend roughly $200 million a year pushing to delay or alter climate and energy rules, particularly in the U.S. — while spending $195 million a year “on branding campaigns that suggest they support an ambitious climate agenda,” according to InfluenceMap, a UK-based non-profit that researches how corporations influence climate policy.

InfluenceMap cites as an example ExxonMobil’s heavily-touted algae-biofuels research, which the oil giant says “offers some of the greatest promise for next-generation biofuels” with significant climate benefits and has made it the focus of its “The Tiny Organism” ad campaign.

InfluenceMap notes that “detailed disclosures from the company show its goal of 10,000 barrels of bio-fuel a day would equate to only 0.2 percent of its current refinery capacity.”

Oil majors are projecting themselves as key players in the energy transition while lobbying to delay, weaken, or oppose meaningful climate policy,” Edward Collins, author of the new report, said in a statement. “They advocate gradual implementation of market-based and technological climate solutions, but the latest [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report makes clear that urgent policy action and limitations on fossil fuel use are needed to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Today’s report updates the group’s 2016 report that estimated these companies spent $115 million a year lobbying against climate regulations — even policies companies said they supported.

Say one thing,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, as he described InfluenceMap’s 2016 research on the floor of the U.S. Senate, “do another.”

The new estimates suggest that spending to influence climate policy by the five oil giants has increased sharply over the last two years.

It also comes as global banks are investing more in fossil fuel projects since the Paris Agreement. In addition, the five oil companies are spending heavily on finding and producing more fossil fuels — and putting only a tiny fraction of their budgets into efforts to transition away from climate-altering fuels.

This spending accompanies the expansion of the companies’ operations with combined annual sales of over $1 [trillion] and profits of $55 [billion in] 2018, the vast majority of which is oil and gas related,” InfluenceMap wrote. “Combined capital investment will increase to $115 [billion] in 2019 but only about 3 percent of this will go to low carbon investments, according to company disclosures.”

Lobbying One Message While Advertising Another

The report focuses on the world’s five largest listed oil and gas companies, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, and Chevron, leaving out state-controlled oil giants like Saudi Aramco and China’s Sinopec.

InfluenceMap examined the extent to which each company’s branding efforts and advertising campaigns focused on climate change.

Shell's branded content about its emissions scenario in The New York Times
Shell's branded content about its “Sky” emissions scenario in The New York Times.

The research suggests that Total maintains the highest proportion of its branding activities on climate (29 percent),” the new report finds. “Following this, ExxonMobil, which has faced significant negative media attention in 2018, allocates 19 percent. Shell and BP followed with 16 percent and 14 percent respectively. Chevron appears far less concerned, using approximately 2 percent of its branding budget on climate issues in 2018.”

The think tank's research also looked at what the companies were saying to government regulators, either directly or through industry groups funded by the oil majors.

Since Paris, Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil have led in opposition to a range of climate-motivated policy stands,” InfluenceMap wrote. “For example, in 2018 both BP and Chevron have directly lobbied U.S. policymakers for a rollback on U.S. methane requirements.” (Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and the major constituent in natural gas.)

The report credits Shell and Total for becoming “more positive on a number of climate policy issues” since 2015, but adds that they “continue to support policies that will extend the role for fossil fuels in the energy mix and remain part of highly climate-oppositional trade associations.”

Mixed Messages and Industry Trade Groups

At times, the public stances of a corporation’s leadership stand starkly at odds with the messages from industry groups funded by that same corporation.

For example, on electric vehicles, Shell’s CEO Ben Van Beurden had a very direct and simple message in July 2018. “We need battery electric vehicles,” he said. And a year earlier, at the oil industry conference, CERAWeek, in 2017, he expressed support for “regulations that speed up investment in low carbon technologies and ― at the same time ― move consumer demand.”


Oil and gas lobbying on climate policies through trade associations. Credit: InfluenceMap, 2019

In May 2018, the American Petroleum Institute, the largest U.S. trade group for oil and gas, pushed the U.S. Congress to move in the opposite direction by rolling back incentives for electric vehicles.

American Petroleum Institute (API) opposes mandates and subsidies,” API testified before the U.S. House of Representatives, according to InfluenceMap’s new report. The fossil fuel trade group voiced its opposition for subsidies for electric vehicles, adding that “the level of market penetration achieved by electric vehicles should not rely on government interference.”

The report also notes the difficulty in tracking corporate lobbying in the U.S. given the rise of so-called “dark money” groups and the lack of transparency surrounding political contributions in the U.S. “Political contributions that were made without full disclosure of their ultimate source totaled $539 [million] in the 2018 election cycle according to OpenSecrets.org,” the report says.

Social Influencers

InfluenceMap also dives deep into how companies used social media to influence Americans during the mid-term elections last year.

During this time ExxonMobil was by far the most prolific spender, racking up over $400K in four weeks on over 360 individual political ads,” InfluenceMap wrote. “The ads urge rejecting specific ballot initiatives whilst promoting the benefits of increased fossil fuel production. Facebook’s data indicates that ExxonMobil’s ads made over 10 million ‘impressions’ in this time with users in Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana.”


Oil industry spending on Facebook and Instagram ads leading up to the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Credit: InfluenceMap, 2019

All of this spending has implications for shareholders, InfluenceMap observed — and some shareholder groups appear to be listening.

InfluenceMap’s research confirms a widely held suspicion that Big Oil’s glossy sustainability reports and shiny climate statements are all rhetoric and no action,” Catherine Howarth, Chief Executive of ShareAction, a UK charity focused on responsible investment, said in a statement accompanying the report. “These companies have mastered the art of corporate doublespeak — by boasting about their climate credentials while quietly using their lobbying firepower to sabotage the implementation of sensible climate policy and pouring millions into groups that engage in dirty lobbying on their behalf.”

DeSmog has reached out to ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Total, and Chevron for comment.

We firmly reject the premise of this report. We are very clear about our support for the Paris agreement, and the steps that we are taking to help meet society’s needs for more and cleaner energy,” Shell said in a statement provided to The Guardian. “We make no apology for talking to policymakers and regulators around the world to make our voice heard on crucial topics such as climate change and how to address it.”

We have not been afforded the opportunity to review the data but we disagree with the assertion that Chevron has engaged in ‘climate-related branding and lobbying’ that is ‘overwhelmingly in conflict’ with the Paris Agreement,” Chevron said in a statement provided to DeSmog, adding that the company was taking “prudent, cost-effective actions” and seeking “balanced and transparent” policies to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. “We believe climate change is real and human activity contributes to it. We accept the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

Updated: This article has been updated on March 22, 2019 to reflect a statement from Chevron.

Main image: Climate policy grades, on a scale of A (highly supportive) through F (highly oppositional) for oil companies from InfluenceMap. Credit: InfluenceMap, 2019

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