Misleading fossil fuel messaging strategies are hampering global efforts to address the climate emergency

Big oil’s green PR efforts far outweigh any of its ‘low-carbon’ investments: Study

Oil and gas companies continue to greenwash by spending millions on climate-positive messaging, while lobbying to lock in fossil fuels, says report

According to a detailed analysis of company disclosures and public messaging by climate think-tank InfluenceMap, big oil and gas companies are spending hundreds of millions on climate-positive messaging to draw a climate-supportive image, while they continue engaging with lobbying activities and investments to lock our future in fossil fuels.  

The report that focused on public communications in North America and Europe, analysed 3,421 individual evidence items of public communication from the five big oil companies during 2021, including company and CEO social media accounts, press releases, speeches, and secondary websites intended for outreach purposes. 

The report found that 60% of the public messages from BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies contain ‘green’ claims, while 23% promote oil and gas. Yet, these companies are forecast to spend a relatively small fraction (12% on average) of their capital expenditure (CAPEX) budgets on ‘low-carbon’ investments this year.

The above-mentioned five companies together spent at least $750 million on climate-related messaging (including both ‘green’ claims and pro-oil messaging) during 2021, the report conservatively estimated. The real figure, however, is likely to be significantly higher because the report did not include the cost of external advertising or PR agencies.

The report suggested that there is a “systematic misalignment” between the business models and lobbying activities of these oil supermajors when compared with their public relations strategies. It also highlighted how several of these companies are forecasted to expand oil and gas production through to 2026.

“The world’s big oil and gas companies are spending huge amounts of time and money talking up their ‘green’ credentials, while their business investments and lobbying activities tell a very different story. These companies talk about cutting emissions and transitioning the energy mix, but at the same time continue to invest heavily in new fossil fuel infrastructure. While this PR strategy might convince some people, it doesn’t change the fact that these companies are out-of-step with science-based pathways to net zero,” said InfluenceMap program manager Faye Holder.

The report showed how big oil’s ‘green’-focused public communications strategies contrast with its investment in ‘low-carbon’ activities. Some of these ‘low-carbon’ activities are likely to include fossil fuel investments, given both TotalEnergies and Shell include fossil gas-related investments in their ‘low-carbon’ CAPEX outlook, the report said. 

The research 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.

“Investors can already see there is a disconnect between companies’ climate pledges and their actions, most notably their capital expenditure towards decarbonisation. Investors want to see companies genuinely commit to and plan for the transition to net zero emissions—not more greenwash,” commented Laura Hillis, director of corporate engagement, Investor Group on Climate Change (IGCC), Australia.

Experts said misleading fossil fuel messaging strategies are hampering global efforts to address the climate emergency, and increasingly they are also posing a legal risk. They recommended stamping out greenwashing using every tool available—through the courts, through policymakers and through regulators. To combat such issues, cities and countries around the world have also started banning ads from fossil fuel companies in public spaces. 

The report concluded that “it is likely that the disparity in spending on fossil fuel-related investments as compared to zero-emission technologies is even greater” than publicly disclosed.

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