The new greenwashing

Faced with planetary catastrophe, Big Oil has applied boundless creativity, not to solving the climate crisis but to deflecting action. Nick Dowson dissects the corporate spin.

Credit: Andy K

The mission: Keep pumping, fill your pockets

What’s missing from our efforts against climate change? The global bureaucracies of corporate climate inaction have a new idea: ‘Blue Carbon’, or more specifically, as the bods at the International Monetary Fund put it: a ‘financial facility’ to ‘subsidize… whales’ CO2 sequestration efforts’.

In other words: pay whale killers to desist, so our ocean-dwelling cousins can store more carbon in their bodies. The IMF report’s authors estimate the value of allowing whales to return to pre-whaling numbers, ‘capturing 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually’, at around $13 per person per year.

Other ‘ecosystem services’ from the marine world could bring yet more benefits, it is argued. An Ocean-Based Climate Solutions bill has already been introduced to the US Congress. Using elephants to sequester carbon has also been proposed. Meanwhile Big Oil continues to ramp up production.

Netting zeroes

Trick 1: Distract, delay, obfuscate

Where do whales and elephants fit into climate inaction? Let’s back up a bit.

How bad the climate crisis gets is largely dependent on how much fossil carbon is spewed into the atmosphere.

But policymaking has focused on setting targets for a generation away – for 2050 or beyond. Fossil fuels didn’t even get an official mention in the first 26 years of UN climate summits. So, it’s no surprise that rather than ‘fossil freedom’ today’s buzzword is ‘net zero’ - the idea of balancing of the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted with the amount removed from the atmosphere.

It’s a much fuzzier concept that allows for a variety of accountancy tricks and loopholes. And it’s currently being pushed by the oil and gas industry as, after decades of denial, they seek to deflect renewed focus on the changing climate.

The key fallacy here is assuming climate change can be prevented by choosing between different forms of environmental degradation: companies can continue pumping out CO2 so long as they pay to prevent deforestation, for example.

However, returning the planet to equilibrium means both stopping producing GHGs from fossil sources and repairing ecosystems (not merely preventing harm). Then, assuming catastrophic feedback loops haven’t already kicked in, we will also need to find ways of tackling the carbon hangover – pulling excess GHGs out of the air.

Paying to pollute

Trick 2: Sell false solutions

A rational response would require separate targets for all three – reducing emissions, fixing natural carbon sinks and carbon removal – each pushing at the bounds of what is possible, recognizing the scale of the impacts climate change will have.

A capitalist response involves trading them off against each other – and using it as an opportunity to speculate, as big polluters are doing with carbon trading schemes. These schemes require companies to hold carbon credits to cover all emissions – if they want to pollute more than their initial allocation, they must buy credits from other companies.

There are also extensions to the schemes called carbon ‘offsets’ or so-called ‘nature-based solutions’. These scams treat a whole range of different measures – reducing damage to carbon-sequestering ecosystems, planting trees that will absorb carbon during their lifetimes, switching to less-polluting technologies – as equivalent to negative emissions. From these they create credits allowing polluters to burn carbon, but now ‘carbon neutrally’.

No matter that the net result is still – at best – the movement of carbon from stable long-term fossil stores, where it has been for millions of years, into the atmosphere (trees – or whales – will re-release stored carbon when they biodegrade, or are burnt).

Putting a price on ‘ecosystem services’ is having some perverse results. Valuing forests in this way is fuelling the dispossession of indigenous peoples who have protected them for generations, and often exacerbating deforestation. For example, Kenya’s Mau Forest has seen forced evictions of the Oviek people, while in Chiapas, Mexico, children and elderly people died when medical services were cut off as part of a nature-based solutions ‘land grab’.

Hot air

Trick 3: Greenwash gas

Far-off net zero targets are creating space for other false solutions, such as Big Oil’s spinning of fossil gas as a ‘transition’ fuel – Diet Coal. The gas in question is almost entirely methane, a greenhouse gas almost 90 times more powerful than CO2 over a 20-year timescale. The industry wants you to believe it is a clean fuel because, hey, it’s ‘natural gas’.

While some analyses have declared gas to be better for the environment than coal, recent research suggests that leakages of methane during production, transportation and usage may be much higher than thought, making any climate benefit negligible at best. The climate impact of unconventional extraction like fracking is even worse. Gas also contributes to air pollution, harming human health – causing more deaths than coal in at least 19 US states.

The industry has yet to explain how spending money on gas can help us transition towards the renewable future we need – creating yet more fossil fuel infrastructure doesn’t act as a ‘bridge’ but locks in pollution.

Industry lobbying has convinced the European Union to – bizarrely – label gas as green, while at least 16 US states have proposed legislation to prevent local governments banning new gas connections.

Hyping hydrogen

Trick 4: Peddle futuristic-sounding

Already making plans for when the world sees through the fossil gas con, the fossil fuel industry has ramped up efforts to justify gas infrastructure by pushing hydrogen.

Some ‘green’ hydrogen, produced using renewable electricity, is likely to play a limited role in a fossil-free future, for instance for some industrial purposes and shipping. But the industry is using this as a trojan horse to skim off public money to create demand for the conventional way of producing hydrogen – from fossil fuels – and justifying carrying on building fossil gas networks.

A 2020 report found the hydrogen lobby, particularly gas companies, declared $64 million of annual expenditure on attempts to influence EU policy-making, with PR firm FTI Consulting setting up groups including Hydrogen Europe. The firm has previously been caught creating fake grassroots organizations (‘astroturfing’) for Big Oil. Now billions of EU Covid-19 recovery funding will be spent on the gas.

What Big Oil doesn’t want you to know is that, in most cases, using hydrogen is horrendously inefficient compared to using electricity directly, particularly for heating.

Carbon capture or
corporate capture?

Trick 5: Divert subsidies from
renewables to unproven technologies

The promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) is good at making money: in the last decade over $7 billion was lavished on it in the US, while Shell and ExxonMobil last year bagged $2.4 billion in subsidies for a project in Rotterdam. It’s also an excellent distraction from the need to phase out fossil energy.

A minor snag is that it shows little evidence of actually working. The International Energy Agency lists only two power stations in the world with carbon capture and storage, as well as a handful of projects at refineries or other industrial plants. One, the Canadian Boundary Dam power station, aimed to capture 18 per cent of its emissions but required 25 per cent of the plant’s capacity to power the carbon capture. The $1 billion Petra Nova project at a coal and gas power station in Texas was suspended in 2020 after reducing lifecycle emissions by only 4.5 per cent.

Meanwhile one of the largest attempts to capture carbon during hydrogen production, by Shell in Alberta, Canada, emitted more greenhouse gases than it captured. Yet Big Oil wants billions of dollars of public money to be thrown at CCS, rather than in expanding cheap, tried and tested renewable energy.

Following the footprints

Trick 6: Individualize, demobilize

For a while now Big Oil has deployed a technique previously perfected by industries like tobacco – deflect its own culpability by painting climate change as an issue of personal responsibility.

Just as packaging manufacturers created large-scale anti-littering campaigns to reframe a problem they had quite literally created, BP invented the idea of the carbon footprint in 2004, shamelessly hosting a calculator on its website so individuals could work out how their daily lives contributed to global warming. ‘It’s time to go on a low-carbon diet’, the company shouted on its webpages in 2016.

Framing the tackling of climate change as a problem of individual consumption allows Big Oil to carry on dealing its dirty goods. If it encourages incapacitating guilt among those who do want to solve the problem, or sells a few carbon offsets along the way, so much the better.

If all else fails…

Special abilities: Deny, bribe, intimidate

While polluters have found ever more elaborate ways of extending the life of oil and gas, they haven’t abandoned their oldest tricks. Denial, which has served them well for over four decades since the first major climate warnings, is alive and well.

Companies also continue to cultivate their political links. From the revolving door which saw oil executive Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil chief, become US Secretary of State under President Trump, to naked bribery. Like the $61 million allegedly funnelled by a utility through an organization controlled by the Speaker of Ohio’s House of Representatives and his associates, in return for the slashing of clean energy laws.

And then there’s good old-fashioned intimidation of those who oppose them. The Dakota Access pipeline’s company boss called for two women who had sabotaged it ‘to be removed from the gene pool’ – later charges were laid against them which could have carried a sentence of over 100 years in prison.

Their game is devious. Ours is clearer. Learn, educate, organize.