Our study, ‘The clean-energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A mismatch between discourse, actions and investments’, collected 12 years of quantitative and qualitative data to examine whether these companies are decarbonising and shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy.

We comprehensively and objectively evaluated this from three perspectives: discourse, business strategies and investments. The discourse analysis revealed a distinct increase in keywords in annual reports related to climate change and clean energy, particularly by the European majors, BP and Shell. Similarly, the business strategy analysis also revealed contrasting behaviour between the American majors, Chevron and ExxonMobil, and their European counterparts.

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Over the study period, the European majors have more consistently acknowledged climate science, participated earlier in industry climate-change frameworks, adopted internal carbon pricing, spent and pledged more on clean energy, and recently set net-zero transition and energy product decarbonisation goals.

Trailing far behind, the American majors continuously exhibit defensive attitudes to renewables investment and the need to shift from fossil fuels, explicitly stating ambitions to grow, rather than reduce, hydrocarbon production.

Low-hanging fruit

For all majors, however, we caution that most decarbonisation strategy scores have come from low-hanging fruit in the form of pledges and disclosure. These include simple statements of support for climate science or carbon pricing, and disclosure of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions data. As such, shifting core businesses away from fossil fuels to clean energy still requires that each major formulates concrete strategies to translate pledges into actions. Moreover, we found that some actions contradict pledges. This especially concerns intentions to curb the production of fossil fuels, as well as reduce exploration and new developments.

This worrying trend of acting contrary to pledges and public statements has also been highlighted by other sources. This includes reports that all four majors continue to lobby governments to hamper or weaken carbon pricing policies, to secure favourable fiscal support, and to weaken environmental regulations. Also, in the goal of obstructing the progress of decarbonisation, they continue to redirect the responsibility for reducing GHG emissions to consumers while diffusing misleading advertisements that fossil fuels (especially gas) are green and exaggerating the scale of clean energy investments.

The analysis of financial behaviour generated a picture even more sharply misaligned with tendencies toward increased green discourse. This failed to show any major comprehensively transitioning its core business model away from fossil fuels. With the exception of year-to-year fluctuations and the influence of the pandemic, we did not observe a clear trend toward lower fossil fuel production, less business-model reliance on upstream earnings, and declining fossil fuel reserves.

Indeed, the European majors increased combined oil and gas production and reserve estimates for liquids over 2015–19. Similarly, gas reserve estimates for BP and Chevron rose. We also note continuing ambitions stated by all majors to increase gas production. Finally, the analysis of investments in renewables revealed no evidence to suggest any major has entered the renewables market at a scale that would indicate a shift away from fossil fuels.

Given the mismatch between discourse, pledges, actions and investments, aligning with recent studies, we conclude that no major is currently on the way to a clean energy transition. Thus, when weighing the authenticity of claims to be decarbonising or moving away from fossil fuels, stakeholders and policy-makers should consider the past actions and investments we have examined.

Mitigating further dangerous warming requires these majors to urgently transform their fossil-fuel-based business models, rather than merely increase discourse and pledges. Furthermore, for clean-energy investments, there is a need for more transparency on precise annual spending and on each major’s definition of ‘renewables’, ‘low carbon’ and ‘clean energy’. Until the three areas of discourse, actions and investment behaviour are brought into alignment, we conclude that accusations of greenwashing by oil majors are well-founded.

Clarifying the factors that have influenced the contrasting behaviour of the American and European majors was beyond this study’s scope. However, based on insights provided by previous literature, we speculate that trends found in this study reflect the historically more aggressive emission reduction targets and climate policies of governments in European countries. Conversely, the regulatory climate in the home country of the American majors was significantly weakened during the Trump administration of 2016 to 2020.

BP and Shell have also been observed to have historically possessed more pro-leadership and management structures that more readily engage in climate issues. Furthermore, more experience in renewables might also give them more confidence to profit from future clean energy markets, since their American competitors lack a comparable investing history.

Why words not action?

Our findings of a mismatch between words, actions and investments prompt a need to understand the factors that incite the majors to talk about the energy transition, rather than pursue it. Green discourse and pledges provide the benefit of alleviating pressure from society. Not only can this generate a positive image of the company for consumers, but such messages can prolong the social license to operate, providing valuable time for the majors to continue their core fossil fuel business.

Financial factors are also important. Large investments in renewables are generally less profitable for the majors than traditional core businesses, and such activities place them in competition with specialised players. Moreover, any shift away from traditional businesses that are currently profitable will initiate an irreversible process of writing down the value of existing fossil fuels assets and reserves, carrying significant consequences for share prices. The rebound of the oil and gas market after the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021 also offers the majors more confidence in future benefits. Slowing down the transition to clean energy is hence profitable for the boards of these majors.

To counter these complex and interwoven forces, policy-makers must reform market conditions and abolish subsidies that continue to incentivise investments in the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. Methodological limitations provide important opportunities for future research. Given the absence of first-hand data about annual spending on clean energy in a consistent year-to-year format, researchers might attempt to produce such data and define standards on what investment targets should be considered ‘clean energy’. Future studies could also refine our indicators of transition activity and develop finer-grained quantitative measurements of progressive and regressive behaviour, also allowing integration of qualitative data.

This is an excerpt from ‘The clean energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A mismatch between discourse, actions and investments’ published in February 2022 by Mei Li, Gregory Trencher and Jusen Asuka, all at Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2022 print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.