Oil & Gas Companies Can’t Greenwash the Climate Crisis Away

The oil and gas industry has repeatedly proven it cannot be trusted. For decades, they have been undermining public trust in climate science to obstruct government action that might negatively affect their bottom line. Unfortunately, they were all too successful. Methane pollution from oil and gas is higher than it has ever been and continues to rise, and peer-reviewed science identifies the oil and gas industry as the main culprit. We must hold the oil and gas industry accountable for their climate pollution by implementing federal safeguards (outlined here) that require industry to cut their methane emissions to 65% of 2012 levels in the next five years.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is over 86 times more heat-retaining than carbon dioxide. It is the main component of “natural gas” and is released into the atmosphere at every step in the production process. When they emit methane, these operations also pollute the places where people live, work, learn, and play with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other hazardous substances that can cause respiratory illnesses, headaches, increased risk of cancer, and a range of other health problems.

Climate scientists are in consensus that we have 9 years left to halve our carbon emissions, and must entirely eliminate them by 2050 to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid complete climate disaster (because of this Earthworks opposes new oil and gas production and infrastructure permits). Yet, since the start of the fracking boom methane pollution has grown at an alarming rate. Studies have repeatedly shown oil and gas extraction is to blame, including a peer-reviewed study that shows methane to be pollution  60% more than what companies are self-reporting to the government (EPA).

Major oil and gas companies—like Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Equinor, and Marathon/Markwest—have publicly opposed the Trump Administration’s rollback of national methane rules. They acknowledge their methane pollution problem is worsening the climate. However, Earthworks’ own fieldwork with our industry-standard Optical Gas Imaging cameras consistently show that no matter how good of a game they talk, they don’t take meaningful action to reduce their methane emissions. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that voluntary industry commitments to cut methane are not enough to reach the IPCC targets of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030. According to a recent report from Oil Change International, no major oil and gas companies come close to the kind of action we need to avoid complete climate disaster.

Dirty Work for Hire

Instead of acting on climate, oil and gas companies and industry trade groups—like the American Petroleum Institute—have hired consulting firms to spread misinformation that makes it look like they are cleaning up their act. 

Oil and gas companies and trade associations often try to create the impression that they’re reducing their pollution—when they’re not—by talking about “methane intensity” in place of total methane pollution reduction. For climate and health, total methane pollution from all operations is what matters—and that is increasing at an alarming rate. “Methane intensity” is the measurement of how much methane they pollute relative to how much oil or gas they sell to the market. 

Actions speak louder than words, and companies that make public proclamations on climate but continue to fund anti-health and anti-climate lobbying and PR campaigns should be given zero credibility on these issues.

Accountability is in the industry’s financial interest

It’s increasingly clear that, in addition to its climate and health benefits, reducing and eliminating methane pollution is in the oil and gas industry’s financial interest. Large international market—export markets for the United States—have made zero carbon commitments that have already negatively affected the United States oil and gas industry

And investors are increasingly guided by environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) concerns which could limit oil and gas companies’ access to capital. Investors increasingly expect minimizing and transparently reporting climate change liability and risk. Although in years past industry could shrug off concerns like these because of the inevitability of oil and gas demand, even before COVID oil and gas was no longer seen as a reliable investment in part because over the medium to long term demand is no longer inevitable given renewable alternatives.

The bottom line 

When it comes to making bold promises about the future, oil and gas companies have nailed it—and from a business perspective it makes perfect sense. Public opinion is eroding the industry’s license to operate and so companies are making unprecedented promises about their future measures, at a national and global level. But they continuously fail to act on those promises and it is the same clientele— investors, consumers, employees, and the general public—who shoulder the burden in the form of financial and climate risk. 

Corporate accountability starts with calling out this hypocrisy (stay tuned for our methane scorecard coming out in early December) and it ends with companies and the federal government taking strong action that walks industry’s talk by reducing and by 2050 eliminating methane pollution, and its associated climate, health, and economic impacts.

To stop those impacts we need a fast, just transition to a fossil fuel free economy. A necessary step in that direction: President-elect Biden’s EPA must immediately enact strong, effective, federal standards —accompanied by adequately resourced enforcement—that cut methane pollution from oil and gas production by 65% of its 2012 levels. 

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