Exxon Pledges to Reduce Emissions, but the Details Suggest Nothing Has Changed

ExxonMobil on Monday said it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, bending to pressure from investors that have been calling on the oil giant to address the risks posed to its business by climate change. The company had long resisted such pressure, and among the major multinational oil companies was the last holdout in refusing to commit to any corporate-wide emissions reductions.

Yet the emissions pledge is limited and modest, and does not represent a change in strategy for the company, which has remained committed to expanding oil and gas production, even as global leaders and some energy executives increasingly speak of an accelerating transition away from oil.

In that sense, Exxon’s announcement represents both entrenchment and retreat.

“This is a company that is famously reluctant to admit that anyone can influence it, or that it listens to anyone outside of its organization,” said Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, a nonprofit organization that works with investors to advocate for corporate sustainability. “So for it to say it is making changes, and some of those changes it is clearly making reluctantly,” he added, “that is new.”

It has been a relentlessly bad year for the oil industry and for Exxon in particular. The company has lost $2.4 billion and said it would wipe up to $20 billion more in value off its oil and gas assets. It was removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average stock index. It saw its market value plummet, eclipsed by Tesla and a renewable energy provider. And the company has been pummeled by negative media coverage.

Exxon has also been facing increasing pressure from investors big and small to better address climate risks. In May, BlackRock, one of Exxon’s largest shareholders, admonished the company for its failure to announce comprehensive emissions reductions goals, and voted unsuccessfully to oust two Exxon board members. More recently, some smaller shareholders, including pension funds, have announced an effort to reshape the company’s board of directors over similar concerns about the company’s failures to address climate risks.

Exxon’s emissions announcement no doubt sought to calm this storm, but it seems unlikely it will do so. The company said Monday it would reduce the emissions “intensity”—or emissions per barrel of oil and gas—of its production by 15 to 20 percent by 2025, compared to 2016 levels. That target is limited to the drilling and production that Exxon operates, which according to data analysed by the Environmental Defense Fund, accounts for only about half the company’s total production.

Major European companies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and have also said they would reduce the emissions that come from burning their products, at least in part by selling more emissions-free energy. In recent months, Occidental Petroleum and ConocoPhillips have also made their own net-zero pledges.

Earlier this year, Darren Woods, Exxon’s chief executive, referred dismissively to some of those pledges as a “beauty competition.” In Monday’s announcement, he struck a more conciliatory tone: “We respect and support society’s ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, and continue to advocate for policies that promote cost-effective, market-based solutions to address the risks of climate change.”

Exxon also said it would reduce methane emissions intensity 40 to 50 percent, and flaring intensity by 35 to 45 percent in order to reach its larger emissions goal. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, often leaks or is intentionally released during drilling operations, while the practice of flaring instead burns the excess methane and releases carbon dioxide.

What Exxon did not do was to indicate in any way that the company is changing course. The concerns of investors—and indeed much of the rest of the world—are less about whether Exxon may incrementally reduce its own direct emissions and more about whether it is reckoning with the massive and rapid shift necessary to limit global warming to safe levels, a shift that will require the world to burn significantly less oil by the end of the decade. On that point, Logan said, the announcement falls short.

“There’s nothing in here that should change an investor’s level of concern about Exxon’s climate strategy,” he said. “Certainly it’s done nothing to prepare Exxon for a transition. So no, this is not convincing in the least.”

Exxon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Engine No. 1, a new investment firm that calls itself “purpose-built to create long-term value” and which is pressing Exxon to adopt new board members to better address climate risks, said in a statement, “While reducing emissions intensity is important, nothing in ExxonMobil’s stated plans better positions it for long-term success in a world seeking to reduce total greenhouse gas emissions.”

That said, it’s not clear if any of Exxon’s competitors are doing much better to convince investors that they are prepared for the future. BP has made arguably the most ambitious commitment, pledging to produce less oil and gas by the end of the decade as it ramps up investments into renewable energy; its stock price has done no better than Exxon’s. 

For years, Exxon cast doubt on climate science that threatened its business. Now it seems intent on convincing the world that while the science may be real, its business can continue largely unchanged.

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