Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Exxon Carbon Emissions and Climate: Leaked Plans Reveal Rising CO₂ Output

ExxonMobil oil refinery in Louisiana. Photo by WClarke, Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA 4.0

George Harvey

In 1999, Exxon and Mobil merged to form ExxonMobil. The company, often still referred to as Exxon, has a history of scandals whose origins go back to the 1970s or earlier.

In October, 2020, yet another Exxon came into public view. The company was planning to increase its carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions. The increase was planned because Exxon expected to increase production, even as the demand for oil and gas was down worldwide and other companies in the industry were suffering economically. In what looks like denial of reality, the company saw increasing demand for its products for another twenty years.

Exxon expects that its emissions will increase by 21 million metric tons. That represents a 17% increase from the emissions it had admitted to, bringing its total to 144 million metric tons. That is equal to the emissions from burning 16 billion gallons of gasoline.

Exxon’s past scandals over its CO₂ emissions seem dreadful. Having been warned by Exxon scientists in the 1970s and 1980s that CO₂ emissions were warming the planet in ways that would be dangerous, possibly “catastrophic,” in the future, the company concealed the data and financed denial of climate change. But information on denial of science was leaked in 2015. A timeline on its climate denialism through 2016 has been posted by Greenpeace. ()

Some of what was going on in the minds of people leading Exxon can be understood by things they said. Think Progress reported on May 30, 2013 that ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson had posed a question at a shareholder meeting, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” () He told shareholders that Exxon’s position was that the economy runs on oil, and it would continue to run on oil.

The Think Progress article also had another observation worth mentioning. It reported, “A 2011 study found that ‘9 out of 10 top climate change deniers [were] linked with Exxon Mobil.’”

The understanding of climate change and its probable trajectory has had widely different effects on companies in the oil and gas industry. At the one extreme, there is the example of Danish Oil and Gas, which has used the skills it built with offshore oil rigs to go into the offshore wind industry. It changed its name to Ørsted and divested itself entirely of its fossil fuel assets. Now, unlike companies in the industry it left behind, it is profitable.

Many oil and gas companies have started to move into renewable energy, at the very least. Some, such as Shell, are putting efforts into building charging stations for electric vehicles. Some talk a good talk about building up renewable assets, but we have not seen how they walk their walk yet.

And then there is ExxonMobil. Even with the scandals, ExxonMobil seems not really to have any intention of changing its business plan, as we can see by its expectation of increasing emissions. October of 2020 came, and the problem had to be addressed.

There are three types of emissions that oil and gas companies might take into account. Scope 1 emissions are those that the company releases directly. Scope 2 emissions are those that the company causes indirectly when it buys energy, whether it be heat, electricity, or other. And then there is Scope 3, which relates to all other emissions associated with consumption.

For an oil and gas company, fuel that it burns in vehicles or factories is included in Scope 1. So is gas that is leaked from pipes or gas fields. Scope 2 is largely the electricity it uses. But that Scope 3 includes all of the CO₂ emissions that result from its products, including emissions from our cars and trucks, our gas ranges, and oil burning furnaces.

Other oil and gas companies have reported on all three scopes, but not ExxonMobil, which preferred to regard them as not its problem. But the scandal of October seems to have ended that. A number of big shareholders were upset and they made the company release the data.

What we have now learned is what we all should have known. Exxon’s earlier admitted CO₂ emissions are really only a fraction of the emissions that come from its product. Its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions may come to 123 million metric tons now, but its Scope 3 emissions are 730 million, according an article in the Los Angeles Times. ()

A case might be made that every person on Earth is a victim of the misdeeds of ExxonMobil. We are all its victims, even those of us who use its products, and even those of us who own shares in the company. If we have a question about what to do, perhaps the answer is obvious: Don’t support Exxon. Don’t buy their products. Get a heat pump, buy an electric vehicle, support local business that are going green.

Exxon was happy to ruin our planet. We should be happy to end that practice completely.

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