On Monday, Bloomberg reported that multinational oil company ExxonMobil has recently planned to increase its carbon dioxide emissions 17 percent by 2025 while doubling its earnings. According to internal documents obtained by Bloomberg reporters, the company’s seven-year, $217 billion investment plan would see it expand its core oil and gas business and keep its investments in low-carbon fuel and emissions reductions as a sliver of overall spending. That 17 percent projection only accounts for the company’s operations, not the emissions generated when customers burn the fuel it sells, known as “Scope 3” emissions. According to Bloomberg, these projections were circulated as late as early this year, before Covid-19 settled over the energy sector.
ExxonMobil is also the company that Inside Climate News found sponsored cutting-edge research into climate science dating back to the 1970s, and proceeded for decades to fund climate deniers to cast doubt on global warming, despite knowing full well the threat that it posed. There’s a tempting story to be told about all this: that a small clique of diabolical fossil fuel interests long ago plotted to deny the reality of global warming. First through denial and then through delay, the same companies have spent decades and billions of dollars obfuscating the truth about the crisis, using advertising and lobbying campaigns to waste time that humanity will never get back.
That’s all true, of course. But it wasn’t idiosyncratic personality defects that led generations of executives across continents to make the same choices. Improbable as it might seem, there’s nothing uniquely craven about the world’s top fossil fuel executives. They’re just doing their jobs. For the sake of the planet, those jobs shouldn’t exist.
What might seem like reckless sociopathy is in fact a business model enabled by trillions of dollars’ worth of government support and a whole body of domestic and international law protecting fossil fuel companies’ right to profit off the substances fueling a deadly crisis. It isn’t just Donald Trump and his revanchist appointees helping them do it, either. In more than a third of all countries on earth, treaties allow fossil fuel companies to sue sovereign governments that threaten to infringe on their profits. Though the G20 nations have talked a big game about ending fossil fuel subsidies, they haven’t yet. And through the Obama-era State Department’s Global Shale Gas Initiative, Hillary Clinton was arguably more effective and aggressive at promoting fossil fuels as a Cabinet member than former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
Even today’s progressive climate plans often avoid tackling fossil fuels, with direct challenges to fossil fuel production still considered a third rail in Washington. As I’ve written before, such proposals—including Joe Biden’s climate plan—treat energy transition as a problem of addition: Rapidly building up the country’s store of renewables and electric vehicles, the thinking goes, will cut into coal, oil, and gas production by outcompeting them. But decarbonization also requires actively phasing out carbon-intensive fuels along a rapid timeline. The business model of companies like ExxonMobil—to dig up and burn as much of their core product as possible—poses a direct challenge to that goal. Even as the cost of renewables has plummeted over the last decade, fossil fuel use has continued to rise. Fossil fuels continue to meet around 80 percent of the world’s energy demand, and study after study shows an industry hell-bent on producing vastly more of that fuel than the planet can safely take.
So long as it can make money digging up new stores of oil and gas, ExxonMobil will continue to do so. Only government policy—not subtle market tweaks or a change of CEO hearts—can eliminate its core business model, making it unprofitable via regulations on drilling and exports, withdrawing the ample state support the sector receives, and even exploring public ownership of fossil fuel firms as a way to manage a rapid transition equitably. Fear of such measures has driven those companies’ efforts to brand themselves as good-faith actors in the climate fight, advertising their token investments in low-carbon fuels and sponsoring dead-end pushes for a modest carbon tax. Approaches like the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative—a collection of oil companies that have pledged to voluntarily reduce their greenhouse gas emissions—carry a clear message for governments: We’ve got this. This week’s reporting from Bloomberg should be treated as hard evidence that they don’t.
There are some understandable political reasons why Biden would be wary of going after fossil fuel companies in a general election: for example, the desire to win extraction-heavy swing states like Pennsylvania. But with fossil fuel companies at what may be their weakest point in living memory, Democrats shouldn’t fear them if they win back control of the White House and Senate in November. The same day the Bloomberg story broke, Exxon was dethroned as the country’s most valuable energy company, replaced by the renewables company NextEra Energy. Its stock now sits at 18-year lows. The Big Oil that Biden officials will face, should they take the White House next year, will be a fundamentally different, more desperate beast than the one the last Democratic administration set out to please. It’s Exxon’s prerogative to hang on for dear life and squeeze every last dollar out of a future even its industry peers now say looks bleak for fossil fuel production. It’s also the government’s prerogative to keep that from happening and not sacrifice untold lives for the sake of corporate profits.