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Which Oil Company Is Greenest?
In a world threatened by climate change, there isn't any such thing as environmentally friendly petrol or diesel. But if you are going to buy these fuels, is there perhaps a case for avoiding certain oil companies and favoring others, based on their respective record on environmental issues? Arguably, yes, though the differences between the various companies seem less stark today than they did a few years ago.
Back in the 1990s, BP (now part of BP Amoco), Shell (of Royal Dutch/ Shell) and Exxon (Esso in the UK) were all key players in the Global Climate Coalition, a lobby group formed in 1989 as the prospect of global diplomatic action on climate change appeared on the horizon. Along with lobbying at UN meetings, the coalition became an oft-quoted presence in US news reports and financed anti-Kyoto commercials warning that "Americans would pay the price" for the treaty. The GCC began to fracture with the departure of BP in 1997 and Shell in 1998. By 2001, it was history, though arguably it had served its purpose and was no longer necessary. A 2001 memo written to Exxon by the US undersecretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, and later obtained by Greenpeace, states that George Bush rejected Kyoto "partly based on input from you [the GCC]".
Even after the GCC ceased to exist, Exxon continued to give millions of dollars to think tanks and other organizations that sought to challenge the scientific and economic case for emissions cuts. These contributions seemed to pay off. In the autumn of 2003 (within days of World Health Organization scientists suggesting that more than 150,000 people already die each year from climate change impacts), leaked emails and documents showed that the Bush administration had sought the help of one Exxon-funded think tank - the Competitive Enterprise Institute - to try to undermine and dilute the predictions of its own government scientists. Exxon's donations to climate sceptics continued, and in 2006 the UK's Royal Society took the unprecedented step of writing an open letter to the company appealing for it to stop.
Today, Exxon acknowledges the existence of human-induced climate change but claims that policy responses need to be "paced" (unlike most climate experts, who advocate rapid and radical policy action). The company has put a token amount of money into renewables and climate research but its actions have so far been insufficient to persuade climate campaigners to call off their consumer boycott.
Even while Exxon was brazenly funding climate change denial, some other big oil companies were spending millions trying to redefine themselves as trailblazers of corporate responsibility. BP very much led this trend, swapping its shield logo for a green and yellow flower and announcing that its initials now stood for "Beyond Petroleum". Shell followed close behind with numerous green and ethical initiatives, keen to bury associations with Ken Saro-Wiwa and other anti-Shell campaigners who were executed in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. Sadly, neither company has lived up to its environmental promises.
In 2008, Shell's reputation among environmentalists went from bad to worse when it pulled out of the London Array, the UK's biggest wind-farm project, and boosted its investment in the Canadian tar sands - a source of "unconventional" that has even higher lifecycle emissions than crude. Then, in 2009, only weeks after placing prominent advertisements about its commitment to a sustainable future, Shell announced that it was to stop building wind and solar installations around the world. BP's green credentials haven't collapsed quite so dramatically, though things have gone downhill since the departure of chief executive Lord Browne in 2007. Like Shell, BP has now invested in tar sand extraction and, despite ubiquitous marketing trumpeting the company's commitment to renewables, clean energy sources remain only a tiny proportion of BP business. At the time of writing, BP has just announced hundreds of redundancies from its Solar division.
All in all, then, though there may still be a case for shunning Esso, there certainly isn't a green halo to be had by favoring its competitors.