On Tuesday, oil giant Exxon Mobil announced that it aims to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. More specifically, it has the “ambition” to reach net-zero emission from its operations within the next 28 years. “We’ve got a line of sight,” Exxon’s chief executive, Darren Woods, said in an interview with the New York Times. “By the end of this year, 90 percent of our assets will have road maps to reduce emissions and realize this net-zero future.” The plan builds on an announcement Exxon made last month that said the company is aiming for net-zero emissions from its operations in the Permian Basin by 2030.
Exxon follows in the footsteps of Shell, BP, and Total — European oil companies that announced net-zero climate plans in 2020 — and U.S.-based Chevron, which unveiled a net-zero plan last year. With the exception of Shell, which has been ordered by a Dutch court to reduce its global emissions 45 percent by 2030, oil companies are making these pledges to get cleaner voluntarily in response to pressure from the public and investors and to market forces that have made renewable energy generally cheaper than fossil fuels. Exxon, which concealed evidence that its products caused climate change in the 1970s, has been slow to hop on the net-zero bandwagon. Internal documents leaked to Bloomberg Green in 2020 showed that the company expected its operational emissions to increase through 2025.
Now, the company has changed its tune, saying it has made a list of 150 modifications to its business practices that would whittle down emissions, like transitioning its operations to renewable energy.
But experts say Exxon’s net-zero plan has a major blind spot: It only covers Scope 1 and 2 emissions — the emissions the company produces directly, while digging for oil, for example, and the emissions produced by the utilities it buys its power from. The plan doesn’t extend to cover Exxon’s largest contributions to climate change. They’re called Scope 3 emissions, the greenhouse gases produced by the companies clustered along Exxon’s supply chain and the emissions produced by customers who buy and burn the company’s oil and gas.
“It’s not the best plan because it’s only targeting a small slice of the company’s overall emissions,” Paasha Mahdavi, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Grist. What’s more, the plan doesn’t stack up to similar net-zero plans from Exxon’s competitors because Exxon hasn’t promised new investments in non-oil activities. Mahdavi, who worked on an analysis of the top 10 major oil and gas companies’ decarbonization plans, said even Chevron, which has a plan that looks very similar to Exxon’s, has promised some investments in renewable energy and other non-oil projects. Exxon’s plan mainly revolves around making their existing oil and gas operations marginally greener.
“Exxon is the only one that has not made any meaningful investments in solar, wind, electric vehicles, renewables, anything,” Mahdavi said. “This announcement fits into that vision of what the future transition will hold. From their perspective, it’s oil and gas.”
There is one silver lining in Exxon’s announcement: It’s taking methane more seriously. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years it spends in the atmosphere. Recent analyses show that the methane that leaks out of active and abandoned oil and gas operations, as well as the methane purposely emitted by gas operators in a practice known as venting, accounts for a much larger slice of warming than previously thought. Exxon’s plan includes resources dedicated specifically to reducing methane emissions and methane flaring. “It’s something they should have done a long time ago,” Mahdavi said, “but at least they’re targeting it, right?”