ExxonMobil is accused of greenwashing over claims that its ‘carbon capture’ project is reducing emissions.

ExxonMobil is accused of greenwashing over claims that its ‘carbon capture’ project is reducing emissions.

by Ben Webster —
Works on investigations for openDemocracy
into climate, environment and biodiversity issues.

A n ExxonMobil boss has admitted the oil giant would need a “magic wand” to deliver the climate pledges it boasts about to customers.

The company’s UK lead, Paul Greenwood, told openDemocracy a carbon capture project at its Fawley oil refinery in Hampshire would only meet its target to be operational by 2030 if it receives taxpayer subsidies.

Yet Exxon is still using the promise of the Fawley scheme to help it sell petrol and diesel under its Esso brand. It suggests in its “thoughtful driving” campaign that drivers can “fill up with less impact” at Esso stations because the company is “reducing our own emissions”, citing the as-yet unrealised Fawley carbon capture project as an example of this.

Exxon has so far refused to commit its own money to build it and has instead focused investment on increasing diesel production at the refinery, spending £800m to produce an extra 6 million litres a day.

Experts say the firm is using a well-worn fossil fuel industry strategy – making ambitious but vague claims about future climate plans to avoid criticism of its oil and gas profits.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves isolating and trapping CO2 emissions where they are produced – such as at a power station, refinery or incinerator. The captured gas can either be used to make products, such as synthetic fuel or fizzy drinks, or it can be transported by pipeline or ship to a permanent storage site deep under the seabed.

But the technology has developed at a snail’s pace according to analysts. There were just 41 CCS plants operating globally by the end of last year, none of them in the UK. Collectively, they captured about 0.1% of annual global CO2 emissions.

Last year, the global energy watchdog International Energy Agency called on oil and gas companies to let go of “the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution”.

Exxon’s plans for Fawley would see the company build a new “blue hydrogen” plant. This would make hydrogen from natural gas – and capture 2.7 million tonnes of CO2 each year from the process. A report funded by the company claims it could “begin operations” in 2030.

The report also claims that the CO2 captured at Fawley would be piped out to sea and stored under the seabed somewhere off the Isle of Wight. It claims the “English Channel Carbon Storage” site could capture a total of 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year, including from other highly polluting companies near the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland.

However, Exxon fails to disclose in the report that it is yet to secure either a carbon storage licence for the English Channel, or government support for the project. The firm applied unsuccessfully for government funding for the Fawley scheme last year.

Doug Parr, chief scientist for Greenpeace UK, said:

“Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the complete lack of urgency with which Exxon have approached the preparation for this project is telling. It is currently without funding, or much chance of getting the government subsidies necessary for the project to go forward, and without a licence for CO2 disposal, or the data and investigations necessary to acquire them.”

‘Magic wand’

Exxon helped launch the report in Parliament last month, at an event attended by the energy minister Martin Callanan and the leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt. Transport minister Anthony Browne and the shadow minister for energy security, Alan Whitehead, were also there.

At the event, openDemocracy asked Paul Greenwood – the chair of Esso UK and lead country manager for ExxonMobil in the UK – whether his company would be able to fulfil its claim that it could start capturing CO2 at Fawley by 2030.

“We are not there yet. It depends on when you go through the investment decision.

“If you wave a magic wand and say ‘you’ve got all the investment that you need,’ then you can hit that kind of timeline.”

Greenwood declined to say how much Exxon had spent to date on developing its carbon capture plans for Fawley, saying that number was “completely irrelevant”.

He said Exxon could eventually spend £5bn on the project, but added: “Until I get to the point where I’m committed to invest, I’m not committed to invest.”

Greenwood said the project was “going to need some subsidies – there’s no doubt about it”.

The report is presented as the work of the ‘Solent Cluster’, a group of 120 businesses, councils and universities in the area.

It is likely, however, that it is primarily ExxonMobil’s own work. ExxonMobil was one of three founding members of the Solent Cluster, and the small print reads: “While we have made every effort to ensure the accuracy of this report, neither ExxonMobil nor ERM [a consultancy which advises ExxonMobil on sustainability] make any representations or warranties regarding its quality, completeness or accuracy.”

The document promises £11.9bn of investment by 2035 in decarbonisation projects, 18,900 new jobs and a 42% reduction in industrial emissions. It claims other major emitters in the Solent area will also cut their emissions via carbon capture, including SSE, which co-owns a gas-fired power station, and Veolia, which runs a waste incinerator.

When asked by openDemocracy, neither SSE nor Veolia would say how much of the £11.9bn investment would come from them.

Doubling down

The green pledges come as Exxon doubles down on its global fossil fuel investments, last October buying shale oil company Pioneer Natural Resources in a deal valued at $59.5bn.

The company is also suing a group of its own shareholders who had filed a resolution calling for it to do more to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The shareholders say Exxon is the only one among five very large Western oil companies that has not set targets to reduce emissions from the use of its products, known as “scope 3” emissions.

Exxon decided to continue the lawsuit against the shareholders, seeking to have their resolution declared unlawful and thus prevent it being resubmitted in future, even though they withdrew it.

Bob Ward, policy director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at LSE, said:

“Given that [Exxon] currently refuses to acknowledge the scale of the Scope 3 emissions from use of its products, any claims that its customers are reducing their impacts are clear greenwashing, particularly as its plans for carbon capture and storage at its Fawley site are still far from becoming a reality.”

Mark Preston Aragonès, policy manager of Bellona, an environmental campaign group that supports CCS to help decarbonise industry, said:

“It would appear Exxon has little interest in actually deploying CCS in the timeline they are suggesting. Based on the claims they themselves are making, it seems they are primarily weaponising CCS as a way to avoid tackling the real issue of phasing out internal combustion engines.”

At an industry conference last month, Exxon’s head of low-carbon solutions, Michael Foley, admitted that progress had been slow in delivering carbon capture plans.

He told the “Carbon Capture and Utilisation Summit” in Leeds:

“We did not meet our collective ambitions [over the past year] for where we wanted to be today.”

Speaking to openDemocracy after the event, he said that Exxon’s 2030 target “was aligned with our ambitions” to win a government competition for carbon capture funding – which the company failed to do for Fawley last year.

But he admitted: “As time progresses, it [the 2030 target] becomes more challenging and we will continue to work with the government on that.”

He also said that ExxonMobil would need to carry out further seismic testing of the proposed English Channel storage site to check its suitability for locking away carbon. “More technical work would be needed to fully appraise the location,” he said.

While Exxon has suggested lack of government funding is to blame for slow progress with the Solent Cluster, it only officially launched the project in 2022, years after other carbon capture projects in the north of England and Scotland that have won government funding.

Foley said Exxon had announced its UK carbon capture plans later than other companies because “we were taking time on our strategy”.

Dustin Benton, policy director of the Green Alliance think tank and a member of a government-appointed body that advises on the delivery of carbon capture projects, said:

“Carbon capture and storage is likely to be necessary to reach net zero, but the technology can’t be used as an excuse to carry on drilling oil and gas, or expanding the production of petrol and diesel.”

Responding to openDemocracy’s questions, an Exxon spokesperson said:

“ExxonMobil is committed to playing a key role in the energy transition. This transition takes time and is not a linear process, with pace and direction shaped by factors including technology advances, enabling policy, economy and public support.”

He added:

“We continue to engage positively with [the] government to demonstrate our capabilities and the direct contribution we can make to net zero, and are hopeful that these efforts will help the Solent Cluster gain support to deliver its potential.”



▪ This piece was first published in openDemocracy and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 7 April 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Peter Titmuss.

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