An Examination of What Oil Companies Say and What They Do

Public Commitments to Decarbonize Found to Be 'Greenwashing'

Koch Industries' Flint Hills Resources oil refinery in Rosemount, Minnesota. | Credit: WikiCommons/Tony Webster

New research on the 10 largest international oil firms shows a clear disparity between their commitments to decarbonization and actual efforts to move away from fossil fuels, according to Paasha Mahdavi, a UC Santa Barbara professor of political science.

“No firm that we looked at is actually decarbonizing or getting anywhere close,” Mahdavi said of the research results. “Most firms are somewhere in the middle, or they’re greenwashing … they’re saying they’re going to do more clean energy and are not. Then there are a few who are consistent at least and saying, ‘We’re gonna stick to oil and gas,’ and they are indeed sticking to oil and gas.”

Mahdavi and his co-authors, Jessica Green of the University of Toronto, Jennifer Hadden of the University of Maryland, and Thomas Hale of the University of Oxford, analyzed the firms’ statements to investors and shareholders from 2004-2009 and compared it to their operational activities — whether companies are sticking to oil and gas or moving toward decarbonization and clean energy, Mahdavi explained. Their findings were published in the Review of International Political Economy in July.

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Despite the across-the-board contrast in what firms say and what they do, “some are doing better than others,” according to Mahdavi. Firms in jurisdictions with more stringent environmental regulations, along with firms with smaller refining sectors, have all made more progress in decarbonization than their counterparts.

The researchers also found that domestic and national environmental regulations, as opposed to international or multinational treaties, are “seemingly more important” in enforcing decarbonization.

“That kind of goes to show you some of the more hopeful side, which is some things work. Some of these levers work to pressure. Now we just got to use them all,” Mahdavi said.

“Activism works, pressure on the companies themselves, pressure on banks that are financing these companies, pressure on companies that hold the shares of these oil and gas companies … that pressure works; that matters.”

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