Big Oil’s Last Stand: How Fossil Fuel Companies Grasp for Relevance in the Global Energy Transition

Anna Das Pradhan | Climate Change Fellow

Between Californian wildfires, Madagascan drought, and glacial rain, nearly every continent on earth is now reckoning with the cascading climate policy failures of the last fifty years. While concurrent disasters paint a bleak picture of life under a warming climate, a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in August 2021 shows that there is still time to avoid worst-case climate scenarios, if we choose to do so.


At almost 4000 pages, the IPCC’s sixth assessment report evaluates the most recent climate science, and offers insight into the catastrophic consequences of delaying the curb of greenhouse gas emissions. Following its release in early August, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared that the publication “must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy the planet”. While the link between human activities and record temperatures is ‘unequivocal’, the science alone is unlikely to encourage the rapid drawdown of fossil fuels required to avert outright disaster, due in part to the activities of the fossil fuel industry itself.


Fossil fuel’s new identity

The fossil fuel industry has a long history of sabotaging climate action by promoting and funding climate denialism. More recently however, the rhetoric of the industry has transitioned from outright denialism to what analysts and researchers now dub ‘discourses of delay’. This language downplays the urgency of the climate crisis, and the need to rapidly drawdown fossil fuel operations. Instead, they argue that oil and gas are vital contributors to a ‘low carbon future’ and must play a central role in the journey to net zero global emissions.


To argue this, fossil fuel companies have spent millions of dollars on greenwashed public relations campaigns to boost their climate credentials, adopting the language of climate action without meaningfully adjusting their energy production activities. Chevron, for instance, is investing in flawed ‘lower carbon technologies’, whilst Shell is focusing on lowering its ‘emissions intensity’ (an arrangement which involves increasing renewable energy production, but maintaining current levels of emissions output from fossil fuels). In both cases, companies present themselves as concerned climate actors in their public communications but continue to conduct business as usual, pumping more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. Until recently, these companies have been able to proliferate this misinformation without significant consequences.


Oil majors at a tipping point

Recent wins for climate activists suggest that the fossil fuel industry’s greenwashing tactics will only get them so far. Earlier this year, oil and gas giants suffered a series of extraordinary defeats in court rooms and boardrooms on both sides of the Atlantic. ExxonMobil, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell were all reprimanded by investors and activists for their trivial action on climate change, cutting through their own greenwashed narratives about their emissions reduction responsibilities.


Only months after its inception, a small climate-activist hedge fund managed to elect two of its candidates to the Exxon board of directors, while a large majority of Chevron’s shareholders voted in favour of undertaking more aggressive action on climate change. In the Netherlands, Royal Dutch Shell was the subject of a landmark court ruling requiring the company to reduce its carbon emissions at a much faster rate than originally planned. It was the first time a corporation has been made legally liable for its projected emissions contribution to climate change, signalling a broad shift in how climate litigation may be pursued in other jurisdictions across the globe.


Until now, climate law has been largely retroactive, focusing on the liability of fossil fuel companies for harms they had already committed against the environment. In the landmark Dutch court ruling however, Shell is potentially required to overhaul its future business model, drawing down its greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent by the end of the decade.


The ruling, which has been appealed by Shell, could influence the legal fight against the climate crisis in two major ways. Firstly, if companies believe there is a potential to encounter legitimate legal action for their greenhouse gas emissions, they may proactively implement climate policies so as to avoid future litigation. Secondly, the ruling sets a precedent for future activist groups seeking to hold fossil fuel companies responsible for their contribution to climate change, an area which has been sorely lacking in established case law, until now.


These events suggest that despite their exorbitant spending on their public image, there is in fact a limit to how much the fossil fuel industry can feign climate action without any kind of accountability. After decades of denial and delay on climate change, fossil fuel giants may very well be pushed into drawing down its greenhouse gas emissions by its own investors, with the courts overseeing this complex transition.


Anna Das Pradhan is the Climate Change Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.