State-owned and investor-driven enterprises among them, the list of fossil-fuel firms responsible for more than one-third of all carbon emissions may hold few surprises.
Yet the top five — Saudi Aramco, U.S.-based Chevron CVX, +1.69% and ExxonMobil XOM, +1.34% , Russia’s Gazprom and Iran’s national oil company — and the pivotal 1965 starting date in this updated ranking expose the political and economic minefield on the route toward fixing the climate crisis.
The top 20 companies on the list are responsible for 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide in the past 50-plus years. That’s a combined 480 billion metric tons, chiefly from the combustion of their products, says the Climate Accountability Institute.
Says Richard Heede, director of the U.S.-based organization behind the data: “Even though global consumers from individuals to corporations are the ultimate emitters of carbon dioxide, the [institute] focuses its work on the fossil-fuel companies that, in our view, have their collective hand on the throttle and the tiller determining the rate of carbon emissions and the shift to noncarbon fuels.”
The high stakes of geopolitics can’t be ignored: Saudi Arabia is one of the more controversial U.S. energy allies given its human-rights record and the notorious murder of U.S.-based journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi; the U.S. has levied oil sanctions on Iran that have implications for global markets; and Russian interference in U.S. elections and its role in shaping global natural-gas markets remain key issues heading into the U.S. 2020 presidential race. Meanwhile, for its part, under Trump the U.S. has pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord with a finger-point to noncompliance elsewhere and industry influence at times in step, then out of sync, with the White House.
The global polluters list uses company-reported annual production of oil, natural gas and coal and then calculates how much of the carbon and methane in the produced fuels is emitted to the atmosphere throughout the supply chain, from extraction to end use. CAI found that 90% of the emissions attributed to the top 20 climate culprits was from use of their products, such as gasoline, jet fuel, natural gas and thermal coal. One-tenth came from extracting, refining and delivering the finished fuels.
The data set’s starting point, 1965, is not random. That’s the year from which the environmental impact of fossil fuels has been known to industry leaders and politicians, experts say.
That’s when President Lyndon Johnson released a report from a science advisory council on fossil fuels, pollution and a global warm-up called “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment.”
And here’s what the leader of the trade group the American Petroleum Institute, perhaps surprisingly, chipped in that year: “One of the most important predictions of the [president’s report] is that carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas at such a rate by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.”
Flash forward to a study earlier this year that found five of the largest stock-market-listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200 million each year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change.
The Guardian newspaper, which had first crack at the Climate Accountability Institute results, said the response from the companies on the list was varied: Most didn’t respond to the paper’s request for comment; others said current leadership couldn’t be responsible for historical policy; and some highlighted their efforts to follow the emissions reductions set out in the Paris accord. Read more about the Guardian’s interactions with the companies.