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These Oil and Coal Companies Have the Worst Climate Change Records

A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists shows how fossil fuel producers seed scientific doubt and block climate-related policies.

by Sarah Emerson
Oct 6 2016, 3:22pm

Image: Flickr/Philippa McKinlay

Over the course of this election, Motherboard has made a point to hold candidates accountable for their relationships with the fossil fuel industry. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are connected to oil, gas, and coal companies through personal ties, public statements, and fundraising money.

All of these things directly and indirectly tie them to climate change and its effects, but what about the fossil fuel companies themselves? How complicit are they in contributing to global warming and seeding doubt about its existence?

A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) offers report cards on the roles these companies have played in disclosing climate risks and spreading disinformation about climate science. The environmental nonprofit focused on eight major fossil fuel players which, together, account for for nearly 15 percent of industrial carbon emissions since 1850.

They are: ExxonMobil, Arch Coal, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, CONSOL Energy, Peabody Energy, and Royal Dutch Shell.

"At this moment, with the Paris Agreement set to take effect, and with Hurricane Matthew barreling up through Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the issue of climate change and the responsibility of fossil fuel producers is really on people's minds," Kathy Mulvey, lead author of the report and Climate Accountability Campaign manager at UCS, told me.

None of the companies had clean slates, especially when it came to spreading disinformation about climate science and policy through lobbying and trade groups, Mulvey said.

Each company was graded on several key factors. For example, its position on the validity of climate science, and its internal targets for reducing carbon emissions. On a scale of "egregious" to "advanced" (with "poor," "fair," and "good" in the middle), none of the companies scored higher than "fair," when evaluated cumulatively.

In certain categories, all of the companies had terrible records. On the issue of climate science, UCS discovered that each "maintain membership—and in many cases have leadership positions—in trade associations and other industry-affiliated groups that spread disinformation about climate science and/or seek to block climate action."

None of the companies have an internal, comprehensive plan "to align its business model" with the goals set by the Paris Agreement.

Climate change is an issue "that candidates ought to be asked about," Mulvey said. "In terms of what we looked at, we did find a lack of transparency. Limited and patchy requirements about disclosure, lobbying, and political spending make it hard to pinpoint the influence of major fossil fuel companies in a political context."

The efforts of fossil fuel producers to discredit climate research, along with the anti-science attitudes of many political leaders in the US, pose a grave threat to the legislation of future environmental policies, Mulvey added.

The following grades were determined by UCS based on their analysis of publicly available information, political spending and lobbying reports, previous reporting from other groups and NGOs, and standards set forth by surveys such as the Center for Political Accountability's CPA-Zicklin Index.

ExxonMobil: "Poor"

-- Aggressively seeded disinformation about climate science and the risks of climate change. These acts are compounded by the fact that Exxon scientists knew about, and were actively studying the perils of carbon emissions on the climate as early as the 1970s.

-- Once called the Paris Agreement a "step forward," but has yet to acknowledge the goals set by the agreement for reducing carbon emissions and preventing an increase in global average temperature.

-- Has stated that climate change is, according to the report, "a contributor to the physical risks faced by their businesses," such as the impact of rising sea levels on its factories and infrastructure.

-- Claims to support a revenue-neutral carbon tax, saying: "A properly designed carbon tax can be predictable, transparent, and comparatively simple to understand and implement." Still, the company has supported the tax inconsistently, according to public statements.

-- On the issue of renouncing disinformation on climate science and policy, ExxonMobil scored "egregious" for its role in discrediting climate science, especially through its membership of lobbying groups like the Global Climate Coalition.

Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

Arch Coal: "Poor/Egregious"

-- Has "consistently acknowledge the scientific evidence of climate change," according to the report

-- Has advocated for policies that would aid "technology research and development to reduce heat-trapping emissions from human-made sources on its website, but has not identified any climate policy that it supports."

-- Failed to disclose any public details about climate-related physical risks.

-- On the issue of affiliations with trade associations and industry groups that spread disinformation about climate science and seek to block climate change policies, Arch Coal scored "poor" over its relationship with groups: American Legislative Exchange Council, National Association for Manufacturers, and the National Mining Association.

BP: "Fair"

-- Despite its affiliation with groups that work to discredit climate science and policies, BP has a better record than the other companies when it comes to "consistently" affirming climate science, and the need for a reduction in carbon emissions.

-- BP left the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2015, stating that the group's position on climate change "is clearly inconsistent with our own."

-- Publicly "expressed support," according to the report, for the Paris Agreement and its goals for limiting the increase of global average temperature.

-- Failed to disclose any public details about climate-related physical risks.

Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

Chevron: "Poor"

-- According to publicly available information, such as its website, Chevron has diminished the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Its official policies for addressing climate change state that "unilateral action [to reduce emissions] by any country or jurisdiction could result in unintended consequences that could distort markets, reduce competitiveness of trade exposed industries, and undermine intended environmental objectives."

-- Chevron's president of Global Manufacturing, Gary Yesavagethe, serves as global chair of the Western States Petroleum Association, which is a "top lobbyist for the oil industry" in the western United States.

-- Chevron CEO John S. Watson once claimed the Paris Agreement was "a good first step," but has not acknowledged the specific goals laid out by the climate agreement. However, Watson also argued against an international price on carbon at the company's annual meeting this year.

-- On its website, Chevron calls "for government action to remove barriers to the deployment of technologies that could reduce carbon pollution," according to the report. But the company has never actually supported any climate change policy proposals.

-- In 2015, Chevron spent approximately $4 million on state-level lobbying and political contributions in California, during which time, the state was considering several bills aimed at reducing climate change and its effects.

ConocoPhillips: "Fair"

-- Has stated that climate change is, according to the report, "a contributor to the physical risks faced by their businesses," such as the impact of rising sea levels on its factories and infrastructure.

-- ConocoPhillips, the report notes, "consistently" acknowledges scientific proof of climate change

-- Before the Paris Agreement negotiations, ConocoPhillips made "affirmative statements" toward the climate accord, but has not publicly supported the agreement since it was signed.

-- Once made public statements deriding national and sub-national climate policies, and "continues to advocate for voluntary measures rather than policy action," according to the report.

Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

CONSOL Energy: "Poor"

-- CONSOL Energy has made zero company-wide plans for a future free of carbon pollution, according to publicly available information.

-- Unlike all of the other companies, CONSOL Energy makes no mention of climate change on its website, and has issued no recent statements on climate change or its risks. For these reasons, the company scored "poor" on accuracy and consistency of public statements on climate science.

-- CONSOL Energy has failed to participate in "any discussions on federal or state climate policy," over the last year.

Peabody Energy: "Poor/Egregious"

-- Peabody Energy has made zero company-wide plans for a future free of carbon pollution, according to publicly available information.

-- Has "consistently acknowledge the scientific evidence of climate change," according to the report

-- Peabody Energy "was the only company to use climate science disinformation as a justification for its opposition to federal or state climate policies during the study period," the report found.

-- In 2014, the company denounced scientific consensus for climate change in its comments regarding the EPA's Clean Power Plan proposal.

Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

Royal Dutch Shell: "Fair/Poor"

-- Royal Dutch Shell, according to the report, has made some effort in "consistently" affirming climate science, and the need for a reduction in carbon emissions.

-- Publicly "expressed support," according to the report, for the Paris Agreement and its goals for limiting the increase of global average temperature.

-- The company has said that it "supports the establishment of government-led carbon 'pricing' mechanisms," and that "both CO2 taxes and emissions trading systems could generate new revenue for governments and ensure that consumers are not affected by higher energy costs."

-- On the issue of fully disclosing climate risks, Royal Dutch Shell scored "poor" for providing little to no details about the physical risks to its company associated with climate change.