Exxon CEO blames public for failure to fix climate change

February 28, 2024

The world isn’t on track to meet its climate goals — and it’s the public’s fault, a leading oil company CEO told journalists.

Exxon Mobil Corp. CEO Darren Woods told editors from Fortune that the world has “waited too long” to begin investing in a broader suite of technologies to slow planetary heating.

That heating is largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, and much of the current impacts of that combustion — rising temperatures, extreme weather — were predicted by Exxon scientists almost half a century ago.

The company’s 1970s and 1980s projections were “at least as skillful as, those of independent academic and government models,” according to a 2023 Harvard study.

Since taking over from former CEO Rex Tillerson, Woods has walked a tightrope between acknowledging the critical problem of climate change — as well as the role of fossil fuels in helping drive it — while insisting fossil fuels must also provide the solution.

In comments before last year’s United Nations Climate Conference (COP28), Woods made a forceful case for carbon capture and storage, a technology in which the planet-heating chemicals released by burning fossil fuels are collected and stored underground.

“While renewable energy is essential to help the world achieve net zero, it is not sufficient,” he said.

“Wind and solar alone can’t solve emissions in the industrial sectors that are at the heart of a modern society.”

International experts agree with the idea in the broadest strokes.

Carbon capture marks an essential component of the transition to “net zero,” in which no new chemicals like carbon dioxide or methane reach — and heat — the atmosphere, according to a report by International Energy Agency (IEA) last year.

But the remaining question is how much carbon capture will be needed, which depends on the future role of fossil fuels.

While this technology is feasible, it is very expensive — particularly in a paradigm in which new renewables already outcompete fossil fuels on price.

And the fossil fuel industry hasn’t been spending money on developing carbon capture technology, IEA head Fatih Birol wrote last year on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

To be part of a climate solution, Birol added, the fossil fuel industry must “let go of the illusion that implausibly large amounts of carbon capture are the solution.”

He noted that capturing and storing current fossil fuel emissions would require a thousand-fold leap in annual investment from $4 billion in 2022 to $3.5 trillion.

In his comments Tuesday, Woods argued the “dirty secret” is that customers weren’t willing to pay for the added cost of cleaner fossil fuels.

Referring to carbon capture, Woods said Exxon has “tabled proposals” with governments “to get out there and start down this path using existing technology.”

“People can’t afford it, and governments around the world rightly know that their constituents will have real concerns,” he added.

“So we’ve got to find a way to get the cost down to grow the utility of the solution, and make it more available and more affordable, so that you can begin the [clean energy] transition.”

For example, he said Exxon “could, today, make sustainable aviation fuel for the airline business. But the airline companies can’t afford to pay.”

Woods blamed “activists” for trying to exclude the fossil fuel industry from the fight to slow rising temperatures, even though the sector is “the industry that has the most capacity and the highest potential for helping with some of the technologies.”

That is an increasingly controversial argument. Across the world, wind and solar plants with giant attached batteries are outcompeting gas plants, though battery life still needs to be longer to make renewable power truly dispatchable.

Carbon capture is “an answer in search of a question,” Gregory Nemet, a public policy professor at the University of Wisconsin, told The Hill last year.

“If your question is what to do about climate change, your answer is one thing,” he said — likely a massive buildout in solar, wind and batteries.

But for fossil fuel companies asking “‘What is the role for natural gas in a carbon-constrained world?’ — well, maybe carbon capture has to be part of your answer.”

In the background of Woods’s comments about customers’ unwillingness to pay for cleaner fossil fuels is a bigger debate over price in general.

This spring, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will release its finalized rule on companies’ climate disclosures.

That much-anticipated rule will weigh in on the key question of whose responsibility it is to account for emissions — the customer who burns them (Scope II), or the fossil fuel company that produces them (Scope III).

Exxon has long argued for Scope II, based on the idea that it provides a product and is not responsible for how customers use it.

Last week, Reuters reported that the SEC would likely drop Scope III, a positive development for the companies.

Woods argued last year that SEC Scope III rules would cause Exxon to produce less fossil fuels — which he said would perversely raise global emissions, as its products were replaced by dirtier production elsewhere.

This broad idea — that fossil fuels use can only be cleaned up on the “demand side” — is one some economists dispute.

For the U.S. to decarbonize in an orderly fashion, “restrictive supply-side policies that curtail fossil fuel extraction and support workers and communities must play a role,” Rutgers Univresity economists Mark Paul and Lina Moe wrote last year.

Without concrete moves to plan for a reduction in the fossil fuel supply, “the end of fossil fuels will be a chaotic collapse where workers, communities, and the environment suffer,” they added.

But Woods’s comments Tuesday doubled down on the claim that the energy transition will succeed only when end-users pay the price.

“People who are generating the emissions need to be aware of [it] and pay the price,” Woods said.

“That’s ultimately how you solve the problem.”

The Hill, 2/28/24

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