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Exxon invests billions in lower emissions initiatives, but advocates call greenwash

an exxon gas station at night
Image Credit: Raymond Kotewicz // Unsplash

According to ExxonMobil’s CEO Darren Woods, its low-carbon business has the potential to produce hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue, outperforming its traditional oil and gas operations.

Via Reuters, the CEO told Wall Street investors at a meeting last Tuesday that Exxon is tackling what should be a multi-trillion market in 10 years or more.

However, unlike its counterparts Shell, BP, and others that have invested even a fraction of revenue into renewables, Exxon sees the “multi-trillion” market in its own decarbonization business, from carbon capture to chemical recycling.

That’s why, as detailed in its 2023 Advancing Climate Solutions Progress Report, the oil and gas giant intends to invest $17 billion through 2027 in “lower-emission” initiatives, up 15% or $2 billion from its prior plan.

These initiatives look like deploying new technology to expand the measurement and mitigation of methane emissions and reducing methane emissions intensity by more than 40% compared to Exxon’s 2016 levels.

They also look like reducing overall emissions by 9%, as the report details, continuing progress toward the cooperation’s 2030 greenhouse gas emission-reduction plans.

“For our own operations, we are well on our way toward meeting our previously announced medium-term plans to reduce corporate-wide greenhouse gas intensity by 20-30% by 2030 versus 2016 levels, and our long-term ambition to achieve net-zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions from our operated assets by 2050,” Woods wrote in a letter ahead of the report in December.

In the report, Exxon also says they remained on track to eliminate routine flaring in the Permian Basin oil field by the end of 2022 and expanded their “lower emission solutions” including carbon capture​​ and storage, hydrogen, and biofuels.

Exxon expects these solutions to be very profitable. In fact, it estimates each of these ventures will have a combined potential of $6.5 trillion by 2050, equivalent to the traditional oil and gas business.

However, amid all of what Exxon calls “solutions” to “strengthening energy supply security and reducing emissions to support a net-zero future,” is the launching of one of the largest chemical recycling plants in all of North America.

The plant began operations in December as an addition to the company’s giant petrochemical refinery complex in Baytown, Texas.

On its surface, it looks like it could be a good thing: the “advanced recycling” plant is capable of breaking down 36,000 metric tons of hard-to-recycle plastic each year. That is a minuscule fraction of the over 27 million tons of plastic in American landfills each year but is a whopping 9% of Texas’ 400,000 tons of plastic waste.

As outlined in their report, throughout 2022, Exxon increased plastic production by 10% “to meet growing global needs,” while supporting low-carbon technologies, which it says helped avoid emissions.

The facility is aimed to combat plastic pollution generated by this production.

However, as The Guardian reports, plastic waste advocates warn that plants like this one do very little actual recycling, instead generating hazardous pollutants. Advocates say it only provides cover for oil giants to keep producing millions of tons of new plastic products each year.

Exxon plans to tack on chemical recycling plants to “many of its other manufacturing sites around the world,” and is eyeing another location in Texas, one in Louisana, Illinois, and in other places throughout the world like Canada, Singapore, and Belgium.

In its report, Exxon touts that these plants enable emission reductions, and says it expects the Baytown plant to have about 1 billion pounds of annual advanced recycling capacity by the end of 2026, recycling 80 million pounds every year until then.

“Plastics are increasingly one of society’s materials of choice because of their superior performance, affordability, and life-cycle benefits compared to alternatives,” the report’s authors write.

“Step into any hospital, kitchen, daycare center, science lab, airplane, or automobile, and you will find abundant examples of critical plastic products. The plastics found in cell phones, computers, vehicles, packaging, surgical devices, personal protective equipment, facemasks, and many other applications provide countless benefits as well.”

The report positions plastic as an inevitable ingredient in the planet’s future, despite the plethora of companies deploying viable alternatives.

The paper goes on the claim that plastics are essential to addressing climate change and reducing emissions, because of their use in technologies like solar panels, fuel-efficient vehicles, and our everyday uses.

However, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) makes clear in its petrochemicals report, increases in recycling are only outweighed by increases in consumption, and the more petrochemicals produced for plastic, the more oil is demanded.

As The Guardian reports, the process ExxonMobil’s Baytown plant uses is called pyrolysis. Many environmental advocates say this process is so insufficient that it should not be called recycling at all.

Chemical recycling is “deflecting attention away from what we need, which is reducing single-use plastics and a global treaty on plastic waste”, Phaedra Pezzullo, a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, said via the publication.

Plus, according to a report by Veena Singla, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC), of the eight chemical recycling facilities operating in the U.S. in 2021, six are located in disproportionately Black and brown communities. Five are in areas with a large number of households living on less than $25,000 a year.

Chemical recycling “is a way for the industry to continue to expand its plastic production and assuage people’s concerns about plastic waste,” she said. “They’re trying to put a pretty bow on it.”

Bayton itself is already a hub for petrochemical production, with 20% of its white residents living in poverty, according to Singla’s report, with a per-capita income of just $25,000.

On top of usually being located in poorer communities and those of color and generating hazardous waste, the NDRC reports these chemical recycling plants to have large carbon footprints, may produce contaminated products, and have an increased chance of starting fires.

As Reuters reports, Exxon’s energy transition plans lean heavily on reducing carbon emissions from its own operations, however by using the pyrolysis process, its emissions reductions may not have the intended weight.

Of the hazardous waste produced, the NDRC reports that many are carcinogens, and are toxic to many areas of the body from the liver, skin, and kidneys to the cardiovascular, respiratory, and reproductive systems.

Exxon has a litany of what it calls solutions to reach a “Lower 2˚C pathway,” while meeting the growing oil and gas demand, with additional investments in its main fossil fuel business. It invests billions into its decarbonization goals, from carbon capture and biofuels to hydrogen plants and chemical recycling.

However, many of its decarbonization goals may be overshadowed by these plants, or as the NDRC calls them: “greenwashing incineration.”


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