Oil profits, the rocket fuel to Nowhere
“These figures provide the answer. Money is like rocket fuel: burn through enough of it and you can escape the pull of the Earth. But there’s nowhere else to go.” -- Mel Evans, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK
Revealed: big oil's profits since 1990 total nearly $2tn
BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon accused of making huge profits while ‘passing the buck’ on climate change
BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon have made almost $2tn in profits in the past three decades as their exploitation of oil, gas and coal reserves has driven the planet to the brink of climate breakdown, according to analysis for the Guardian.
The scale of their profits is revealed as experts say the fossil fuel boom is coming to an end, with big oil entering a “death knell” phase, according to one prominent Wall St commentator.
Analysis for the Guardian by Taxpayers for Common Sense in the US reveals that since 1990 – at which point the impact of fossil fuel extraction on the climate had been well known to industry leaders and politicians for years, experts say – the big four companies have accumulated $1.991tn in profits.
Critics say the findings highlight how a few corporations have generated extraordinary wealth by pursuing policies that were known to be driving the climate crisis.
The climate scientist Michael Mann said he was witnessing first-hand in Australia the environmental impact of fossil fuel extraction.
“Here in Sydney, where we’ve seen record drought, heat, bushfires and floods all in the short two months I’ve been here, this latest report provides a sobering reminder that we’re all paying the price – in the form of a planetary climate crisis – so that a few mega-corporations can continue to make record profits,” he said.
The analysis shows that Exxon was the most profitable of the big four over the past three decades, making a total of $775bn. Shell was second with $524bn, followed by Chevron on $360bn and BP on $332bn.
Autumn Hanna, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said: “For decades, oil and gas companies have been pocketing trillion-dollar profits and padding their bottom line with tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies. All while passing the buck on climate change.”
Mel Evans, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, said the big oil companies knew the danger that their products posed to the climate well before it became common knowledge but pursued profits above the wider interests of the planet.
“Why did they continue to promote those products and dispute science they knew to be correct? Why are they still spending hundreds of billions of dollars on making the problem worse, drilling for new oil and gas we can’t possibly afford to burn?” Evans said.
“These figures provide the answer. Money is like rocket fuel: burn through enough of it and you can escape the pull of the Earth. But there’s nowhere else to go.”
Experts say the decades-long boom is coming to an end as clean energy replaces fossil fuels. Last week Jim Cramer, the influential host of the US investment show Mad Money, said he was “done with fossil fuels” because they had entered a “death knell phase”.
Oil companies have been the worst-performing investments in US stock markets over the past decade, after leading major stock market indices in previous decades. The market value of oil and gas companies now makes up only 4% of the S&P500 index, compared with about 28% in the 1980s.
“If you go back to 1990 you can really see that oil and gas companies once outperformed the market,” said Kathy Hipple, a financial analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
“But the market looks to the future and there has been a gradual awareness that fossil fuels are not going to be as big a part in the world economy. This doesn’t mean that [oil companies] will go away tomorrow, but the market won’t reward them for the profits of the past.”
Last year a Guardian investigation revealed that 20 fossil fuel giants including BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon were directly linked to more than a third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.
The big four investor-owned corporations were found to be behind more than 10% of all carbon emissions since 1965.
The polluters project highlighted how many of the leading fossil fuel corporations had spent billions of pounds on lobbying governments and portraying themselves as environmentally responsible.
A study published last year found that the largest five market-listed oil and gas companies – the big four plus Total – spent nearly $200m each year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change.
The profit figures were calculated in today’s money by using the annual net income attributable to shareholders for each company while taking inflation rates into account. In absolute terms, without inflation, the combined profits since 1990 were a still considerable $1.6tn, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The profits of the world’s most profitable listed oil companies were dwarfed last year by the financial reports of the Saudi state-owned oil firm Aramco. It listed on the Saudi stock exchange after racking up profits of $111.1bn (£84.7bn) in 2018, which was more than double the profits of Apple and five times those reported by Shell.
Experts say the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by industry leaders and politicians, particularly in the US, as far back as the mid-60s. Certainly by 1990 the facts were well known: two years earlier the Nasa scientist James Hansen had raised the alarm about the impact of fossil fuels during a landmark hearing at the US Congress. In 1992, world leaders came together at a summit in Rio to recognise the role carbon emissions were playing and to pledge coordinated action.
BP did not respond to a request for comment on the findings.
A spokesperson for Shell said: “Just as reliable, affordable energy has benefited us all, all of society has a role to play in tackling climate change. We’re working hard to develop lower-carbon energy options and meet demand for more and cleaner energy.”
ExxonMobil said it was helping address “the dual challenge of the world’s growing demand for energy and reducing emissions”.
Chevon said it was taking action to address climate change by “lowering the company’s carbon intensity, increasing the use of renewable energy and investing in breakthrough technologies.”