The world’s 50 biggest oil companies are poised to flood markets with an additional 7m barrels per day over the next decade, despite warnings from scientists that this will push global heating towards catastrophic levels.
New research commissioned by the Guardian forecasts Shell and ExxonMobil will be among the leaders with a projected production increase of more than 35% between 2018 and 2030 – a sharper rise than over the previous 12 years.
The acceleration is almost the opposite of the 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 that scientists say is necessary to have any chance of holding global heating at a relatively safe level of 1.5C.
The projections by Rystad Energy, a Norwegian consultancy regarded as the gold standard for data in the industry, highlight how major players seem to be ignoring government promises, scientific alarms and a growing public outcry so they can pump more fossil fuels – and profits – out of the ground.
What is the polluters project?
The Guardian has collaborated with leading scientists and NGOs to expose, with exclusive data, investigations and analysis, the fossil fuel companies that are perpetuating the climate crisis – some of which have accelerated their extraction of coal, oil and gas even as the devastating impact on the planet and humanity was becoming clear.
The investigation has involved more than 20 Guardian journalists working across the world for the past six months.
The project focuses on what the companies have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions they are responsible for, since 1965. The analysis, undertaken by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, calculates how much carbon is emitted throughout the supply chain, from extraction to use by consumers. Heede said: “The fact that consumers combust the fuels to carbon dioxide, water, heat and pollutants does not absolve the fossil fuel companies from responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the carbon era and accelerating the climate crisis toward the existential threat it has now become.”
One aim of the project is to move the focus of debate from individual responsibilities to power structures – so our reporters also examined the financial and lobbying structures that let fossil fuel firms keep growing, and discovered which elected politicians were voting for change.
Another aim of the project is to press governments and corporations to close the gap between ambitious long-term promises and lacklustre short-term action. The UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating. Reining in our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerating the transition to renewable energy has never been more urgent.
Rystad bases its work on companies’ assets and a long-term oil price of $65 a barrel, similar to its current level.
The forecast shows an almost 8% rise in the projected output of the top 50 oil and gas companies between 2018 and 2030, which would account for almost two-fifths of the remaining 1.5C carbon budget and increase the risk of heatwaves, hurricanes, forest fires and floods.
At least 14 of the 20 biggest historical carbon producers plan to pump out more hydrocarbons in 2030 than in 2018, according to the Rystad data.
Its analysis shows the US is the centre of the latest global oil boom, with more than four times more new production than the next country, Canada, over the next 10 years.
The expansion will primarily be in the Permian basin in Texas. BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips will be involved, as well as smaller, faster-growing private firms that are together driving this single US state to produce more oil and gas than all of Saudi Arabia by 2030.
Massive new drilling projects are also under way or planned in north-west Argentina, off the Caribbean shores of Guyana, in Kazakhstan’s Kashagan oilfield, in the Yamal peninsula in Siberia and in the Barents Sea.
Lorne Stockman, a senior research analyst at Oil Change International, which monitors oil companies, said: “Rather than planning an orderly decline in production, they are doubling down and acting like there is no climate crisis. This presents us with a simple choice: shut them down or face extreme climate disruption.”
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Richard Heede, a researcher at the Climate Accountability Institute in the US, said the companies would be putting themselves – and human civilisation – at risk, unless they shifted to renewable energy and offset new production to net zero by mid-century.
“No company that values its social licence to operate shall make a capital investment in new fossil fuel projects without offsetting or sequestering an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide so as to assure alignment with science-based targets to 1.5C and net zero emissions by 2050,” he added.
Separately, the watchdog group Global Witness estimates companies plan to invest $4.9tn in new fields – none of which are compatible with the 1.5C target.
Dieter Helm, an Oxford University academic and government adviser, said oil giants were planning a final fossil fuel “harvest”.
“If we were serious about addressing climate change we would leave some oil in the ground, so there is a scramble among big oil companies to make sure their assets are not the ones left stranded,” he said.
“Their answer is to pump as much as they can, while they still can, to keep delivering shareholder dividends. But the problem for the rest of us is that they are going to produce far more oil and gas than is consistent with the Paris agreement.”
Among publicly traded companies, Shell is forecast to increase output by 38% by 2030, by increasing its crude oil production by more than half and its gas production by over a quarter.
The company’s forecast trajectory shows it will overtake today’s biggest international oil company, ExxonMobil, by 2025, according to Rystad.
Shell said it did not disclose future production plans but it was on course to sustain output to meet demand, which required continued investment.
The company has been lauded for its environmental leadership among its big oil peers, owing to its vocal support of the Paris climate agreement, carbon intensity targets – mainly through more emphasis on gas than oil – and forays into low-carbon projects.
Ben van Beurden, the chief executive, has called climate change the biggest issue facing the oil industry. The company plans to expand into renewables but just $1bn-$2bn of its annual $25bn-$30bn capital expenditure is allocated for low-carbon projects, a figure it hopes to double.
“We believe … it is our role to make sure we make energy available with a lower carbon footprint, so that we help whether it is the aviation sector, the residential sector, the steel sector or the petrochemical sector to curtail and contain their greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.
“I believe philosophically – and I know this is a tough sell because there is a fringe that is in a different camp on this – that it is not for energy companies to curtail the use of energy.”
State-owned Qatar Petroleum is the only company planning a bigger increase, of 58% by 2030.
Shell is not alone among international companies planning to pump much more oil and gas, according to the research. The US firm ExxonMobil is expected to increase its fossil fuel production by 35% by 2030, BP by 20% and France’s Total by 12%.
Espen Erlingsen, an analyst at Rystad, said: “Among the majors, we see the largest growth potential coming from Shell. Here deepwater, shale gas and tight oil projects are driving the potential production growth.” But he said Shell had sold some of its most carbon-intensive assets, such as Canadian tar sands fields.
None of the top 20 companies disputed the projections.
An ExxonMobil spokesperson said: “We believe climate change is a serious issue and it is going to take efforts by business, governments and consumers to make meaningful action. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a global issue and requires global participation and actions.”
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Other companies said they were investing in renewables or focusing on gas. Total said it was increasing the efficiency of its facilities but was not responsible for how its products were used by consumers. More details about their responses can be found here.
In absolute terms, the international oil companies will still be dwarfed by the output of state-run national firms in the future. The biggest, Saudi Aramco, will continue to suck the most fossil fuels out of the ground.
Between 2018 and 2030, it plans to produce oil and gas equivalent to 27bn metric tonnes of carbon dioxide – almost all of which will eventually make its way into the atmosphere and add to the problem of global heating. This is followed by Gazprom, the Iranian National Oil Co, ExxonMobil, Russia’s Rosneft, Shell, PetroChina and BP.
The top 50 firms will together produce the equivalent of 225bn metric tonnes of carbon dioxide over this 12-year period, notes a separate analysis by Oil Change International: 38.8% of the 1.5C carbon budget.
Some of the few projected declines are in Algeria, Mexico and Venezuela, though forecasts for the state-owned corporations in these countries are considered less reliable.