The world’s largest energy companies are expected to sell off more than $100 billion of oil fields and other polluting assets as they try to hit their corporate climate goals. But these firms often sell to buyers that disclose little about their operations, have made few or no pledges to combat climate change, and are committed to ramping up fossil fuel production, writes The Times’s Hiroko Tabuchi.
For example, when oil giant Shell sold off its stake in the Umuechem oil field in Nigeria last year, it looked like a step forward for the company’s climate ambitions, at least on paper. But as soon as Shell left, the oil field underwent a change so significant it was detected from space: There was a surge in flaring, the wasteful burning of excess gas in towering columns of smoke and fire. Flaring emits planet-warming greenhouse gases, as well as soot, into the atmosphere. (In response to questions, Shell told The Times that it looked forward to seeing the full report.)
New research released Tuesday shows that, of 3,000 oil and gas deals made between 2017 and 2021, twice as many involved assets moving from operators with net-zero commitments to those that didn’t, than the reverse. That means about 60 percent of oil well deals probably won’t result in lower emissions. In fact, the oil and gas facilities may continue to pollute, perhaps even at a greater rate, but away from the public eye.
“You can move your assets to another company, and move the emissions off your own books, but that doesn’t equal any positive impact on the planet if it’s done without any safeguards in place,” said Andrew Baxter, who heads the energy transition team at the Environmental Defense Fund, which performed the analysis.
Transactions like these are likely to hinder the cleanup of fossil fuel infrastructure and efforts to slow climate change, experts said. The World Meteorological Organization and the UK Met Office recently found a very strong likelihood that one of the next five years will be the warmest on record globally, surpassing the current record year of 2016.