The world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts, a Guardian investigation shows.
Exclusive data shows that these companies are actually placing multibillion dollar bets against humanity stopping global warming. Their large investments in new fossil fuel production may only pay off if other countries don’t reduce their carbon emissions rapidly, which scientists claim is crucial.
The oil and natural gas industry is highly volatile but very profitable, especially when the prices are high. ExxonMobil Shell, BP and Chevron have all made almost every dollar. Profits of $2 Trillion in the past three decades, while recent price rises led BP’s boss to describe the company as a “Cash machine.”
Despite the fact that oil companies are not able to resist the lure of huge payouts in the future, the lure of these lucrative payments seems to be irresistible. world’s climate scientists stating in February that further delay in cutting fossil fuel use would mean missing our last chance “to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” As the UN secretary general, António Guterres, Leaders around the world were warned in April: “Our addiction to fossil fuels is killing us.”
Although details of the planned projects are not readily accessible, an investigation published in Guardian shows:
- The fossil fuel industry’s short-term expansion plans involve the start of oil and gas projects that will produce greenhouse gases equivalent to a decade of CO2 emissions from China, the world’s biggest polluter.
- These plans include 195 carbon bombs, gigantic oil and gas projects that would each result in at least a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes, in total equivalent to about 18 years of current global CO2 emissions. About 60% of these have started pumping.
- The 12 largest oil companies are forecast to spend $103 millions per day for the remainder of the decade exploring new fields of oil or gas that cannot burn if global heating is limited to well below 2C.
- The Middle East Russia often attract the most attention in relation to future oil and gas production but the US, Canada, and Australia They are among the most developed countries and have the highest number of carbon bombs. The US, Canada, and Australia also give some of the world’s biggest subsidies for fossil fuels per capita.
At the UN’s Cop26 climate summit in November, after a quarter-century of annual negotiations that as yet have failed to deliver a fall in global emissions, countries around the world finally included the word “coal” in their concluding decision.
Even this belated mention of the dirtiest fossil fuel was fraught, leaving a “deeply sorry” Cop president, Alok Sharma, fighting back tears on the podium after India announced a last-minute softening of the need to “phase out coal” to “phase down coal.”
Nonetheless, the world agreed coal power was history—the question now was how quickly cheaper renewables could replace it, and how fair the transition would be for the small number of developing countries that still relied on it.
However, the Cop26 final deal did not mention oil and gas, despite them being responsible for it. Nearly 60 percent of fossil fuel emissions.
Many of the wealthy countries, including the US, which dominate international climate diplomacy, and were positioned as climate leaders at the conference’s conference, are major players in new oil-and gas projects. But unlike IndiaThey avoided criticism.
This lack of scrutiny led the Guardian to spend months since Cop26 assembling the most accurate picture of future oil and gas exploration and production.
The world’s scientistsThe planet is in serious trouble, we agree. In August, Guterres reacted strongly to a stark report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science. “[This report] is a code red for humanity,” he said.
The IPCC says carbon emissions must be reduced by half by 2030 to ensure a sustainable future. However, they are not declining.
Since then, experts have been warning At least 2011 that most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could not be burned without causing catastrophic global heating.
In 2015, a high-profile analysis foundThat to limit global temperature below 2C, Half of the world’s known oil reserves and one third of the world’s known gas reserves had to be kept in the groundAlong with 80 percent, coal.
Today, the problem has become even more urgent. Internationally agreed upon guidelines have been established to better understand the devastating effects of climate crisis. Global heating limit to be lowered to 1.5CTo reduce the risk of extreme heatwaves and droughts, as well as floods.
A report by the International Energy Agency in May 2021, previously viewed as a conservative organization, concluded that there could be. If the world were to reach net zero by 2050, there would be no new coalmines or oil fields..
Soon, more warnings were issued. A scientific update found that the proportion of Fossil fuel reserves that would have to remain in the ground for 1.5C to 60 percent for oil and gas and 90 percent for coal, while the UN warned that planned fossil fuel production “vastly exceeds” the limit needed for 1.5C.
In April, shocked by the latest IPCC report that said it was “Now or never” to start slashing emissions, Guterres launched an Outspoken attack on companies and governments whose Climate actions did not match their words.
“Simply put, they are lying, and the results will be catastrophic,” he said. “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”
The failure of countries to “build back greener” after the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 financial crash was not a good omen, and Guterres said: “Fossil fuel interests are now cynically using the war in Ukraine to lock in a high-carbon future.”
Assessing future oil and gas developments is challenging: the sector is complex and often secretive, public information is scarce and hard to find and assess. But a global team of Guardian environment reporters has worked with leading thinktanks, analysts and academics across the world over the past five months and now we can answer a series of questions that reveal the scale of the sector’s plans.
First, how much production is due to come from the projects that are likely to start drilling before the end of this crucial decade?
Next, where exactly are the biggest projects around the world, the so-called carbon bombs that would explode the climate?
We also followed the money: how much is going to be spent on oil and gas that cannot be burned safely, rather than invested in clean energy? And who benefits most from the fossil fuel subsidies that hide the true damage they cause?
The answers to these key questions lead to an inescapable conclusion: if the projects go ahead, they will blow the world’s rapidly shrinking cap on emissions that must be kept to enable a liveable future—known as the carbon budget.
For all the promises made by many oil companies, the data shows they remain committed to their core business despite the consequences.
The short-term expansion plans of oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil and Gazprom, are colossal. The Guardian’s investigation has found that in the next seven or so years, they are likely to start producing oil and gas from projects that would ultimately deliver 192 billion barrels, the equivalent of a decade of today’s emissions from China.
This estimate was provided by analysts at Urgewald, who used data from Rystad Energy, the industry standard source but not publicly available. Their Gogel database includes 887 companies that explore for and produce oil and gas, and covers 97 percent of short-term expansion plans.
The companies have made a final financial commitment to projects that will deliver 116 billion barrels, more than half of the 192 billion barrel total.
They have also invested heavily in the rest, including final development, engineering and operation plans. Such investment makes these projects likely to go ahead, barring drastic government action, Urgewald says.
A third of the short-term expansion plans of oil and gas would come from “unconventional” and riskier sources. These include fracking and ultra-deep offshore drilling, which are inherently more dangerous—as the oil and gas companies drill deeper, the number of spills, injuries, and blowouts increase.
The 192 billion barrels are split roughly 50:50 between liquids, including crude oil, and gas. Burning this would produce 73 billion metric tons of CO2. But methane routinely leaks from gas operations and is a powerful greenhouse gas, trapping 86 times more heat than CO2 over 20 years. Including this impact, at a standard supply-chain leak rate of 2.3 percent, means the equivalent of 97 billion metric tons of CO2 added to the atmosphere and driving us faster towards climate hell.
State oil companies lead the Urgewald short-term expansion list, with Qatar Energy, Russia’s Gazprom and Saudi Aramco the top three. Half of Gazprom’s projected expansion is in the fragile Arctic, though the long-term implications of Russia’s war in Ukraine on its fossil fuel plans remain to be seen.
The listed oil majors ExxonMobil, Total, Chevron, Shell, and BP are all in the top 10. Unconventional and risky oil and gas production accounts for about 70 percent of the US majors’ totals, while the proportion of fracking and ultra-deep water ranges from 30 percent to 60 percent for the European companies.
“Most oil and gas companies are just proceeding with business as usual,” Nils Bartsch at Urgewald said. “Some just do not care. Some do not see their responsibility because governments around the world let them proceed, although of course these governments are often influenced by the industry.”
Two-thirds of the 116 billion barrels of oil and gas projects companies are financially committed to are in the Middle East, Russia and North America, according to data provided by Rystad Energy.
Australia is anticipated to be a big contributor with 3.4 billion barrels, more than from the whole of Europe, where fields are relatively depleted.
A separate analysis for the Guardian by Urgewald on the average annual investment in oil and gas exploration over the past three years shows that, along with Shell, three large but rarely scrutinized Chinese companies occupy the top four slots: PetroChina, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, and Sinopec. Seven of the top 10 of these explorers are relying on fracking, ultra-deep water Arctic, and tar sands developments for more than half of their expansion.
Daniel Ribeiro has been fighting plans for a massive offshore pipeline and liquefied natural gas plant in Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, since it was mooted more than 15 years ago.
The scheme, which would lead to a huge increase in carbon emissions in one of the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries, is backed by more than £1 billion ($1.2 billion) from the UK government and has some of the biggest oil and gas corporations circling, scenting another huge payday.
“It is already creating a massive amount of disruption for the local fishing and subsistence farmers who are being moved off their land,” said Ribeiro, from the local Justiça Ambiental campaign group. “But if it goes ahead and countries like Mozambique are set off on a fossil fuel track, it will be a global disaster. We can forget tackling the climate crisis…we will all suffer.”
Research shared exclusively with the Guardian has identified the Cabo Delgado development as one of 195 carbon bombs, which—unless stopped—will drive catastrophic climate breakdown around the world.
The term carbon bomb has been widely used in climate circles for the past decade to describe large fossil fuel projects or other big sources of carbon. The new research sets a specific definition: projects capable of pumping at least 1 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions over their lifetimes.
Projects identified include the new drilling wells springing up in the Canadian wilderness as part of the vast Montney Play oil and gas development, and the huge North Field gas fields in Qatar—named in the study as the biggest new oil and gas carbon bomb in the world.
The study, led by Kjell Kühne from the University of Leeds in the UK and due to be published in the journal Energy Policy, found that just a few months after many of the world’s politicians positioned themselves as climate leaders during the Cop26 conference in Glasgow, they were giving the green light to a massive global expansion of oil and gas production that scientists warn would push civilization to the brink.
Asad Rehman, a leading climate justice activist in the UK who was at the forefront of a global network of indigenous activists and civil society campaigners in Glasgow, accused the US, Canada and Australia of “rank hypocrisy.”
“These countries are single-handedly undermining efforts to curtail global emissions and ignoring their responsibility to phase out fossil fuels rapidly and justly.” He said it was the poorest and most vulnerable who were suffering.
“Only the colonial mindset of political leaders in rich countries can make the brutal calculation that the interest of fossil fuel giants and their billions in profit is more important than the lives of people who are overwhelmingly black, brown and poor.”
Together these projects would produce 646 billion metric tons (or gigatonnes) of CO2 emissions, the study says, swallowing the world’s entire carbon budget. More than 60 percent of these schemes are already operating.
Kühne, the director of the Leave it in the Ground Initiative, said in the first instance, the 40 percent of projects that had not yet started production must be stopped if the world was to avoid sliding ever more quickly towards catastrophe, adding they should be a prominent focus of the global climate protest movement in the months and years ahead.
“The oil and gas industry is continuing to plan these huge projects, even in the face of a burning planet. The ambitious targets of the Paris agreement were apparently not enough to make them question their business case. These carbon bombs are the single biggest indicator that we are not trying hard enough.”
The study is based on data from Rystad Energy but, rather than focusing on total barrels, it identifies the mega projects potentially responsible for the biggest emissions.
According to the research, the US is the leading source of potential emissions. Its 22 carbon bombs include conventional drilling and fracking, and span the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the foothills of the Front Range in Colorado to the Permian basin. Together they have the potential to emit 140 billion metric tons of CO2, almost four times more than the entire world emits each year.
Saudi Arabia is the second biggest potential emitter after the US, with 107 billion metric tons, followed by Russia, Qatar, Iraq, Canada, China and Brazil.
Australia, widely condemned by international leaders as a laggard in addressing the climate crisis, ranks 16th.
Robyn Churnside, a Ngarluma elder on the Burrup peninsula in remote north-west Australia, has been fighting fossil fuel and mining developments since the 1970s. She is part of a campaign trying to stop Woodside’s $12 billion Scarborough gas project, one of the biggest fossil fuel developments in the country in a decade.
Churnside said dissenting Indigenous voices were too often ignored when decisions were made about new oil and gas infrastructure that could lock in emissions for decades and desecrate culturally significant sites, which in some cases had stood for tens of thousands of years. “It’s about time the world listened to First Nations people because we have been here a long, long time,” she said. “Our spirit in this land will never rest. It needs protection.”
Prof Kevin Anderson, from the Tyndall Centre of Climate Research, University of Manchester and Uppsala University, Sweden, said the scale of planned production in the face of all the evidence suggested big oil and its political supporters eitherIt didn’t believe the climate science or thought their extreme wealth could somehow protect them and their children from the devastating consequences.
“Either the scientists have spent 30 years workingOn this issueAnd have got it all wrong—the big oil CEOs know better—or, behind a veil of concern, they have complete disregard for the more climate vulnerable communities, typically poor, people of color and far away from their lives. Equally worrying, they are disinterested in their own children’s future.”
When BP reported its quarterly earnings in a presentation to financial institutions in February, one analyst said he “really enjoyed the camaraderie and the positivity that you’re generating,” before asking about the company’s cash position.
“We’ve given you a lovely little chart,” said Murray Auchincloss, BP’s chief financial officer. “Certainly, it’s possible that we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with. For now, I’m going to be conservative and manage the company as if it’s $40 [a barrel] oil. Anything we could get above that just helps, obviously.” At the time, the oil price exceeded $90; today it is $106.
The oil industry is awash with cash. The money companies have belongs to shareholders, including pension funds, or in the case of national oil companies, to governments and, in theory at least, citizens. But the investment plans of the biggest oil companies are sharply at odds with the goal of halting the climate crisis.
Data obtained by the Guardian from the think tank Carbon Tracker shows a dozen of the world’s biggest companies are on track to commit a collective $387 million dollars a day of capital expenditure to exploiting oil and gas fields through to 2030.
A significant portion of this is for maintaining production at existing projects—some oil and gas will still be needed as the world weans itself off fossil fuels—but the exact amount is not publicly available. Nonetheless, it is clear that at least a quarter of this investment—$103 million a day—is for oil and gas that cannot be burned if the worst impacts of the climate crisis are to be avoided, money that could instead be spent ramping up clean energy.
Even more worryingly, the companies have developed further project options that might lead them to spend an additional $84m a day that would not even be compatible with a devastating 2.7C of global heating.
The world’s governments agreed in the Paris climate accord to limit global heating to well below 2C, and pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C. For the latter, stricter goal, no new oil and gas projects are possible.
The Carbon Tracker data, compiled in September, uses a temperature of 1.65C to represent the well below 2C target and finds that 27 percent of the companies’ projected investments are incompatible with this.
ExxonMobil has the largest of these climate-busting investment plans at $21 million a day through to 2030, followed by Petrobras ($15 million), Chevron and ConocoPhillips (both $12 million), and Shell ($8 million).
In terms of the most dangerous investments—those that could help drive temperatures beyond 2.7C—Gazprom accounts for $17 million a day of this, ExxonMobil $12 million, Shell $11 million and PetroChina $9 million.
If governments act on the scientific advice to rapidly reduce carbon emissions by boosting clean energy and cutting fossil fuel burning, the companies would have to write off these colossal sums as losses, hitting shareholders, pension funds and public finances. If governments do not act, the companies could cash in as the world burns.
Overall, the international oil companies are making the biggest bets, with almost 40 percent of their projected investments incompatible with 1.65C. ExxonMobil is particularly high, at 56 percent. The national oil company average is 17 percent, although 56 percent of Petrobras’s planned capital expenditure is incompatible with 1.65C.
“Companies that continue to develop projects based on business-as-usual demand are betting on the failure of policy action on climate and underestimating the disruptive potential of new technologies, such as renewables and battery storage,” said Mike Coffin at Carbon Tracker. “Such projects are either not needed or they lead to warming well in excess of Paris goals.”
A separate recent analysis based on Rystad Energy data from April, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, found that 20 of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies remained on course to spend huge sums—$932 billion—by the end of 2030 developing new oil and gas fields.
Freeing the world from the grip of fossil fuels is made far harder by huge ongoing subsidies for the fuels, making them far cheaper than their true cost when the damage they cause is included—especially air pollution, which kills 7 million people a year. The G20 group of leading economies pledged in 2009 to phase out the subsidies but little has been achieved.
Hundreds of billions of dollars in direct financial support is received by the producers and consumers of fossil fuels every year—but they benefit from far larger subsidies by not paying for the harm burning fossil fuels causes. When the damage from the climate crisis and air pollution is accounted for, the fossil fuel subsidies reach $6 trillion a year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Guardian analysis shows this is equivalent to $11 million a minute globally, $4 million a minute in China and more than $1 million in the US.
The Guardian analysis of more detailed IMF data shows drivers in the US, Canada, and Australia, along with Saudi Arabia, are the world’s biggest beneficiaries of subsidies for road fuels, with some governments under pressure to increase these during the current energy crisis.
The per capita-subsidy for petrol and diesel across the population of Saudi Arabia was more than $1,000 a year in 2020. In the US, the road fuel subsidy per capita is $644 and about $500 in both Canada and Australia.
Japan and Germany also appear in the top 10 of the road fuel analysis, which focused on the 54 large countries with more than 25 million people and that account for 90 percent of global population and subsidies. The UK per capita subsidy for road fuels was only $10 a year, indicating taxes on petrol and diesel in 2020 were close to the level of the damage burning the fuels causes.
The US is also high on the list of the biggest per capita subsidies for all fossil fuels with $2,000 a year, behind only Saudi Arabia ($4,550) and Russia ($3,560). After these countries, only Iran ($1,815) is ahead of Australia ($1,730) and Canada ($1,690).
“Taking the Paris Agreement seriously requires a rapid shift away from fossil fuels,” said Simon Black, a climate economist at the IMF. “Getting fossil fuel prices right will help enormously in accelerating this transition.”
The shift from burning oil and gas cannot happen overnight, and a declining amount will still need to be burned during the transition to a net zero emissions global economy in 2050. The question is whether companies and governments are moving fast enough.
The GuardianYou wrote to the companies that were named in the analysis and requested their response.
“Under the IEA net zero emissions scenario, and all Paris-aligned scenarios, all energy sources remain important through 2050, and oil and natural gas remain essential components of the energy mix,” said a spokesperson for ExxonMobil.
However, the role and importance of oil and natural gas would be greatly reduced by 2050. IEA: “Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development [in our net zero scenario].”
ExxonMobil plans to invest more than $15billion in initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over six years, a spokesperson stated. This included carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and biofuels. The company set a goal to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. However, it did not target the fuels it sold and only its own operations. Therefore, it covers only a small percentage of the emissions from the oil or gas it sells.
Recent statements by a spokesperson for Shell were made Statements from companies: “As a result of [our]We expect a steady decline in total oil production from now through 2030, including divestments, at the level that we have planned.
“By 2025, Shell expects its expenditure on [low and zero-carbon] products and services across its businesses will have increased to around 50 percent of its total expenditure,” a recent ReportThe firm states. The proportion is expected to rise to more than 35% by 2022. In 2021, “Shell achieved its annual investment targets in renewables and energy solutions of $2bn-3bn,” the report says.
ConocoPhillips also cited recently published net zero emissions plan: “Our goal is to support an orderly transition that matches supply to demand and focuses on returns on, and of, capital while safely and responsibly delivering affordable energy.”
According to the document, profits from oil and natural gas projects are significantly greater than those from investments in renewable energy.
ConocoPhillips has committed $200 million to reduce its emissions in 2022. To reduce emissions from the burning of the fossil fuels it supplies, the company advocates an “economy-wide price on carbon that would help shift consumer demand from high-carbon to low-carbon energy sources”.
“Petrobras plans its investments considering that the Paris agreement will be successful and global temperature will be kept below 2°C,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Oil will remain important in the coming decades, even in accelerated transition scenarios.”
The spokesperson said the IEA’s scenario for 1.65C indicated some investment in upstream projects was needed. “We are planning for Highly resilient assetsTheir low production cost and low emission makes them competitive in Paris-like situations. Petrobras is following its strategy to maximize the portfolio’s value. [with 99 percent of the investment on exploration] focusing on deepwater and ultra-deepwater assets.”
TotalEnergies pointed out its Recent sustainability report, which it said “showed our stakeholders that we are already on the right track.” The company has a target of a 30 percent cut in emissions from oil and gas sales by 2030 and to increase the proportion of its energy sales that are renewable from 9 percent in 2021 to 20 percent in 2030.
Eni and Saudi Aramco replied to the GuardianBut declined to comment. The other companies didn’t respond to the Anfrage. Guardian’s request.
The Guardian’s investigation has provided an answer to the question of how great a danger the plans of oil and gas companies pose to the climate. But politicians and governments will have to answer another set of questions that will ultimately influence the course of the crisis.
Will the world’s governments act to close the book on the oil companies’ giant climate gamble? Will the richer countries that have historically emitted the most be supportive of a fair transition for the developing countries at the frontline in the escalating crisis’s escalating crises?
Would strong, immediate action lead to a financial crash, as billions of dollars are wiped off the value of some of the world’s biggest companies? Or will more steady but concerted action wean us off fossil fuels rapidly, close the oil companies’ cash machine and lead us into a clean energy future with a liveable climate? Only time will tell. But, time is not in short supply, unlike oil and natural gas.
“The world is in a race against time,” said Guterres. “It is time to end fossil fuel subsidies and stop the expansion of oil and gas exploration.”
Reflection on the war in Ukraine He said: “Countries could become so consumed by the immediate fossil fuel supply gap that they neglect or knee-cap policies to cut fossil fuel use. This is madness. Addiction to fossil fuels is mutually assured destruction.”
Additional reporting by Jillian Abrose, Adam Morton and Nina Lakhani, Oliver Milman and Chris McGreal