Last week, Fossil Free Indexes published their annual list of the top 200 fossil fuel companies by size of reserves — The Carbon Underground 200 or CU200. Divesting from this list has been the default demand for fossil fuel divestment campaigners across the globe and continues to be a powerful point of departure for the divestment discourse. These 100 coal companies and 100 oil and gas companies are the ticking time bomb called the Carbon Bubble sitting inside the pension systems and school endowments we all love. They also represent the entrenched interests of the fossil fuel industry and the reasons they keep throwing tens of millions of dollars at our decision-makers to maintain systemic status quo.
I’ve been following this list since it’s inception, and here are my three big takeaways from this year’s results.
The amount of ‘potential’ and ‘planned’ carbon keeps growing!
The reserves of these companies now total 492 gigatons of potential CO2 emissions. That’s an increase of 3.6% from the 2016 list. The bulk of this increase comes from an increase in coal reserves (coal?! can you believe it?). In fact, the addition of more Chinese coal is what gave this year’s list the big boost. Make no mistake, fossil fuel companies are continuing to invest in expanding their stockpiles of coal, oil, and gas with the intention of burning them for profit and warming the planet well beyond what anyone would consider habitable.
With depressed oil prices, the opportunity for oil companies to expand their reserves through extreme and expensive drilling, like tar sands and deepwater drilling, have fallen off the business plan drafting table. This is actually a big part of the new story. Tar sands write-offs were huge in the year since the 2016 report, which came out last summer. Tar sands and deep water are the first literal stranded assets. Back in February, Exxon cut their tar sands extraction plans representing 19 percent of their total reserves; essentially erasing about $16 billion in assets from their books. Sure, these tar sands assets were stranded because of low oil prices, and the infrastructure built to extract tar sands could be turned back on anytime, but that seems very unlikely. Low oil prices will kill tar sands, and carbon policy will keep them dead.
With the growing carbon reserves, the blinking neon marquee headline in this report was this: “CU200’s potential embedded emissions are now 608.8% more than their allocated carbon budget.” This means, these companies now claim a business plan of burning six times more fossil fuels than can be burned for the world to have an 80% chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2°C.
The analysts at Fossil Free Indexes calculated that the global carbon budget for the CU200 for the years 2017 to 2050 is 80.8 Gt CO2, which is down about 21.6% from last year’s CU200 carbon budget of 103 Gt CO2. They can only burn eighty, they want to burn four hundred and ninety-two… The Math.
Russian oil and gas, the reigning first and second largest reserve holders, are expanding because of fracking, and that is very bad.
Fossil Free Indexes’ Oil and Gas Analyst says new Russian fields that are now viable have come online because of fracking technology. As we all know, methane is wildly more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon. So, this is very bad news. Keep your eyes on Russian fracking, it’s shaping up to be a major climate threat.
Coal, on the other hand, is a China, Indonesia, and US story. All of the countries on the list (represented by company headquarters) have decreased their coal reserves… all but three. Indonesia, the US, and China are the three oddballs in the top ten countries by reserves.
“The US has experienced the largest increase where production is up approximately 19% in the first five months of 2017.” If this sounds illogical or ridiculous… well, that’s because it is.
Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies has a long long way to go (maybe they should just divest…)
According to the report, in 2017, shareholders submitted 77 climate risk-related shareholder resolutions to 48 fossil fuel companies. With the world getting warm and fossil fuel companies planning on burning more, you’d think shareholder pressure would be mounting. Surprisingly, this is a significant step down from 2016 when 114 resolutions targeting 60 companies were filed.
There are only 200 companies on this list, of the thousands in the energy sector. It is clear that shareholder engagement has a long way to go to reach even the majority of the 200 list. But, the influence of shareholder resolutions on fossil fuel companies climate-related behavior also has a long way to go. For example, when BP and Shell’s shareholders voted emphatically in favor of forcing the companies to make detailed disclosures about climate risks, well, the companies did! Reporting bad behavior is an important step, but it’s not at all the same as changing bad behavior. In their reports, both Shell and BP showed they are planning for global temperatures to rise as much as 5°C by the middle of the century.
In short, the report is helpful in making the updated adjustments to our thinking of the largest fossil fuel holders out there and sparked a few interesting new threads. I encourage folks to pick up a free copy and use this information in your campaign work.