Forbes on ExxonMobil: “Green Company of the Year”

Really?

What an eye-grabber! “ExxonMobil: Green Company of Year.” I mean, who woulda thunk it?

Too bad the provocative headline of Forbes’s current cover story is little more than cheap window dressing. Worse still, its unnecessary hyperbole detracts from what could have been an interesting piece about the oil giant’s high-risk, high-reward bets on natural gas. The article, by Christopher Helman, reasons that power plants will burn Exxon’s gas in the place of comparatively dirty coal, thereby offsetting tens of millions of tons of carbon-dioxide emissions each year.

That’s a reasonable expectation. The federal Energy Information Administration projects that most new power plants in the United States will burn natural gas, which releases around 25 to 50 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than coal, depending on how you count. So Helman is right. Burning more gas in place of coal is, without a doubt, better for the planet. But it is not good for the planet. And ExxonMobil is certainly not a “green” company.

Natural gas is currently responsible for about 20 percent of U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions. As such, energy experts often describe it as a “bridge” to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but no lasting solution to the threat of global warming. Helman’s piece misses the nuances of this concept. Instead of analyzing natural gas’s role in the pantheon of energy options, the article blindly declares that “the engineering solution to the matter of carbon in the atmosphere [is to] drill for natural gas.” That overzealous proclamation smacks of the naïve, silver-bullet reporting that has often plagued energy coverage. A recent study by Carnegie Mellon projected that replacing all coal burning with natural gas would significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, but not enough to meet scientifically recommended targets for mitigating climate change. Moreover, it’s fairly ridiculous to suggest, as Helman does in the beginning of his piece, that natural gas will replace all coal burning any time in the near future.

One might still argue that ExxonMobil stands to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions more than any other single entity. But bear in mind that its gas hasn’t accomplished much of anything yet. Helman’s article—which is actually a piece about ExxonMobil’s involvement in a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) project in Qatar, and not the company’s “greenness”—fails to make this explicit. Only one of its four plants in Qatar is currently up and running—and even when the other three come on line early next year, there is no certainty about how robust the market for LNG will be.

Natural gas prices “plummeted” to a seven-year low on Friday, according to an article in The New York Times. The reason is abundant supply and low demand. In June, the paper reported that, due to new and advanced drilling technologies, estimated domestic reserves are now 35 percent higher than before. The low cost of gas makes Exxon’s projects in Qatar, where the gas has to be liquefied and shipped to consumers, as well as Alaska, which lacks a pipeline to bring the gas to the lower U.S., much less cost-effective, if at all.

Helman’s article does a great job of fleshing out this point. High in the piece, he notes that “natural gas looks like a terrible business” right now and later questions whether “ExxonMobil will be able to recoup its Qatar costs.” He also acknowledges “ExxonMobil isn’t going after gas out of a pure love for the environment. It’s doing so because it’s running out of oil. The company’s production of crude is down 12% in the past three years to 2.3 million barrels a day.”

Unfortunately, rather going any deeper into the inherent limitations of an energy supply based on fossil fuels, Helman concludes that “Windmills and solar panels might make us feel good, but a better solution might be to give bad ol’ Big Oil the chance to develop our own bountiful supplies of natural gas.” The much, much stronger conclusion about the importance of natural gas as a bridge to windmills and solar panels flew straight over his head.

The tawdry headline about ExxonMobil being Green Company of the Year is just a gimmick, albeit one that many news outlets have employed in similar articles. Fortune, The Independent, CNBC, and others have all taken a turn at compiling a list of the “greenest companies.” One difference between these lists and the Forbes article is that they use a variety of criteria, rather than just one, to measure companies’ greenness (a terribly vague word, at any rate). Still, the criteria are fairly inconsistent from one piece to the next, and no two outlets produced identical rosters.

“Compiling the list was challenging, for two reasons,” Marc Gunther, a contributing editor who helped produce Fortune’s “Green Giants” in 2007, wrote on his blog. “First, so many companies are doing so much good work on environmental issues that selecting 10 green leaders proved harder than we expected. Second, we struggled to decide what criteria to use – the company with the most impact? The lightest environmental footprint? The most innovative ideas? In the end, we consulted with about a dozen experts and made a bunch of frankly subjective picks.”

The government is no help either. The Environmental Protection Agency produces a quarterly list of “top partners” in its Green Power Partnership, a voluntary program that encourages companies to purchase energy from renewable sources. The list of top partners comprises those that have purchased the most. That’s a fairly limited assessment, but still a cut above Forbes’s natural-gas argument.

In his rush to praise ExxonMobil, Helman ignores the company’s long track record of funding disinformation campaigns related to climate change. Despite public statements that it had cut off most of its support for such efforts, recent news reports say the company hasn’t quit cold turkey, which shouldn’t be surprising. Just leaf through The New York Times’s ExxonMobil and Rex Tillerson topic pages. “At Exxon, Making the Case for Oil,” read one headline from last November. “Oil Giants Loath to Follow Obama’s Green Lead,” read one from April. Tillerson, the company’s chairman and CEO, has talked a better game (see the company’s environmental performance Web page) than his notoriously skeptical predecessor, Lee Raymond, but to what effect? He has acknowledged (sort of) shareholder concerns about the company’s sustainability efforts by investing $600 million in developing biofuels from algae. But the company has also opposed cap-and-trade proposals in Congress, and covered its tracks by calling for a carbon tax, an evasive non-starter.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) recently launched a series of Energy Citizens rallies. ExxonMobil hasn’t been as vocal as ConocoPhillips in its support, or expressed its neutrality like BP and Shell (which are member of USCAP, a group supporting cap and trade legislation). But its “Citizen Action Team” Web site clearly encourages visitors to attend town hall-style meetings. Following a series of chaotic town hall meetings nationwide about health care, API’s Energy Citizens rallies have already drawn numerous charges of “astroturfing.”

Most importantly when it comes to green, however, it is impossible to overlook ExxonMobil’s physical mark on the world. Its natural gas projects, let alone those related to petroleum, are no exception. Besides the sizable carbon-dioxide emissions that come from burning gas, importing foreign LNG is an energy-intensive process. Bringing it in from Alaska would require building a controversial new pipe, and one day, perhaps, tapping larger swaths of wildlife refuge areas. Though it’s unclear that ExxonMobil is involved in any such projects, pulling gas from shale in the continental U.S. means using an advance drilling technique called hydrofracking, which carries a number of environmental concerns.

None of which is to say that ExxonMobil and other oil and gas giants are “evil,” and environmentalists should avoid making that charge. It only provides fodder for rants like the wild-eyed editor’s note from William Baldwin accompanying Helman’s cover story. Thrilled by the natural-gas-makes-green hypothesis, Balwin holds it up as proof that the threat of global warming and environmentalism in general are “religion, not science … Crazy, isn’t, it? Understanding something,” he chides.

Indeed it is, but only if one actually understands that something. In this case, Forbes clearly did not. For much more enlightening reporting, refer back to the magazine’s special issue on alternative energy from last October.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.