Oil companies talk about low-carbon projects. How much do they spend on them?

Streaming into a hearing days before Halloween, Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., held up a Mason jar full of blue, red, yellow and green M&Ms for a demonstration on Shell Oil’s capital spending.

“Each M&M represents about $50 million,” Porter said during the Oct. 28 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing with top executives from four oil companies.

Porter then tipped the jar, pouring out nearly every candy into another container. That, she said, represented Shell’s investment this year in oil, gas and chemicals — $16 billion to $17 billion. The handful of the M&Ms remaining at the bottom of the jar represented what the company planned to spend on renewable energy and other carbon reduction plans.

“This does not look like an adequate response to one of the defining challenges of our time,” Porter said. “This is greenwashing.”

It’s the same concern the International Energy Agency raised in 2020, without M&Ms. While oil industry investments in clean energy are rising, it said, “so far, investment by oil and gas companies outside their core business areas has been less than 1% of total capital expenditure.” 

It went on to say “a much more significant change in overall capital allocation would be required to accelerate energy transitions.”

Oil companies can’t escape that the heart of their business is a product that drives climate change. They can, however, highlight everything they’re doing to reduce the environmental impact of energy production and consumption. 

The question is, how much of their capital budgets are individual oil companies devoting to clean energy and low-carbon projects? Is it a substantial share, or just a few morsels at the bottom of the jar?

Of the four major companies represented at the hearing — Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil and Chevron — only BP provides clear details on the actual dollars it is spending on low-carbon projects. For the others, we pieced together estimates based on independent analyses, news reports and company statements.

The standings

For this analysis, we looked at the oil companies’ capital expenditures, which are typically investments in fixed, physical assets. And we looked at the full range of low-carbon activities, an umbrella term that includes cutting the release of greenhouse gases in fossil-fuel operations, developing renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, producing hydrogen, or capturing carbon to either use it or store it underground.

The available numbers show that among the four companies, BP leads by a wide margin in the proportion of its capital spending devoted to low-carbon activities. It’s followed by Shell, Chevron and Exxon Mobil.

BP

BP’s latest financial release shows $9.2 billion in capital spending this year. Of that, at least 16% went towards low-carbon projects. For BP, low-carbon includes wind, solar,  biofuels, hydrogen and carbon capture. Not reflected in its financial spreadsheets are roughly $150 million spent on reducing emissions from fossil fuel operations. 

In a narrower comparison with capital spending solely on oil and gas, low-carbon represents about 20% of BP’s investments.

Shell

Shell Oil held its low-carbon investment cards close to its chest. We asked about the amount spent on low carbon compared with the total.

“Those are not breakdowns we provide,” the press office said. (Shell Oil is part of the global Royal Dutch Shell, and no distinction between the two was made at the hearing.)

Shell President Gretchen Watkins said the company has invested billions in low-carbon energy. That includes “developing solar and wind projects, deploying electric vehicle charging and infrastructure, and making a business of wholesale trading of renewable power,” Watkins testified at the Oct. 28 hearing.

So far this year, Shell has $12.7 billion in capital expenditures, with a target of about $19 billion to $20 billion for the year. It says that in the “near term,” it will spend $2 billion to $3 billion on “renewables and energy solutions.” The company gives few details. If it delivers on its plans, it will spend about 10% in the low-carbon area.

That’s in line with an estimate from BloombergNEF that so far this year, Shell spent about 9.5% of total capital expenditures on low-carbon. 

Chevron

Chevron reports that over some unspecified period, it spent $1 billion on carbon capture. It also has said it has put about $800 million in investment funds that could include renewables or low-carbon projects. We wanted to know when and how much of that money had actually been spent.

“We do not have any additional information to provide at this time,” the company press office said.

Before the pandemic, Chevron had total capital expenditures of about $14 billion a year. That dipped during the pandemic, and now is headed back up, with $6.9 billion spent so far this year.

We can only estimate Chevron’s current fraction of investment in the low-carbon area. In September, it said it would triple its investments by 2028, reaching an estimated 6% of its total capital spending. Overall capital expenditures would be changing over that time, but this suggests that Chevron spends about a third of that, or 2% today.

ExxonMobil

BloombergNEF’s estimate for ExxonMobil is much lower. For 2015 through 2020, the fraction was 0.01%. For this year, it is 0.16%.

ExxonMobil says it has spent about $10 billion in the past 20 years to develop lower emission energy. So far this year, its capital spending is $10.7 billion. In March, the company announced it plans to spend $3 billion by 2025 on “lower emission energy solutions.”

CEO Darren Woods said so far, ExxonMobil has “captured more CO2 than any other company.” 

A cautionary note about low-carbon

Two of the biggest growth areas for oil company investments in low-carbon activities have been carbon capture and hydrogen fuel. Both come with potential downsides. 

Today, roughly a third of the commercial use of carbon dioxide — produced from a variety of sources, not just carbon capture — goes toward pumping more oil from the earth. So, carbon capture by itself doesn’t necessarily reduce carbon emissions overall.

Hydrogen also presents a mixed picture. While using it as a fuel is a clear greenhouse gas winner, producing it is another story. As the International Energy Agency pointed out, “hydrogen is produced mainly from fossil fuels, resulting in close to 900 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.” Many countries, including the U.S., fund research to produce so-called green hydrogen, but profitable operations on a commercial scale have yet to emerge.