How the World’s Largest Oil Company ‘Greenwashes’ the Truth

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“Investing in Growth, Innovating for Sustainability”

Typed in sleek white ink, these six words headline a 230-page document complete with modern visuals and trendy environmental buzzwords. They would fit right in at the top of a UN climate report or ecological manifesto, but instead they headline a report from Aramco—the Saudi-owned behemoth of the fossil fuels industry.

While it may seem counterintuitive for the world’s single largest polluter[1] to include net-zero goals and sustainability pledges in its 2022 annual report, Aramco’s climate-conscious rebranding is part of a larger trend within the fossil fuels industry. This tactic (often dubbed “greenwashing”) has been increasingly employed by serial polluters to erect an eco-friendly façade which masks their fundamentally unsustainable business model.

But it wasn’t always this way. As much as Aramco officials like to claim their “journey toward sustainability” began in the 1970’s,[2] a closer look at the company’s past PR causes this narrative to fall apart. During much of the company’s earlier years, Aramco’s branding lacked much of the environmental messaging seen today. Public comments scarcely mentioned “sustainability,” much less in the ecological context Aramco now suggests. The companies’ statements instead remained largely production oriented. In a 1974 article for The New York Times, then Aramco chairman Frank Jungers even boasted about the company’s capacity for sustained oil production stating, “what we have is large reserves‐156 billion barrels of probable reserves and 93 billion barrels of proven reserves, which clearly could support 20 million barrels a day in production on out through the end of the century without any problem at all.”[3]

While talks of increased oil production may not be as popular today, the oil crisis of 1973 left many Americans concerned about the nation’s energy supplies. In 1978, Harris polling found that as many as 79% of Americans thought the US energy shortage would be very or somewhat serious in 10 years’ time.[4] Post-1973 conditions also meant less opportunities to trade with a stagnant Soviet economy.[5] As such, Aramco was eager to market its oil to a Western market that itself was eager to buy.

The most obvious explanation for Aramco’s environmental disregard, however, is also the simplest: climate change wasn’t a mainstream issue until the late 80’s. That all changed in 1988 when after a record-breakingly hot summer, NASA scientist James Hansen delivered a testimony to Congress. His models predicted the existence of global warming with 99% certainty,[6] a fact that shifted public perception and catapulted global warming into the national spotlight. Likely because of this, Aramco’s (and by extension Saudi Arabia’s) strategy during the late 80’s and early 90’s pivoted from feigned ignorance to systematic obstruction.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was first established in 1988, Saudi delegates worked in conjunction with Western oil interests to adopt as little action as possible, as late as possible. During the 1995 IPCC meeting in Madrid for instance, these representatives fought tirelessly to reword scientific reports with the goal of emphasizing the uncertainty of climate change. “Convincing evidence” was replaced with “some preliminary evidence”; “discernible human influence on global climate” was altered to “appreciable human influence on global climate.”[7] Other efforts at opposition were more blatant such as when then Saudi oil official, Mohammad Al-Sabban, confronted climate scientists claiming the science on humans’ influence on the climate was not settled.[8]

Today though, Saudi Arabia’s (and by extension Aramco’s) opposition to climate change legislation lacks much of the ham-handed antagonism of the early 90’s. A major factor for this was BP’s announcement in 1997 that it would support international greenhouse gas regulation.[9] What followed was a massive paradigm in the oil industry with Shell and several other oil producers following suit. Even the oil-producing Saudi Government jumped on the bandwagon. In 2005, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officially ratified the Kyoto Protocol s—the same climate change protocols the country had tried to strike down a decade earlier.[10]

Aramco probably deserves some credit where it’s due. In recent years, the company has invested substantial amounts of capital into solar, wind and carbon capture technologies.[11] However, the problem with Aramco’s eco-friendly marketing strategy is not what it promises but rather how it frames those promises. Take Aramco’s headline-grabbing net-zero strategy for instance. While the company has vowed to take steps towards reaching “net-zero emissions” by 2050, Aramco’s definition of net-zero only encompasses the CO2 released during production. This narrative is particularly problematic as it lets the company off the hook for much of its ecological footprint. Even if operational emissions were to reach 0, that doesn’t account for the other 85% of emissions released at the point of consumption.[12] “You can’t decarbonize oil because of the fundamental end-use emissions,” stated former BP geologist, Michael Coffin, in an interview with the Financial Times. “It’s a myth.”[13]

What’s not a myth is the real and pressing danger that climate change poses, especially to countries like Saudi Arabia which have already been dealing with record breaking heat waves.[14] MENA countries are not the only ones who will suffer either. According to a recent UN report, the planet is on track to reach between 2.1 and 2.9 degrees of warming from pre-industrial levels. Not only does this eclipse the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C, it could also lead to what some scientists call a “climate breakdown.”[15] Aramco claims to understand this reality in public documents, it fails to recognize to that the decarbonizing fundamentally entails decommissioning (or at least scaling back production). Instead, the company is continuing to scale crude oil production capacity.[16]


We live in an age where young consumers are increasingly concerned about the core-values of the brands they’re buying from.[17] Combine that with our fast-paced, sensationalistic social media culture and it’s easy for serial polluters like Aramco to take advantage. It’s why Aramco’s most recent annual report mentions “sustainability” a staggering 205 times. It’s also why the company is so desperate to brand itself as “net-zero” while simultaneously ramping up production. The way we spend our money matters but for “ethical consumption” to work, we need to first distinguish between real environmental justice and profitable corporate action. Only then can we effectively demand accountability.


References

[1] Webb, Samuel. “Oil Giant Dubbed World’s Worst Polluter Is Now World’s Biggest Company.” The Independent, 12 May 2022, www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/oil-apple-saudi-aramco-climate-pollution-b2077408.html.

[2] “Aramco Started Journey toward Sustainability in 1970s, Says Official.” Arab News, 22 May 2022, www.arabnews.com/node/2087056/business-economy. Accessed 14 May 2023.

[3] Smith, William. “Aramco Adds to Capacity despite Oil Restrictions; Slower Pace Conceded.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 1974, timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1974/01/29/81859410.html?pageNumber=39. Accessed 14 May 2023.

[4] Fusso, Thomas E. “The Polls: The Energy Crisis in Perspective.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 42, no. 1 (1978): 127–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2748098.

[5] Lawson, Fred H. “Review Article: KEYS TO THE KINGDOM: CURRENT SCHOLARSHIP ON SAUDI ARABIA.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 43, no. 4 (2011): 737–47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41308755.

[6] History.com Editors. “Climate Change History.” HISTORY, 6 Oct. 2017, www.history.com/topics/natural-disasters-and-environment/history-of-climate-change#. Accessed 14 May 2023.

[7] Houghton, John. “Madrid 1995: Diagnosing Climate Change.” Nature, vol. 455, no. 7214, Oct. 2008, pp. 737–738, https://doi.org/10.1038/455737a. Accessed 10 Oct. 2019.

[8] Chemnick, Jean. “Oil Kingdom and a “High Priest” Stall Action for 30 Years.” E&E News, 29 Oct. 2018, www.eenews.net/articles/oil-kingdom-and-a-high-priest-stall-action-for-30-years/. Accessed 14 May 2023.

[9] PULVER, SIMONE. “MAKING SENSE OF CORPORATE ENVIRONMENTALISM: An Environmental Contestation Approach to Analyzing the Causes and Consequences of the Climate Change Policy Split in the Oil Industry.” Organization & Environment 20, no. 1 (2007): 44–83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26162029.

[10] Al-Sarihi, Aisha. “Saudi Arabia and Climate Change: From Systematic Obstructionism to Conditional Acceptance.” Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, 31 Aug. 2018, agsiw.org/saudi-arabia-and-climate-change-from-systematic-obstructionism-to-conditional-acceptance/.

[11] Ugal, Nishant. “Saudi Aramco Poised to Tender Huge Carbon Capture Project Targeting Multiple Gas Plants.” Upstream Online | Latest Oil and Gas News, 19 Jan. 2023, www.upstreamonline.com/exclusive/saudi-aramco-poised-to-tender-huge-carbon-capture-project-targeting-multiple-gas-plants/2-1-1389566?zephr_sso_ott=odr2ic. Accessed 14 May 2023.

[12] O’Connor, Maeve. “Oil Giant Aramco Still Doing Minimum to Tackle Emissions.” Carbon Tracker Initiative, 13 July 2022, carbontracker.org/oil-giant-aramco-still-doing-minimum-to-tackle-emissions/.

[13] “Saudi Aramco Bets on Being the Last Oil Major Standing.” Financial Times, 12 Jan. 2023, www.ft.com/content/513b770b-836b-472b-a058-3e4a95437c69.

[14] Hansen, Kathryn. “Heatwave Scorches the Middle East.” Earthobservatory.nasa.gov, 11 June 2021, earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/148430/heatwave-scorches-the-middle-east.

[15] Leffer, Lauren. “These Numbers Are All Wrong.” Gizmodo, 26 Oct. 2022, gizmodo.com/un-report-climate-change-2-degrees-warming-1849704926.

[16] Saudi Aramco. Annual Report 2022.

[17] Kitterman, Ted. “Report: 83% of Millennials Want Brands to Align with Them on Values – PR Daily.” PR Daily, 18 Feb. 2020, www.prdaily.com/report-83-of-millennials-want-brands-to-align-with-them-on-values/.

Author

Beckett is in the class of 2026 studying Global Affairs and Mathematics & Philosophy.

beckett.pechon-elkins@yale.edu