The Fossil Fuel Companies Are Figuring Out Devious New Ways to Greenwash

The fossil fuel industry is trying to rebrand, using terms like “unabated coal” and “responsibly sourced gas” in an attempt to greenwash their commitment to continue burning fossil fuels.

The rise of terms like “unabated coal” and “responsibly sourced gas” suggest companies and politicians are still more interested in adopting a green facade than making the major changes necessary to address the mounting climate crisis.(Gerry Machen / Flickr)

On June 12, the United States and other leaders of the intergovernmental political forum the Group of Seven (G7) committed “to an end to new direct government support for unabated international thermal coal power generation by the end of this year.” The pledge is part of climate change actions aimed at accelerating the global transition away from coal generation.

While the announcement might sound encouraging, the problem lies in how the pledge was phrased — including but not limited to the term “unabated coal.” The term refers to coal-fired power generation that does not employ technologies like carbon capture and storage. That means these nations can still support other types of coal power generation as long as they involve technologies like carbon capture and storage — processes that have been heavily criticized for being stalling tactics that have yet to deliver on their promises.

The G7 announcement is “about as effective as sprinkling a few drops of water on a raging forest fire,” said Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit media lab working to end fossil fuels. “First, the G7 failed to set a clear deadline for ending coal use; second, by saying they’re only ending ‘direct’ government support, they leave room for all sorts of loopholes that could funnel money towards new coal plants; and third, the term ‘unabated’ means they’re leaving room for plants that say they’ll use carbon capture and sequestration technology, something that has proven thus far to be a colossal failure.”

The idea for “unabated coal” is not a new one. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has tried greenwashing its polluting operations by adopting misleading terms like “clean coal” and “natural gas.”

Along with “unabated coal,” another new example of fossil fuel duplicity is the emergence of the term “responsibly sourced gas.” Many major gas companies are moving to brand their products as having low greenhouse gas emissions as a way to take advantage of climate change–oriented investment trends — even though so far, there is little scientific consensus as to what “responsibly sourced gas” actually means and how much the approach will benefit the environment.

The rise of terms like “unabated coal” and “responsibly sourced gas” suggest companies and politicians are still more interested in adopting a green facade than making the major changes necessary to address the mounting climate crisis. If such phrases become the norm, they risk misleading and distracting the public from the vital work that needs to be done to limit global warming to within 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. Beyond this threshold, scientists agree that many natural and human ecosystems may not survive.

A History of Duplicity

Fossil gas is predominantly composed of methane, a greenhouse gas with a much higher warming potential than the carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning coal. But the fossil fuel industry has worked to blunt resistance to fossil gas’s global warming impacts by branding it as “natural gas” or “liquid natural gas.”

The efforts have worked. A December 2020 study found that the term “natural gas” evokes much more positive feelings than “methane” or “methane gas.”

“The fossil fuel industry is constantly trying to rebrand its products as good for the environment even as they’re destroying the planet,” said Henn at Fossil Free Media. “That’s why our Clean Creatives campaign is going after the PR and ad agencies that work for the fossil fuel industry.” The campaign calls on public relations and advertising agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies.

During the Trump administration, the Department of Energy (DOE) tried its hand at fossil fuel duplicity by referring to fossil fuels as “molecules of freedom” and fossil gas as “freedom gas.” Canadian oil companies, meanwhile, attempted to rebrand their product as “ethical oil.”

“We need to stop the industry’s ability to pollute our public discourse if we’re going to stop them from polluting the atmosphere,” noted Henn.

Nonthreatening terms like “natural gas” have allowed the Biden administration to enthusiastically support the gas industry with minimal public pushback, despite that fact that Joe Biden made campaign promises to pursue “aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations” and signed an executive order on his first day in office calling for consideration of new methane regulations in the oil and gas sector.

In March, Biden told union leaders he’s “all for natural gas,” adding he supports both the gas industry and carbon capture and storage technologies.

And in June, Andrew Light, Biden’s nominee to lead international energy issues as the DOE’s assistant secretary for international affairs, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing:

My job in this role is to make sure US gas is competitive around the world . . . More and more countries are looking for cleaner sources of gas. Russia has the dirtiest source of gas right now. We’ve got to make sure ours is cleaner and that ours fill those markets around the world. That’s what I intend to do.

According to Light’s testimony, US liquid natural gas exports reached a record 10.2 billion cubic meters in March, and the industry expects a 50 percent increase in total exports this year compared to 2020.

The Biden administration’s support of fossil gas goes squarely against what the Paris Agreement demands from wealthy nations, which have historically been the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. The United States, for example, has emitted a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions since the mid-eighteenth century. Countries like the United States, therefore, are expected to bear more responsibility for combating climate change, both by reducing its own emissions and helping less-developed countries transition to low-carbon economies.

“There’s no room for gas in a safe climate future,” said Henn. “The science is clear: Gas production results in massive methane emissions and slows the transition to clean energy. There’s simply no way to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement if we keep building new gas infrastructure.”

Fossil Fuel Science Fiction

The Biden administration’s pledge at the G7 meeting to end “new direct government support” for “unabated coal” suggests the White House is using misleading terminology and embracing unproven technologies as a way to still fund coal projects.

In April, for example, the DOE announced up to $35 million for programs focused on developing technologies to reduce methane emissions in the oil, gas, and coal industries. What’s more, Biden’s proposed infrastructure legislation bill has earmarked billions for the fossil fuel industry in terms of subsidies and support for carbon capture and storage.

Such incentives, while positioned as environmentally friendly, are likely to encourage additional fossil fuel production.

A report by forty-one scientists last December called the reliance on such technologies “overly optimistic” because “they are expensive, energy intensive, risky, and their deployment at scale is unproven.”

The upshot, say experts, is that by throwing around terms like “unabated coal” and putting their faith in questionable technology, developed nations will likely end up underwriting projects that shouldn’t be funded at all.

“This means the G7 will continue financing abated coal, which the world cannot afford,” said Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development (APMDD). “Policies with exceptions like these only further delay [the implementation] of solutions which we need. We are losing time.”

The “Responsibly Sourced Gas” Mystery

Early this year, a new term emerged in the public discourse around fossil fuels: “responsibly sourced gas” (RSG).

In January, EQT Corporation, the largest natural gas producer in the United States, announced it was launching a pilot program with Project Canary, a Denver, Colorado–based climate-tech company, with the goal of certifying several of its wells as producing “responsibly sourced natural gas.”

In April, Chesapeake Energy — an oil and gas company and a fracking pioneer that emerged from bankruptcy earlier this year with about $3 billion in new financing, a $7 billion reduction in debt, and $1.7 billion cut from its gas processing and pipeline costs — announced that it, too, was partnering with Project Canary to produce responsibly sourced gas.

These efforts are a direct response to the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment movement, an increasingly influential form of investing that takes into account a company’s overall impact, rather than just financial factors.

Indeed, the power of socially conscious investment strategies is on the upswing, and fossil fuel companies in particular are feeling the heat. As one oil and gas executive admitted in a recently released Dallas Fed Energy Survey, “We have relationships with approximately 400 institutional investors and close relationships with 100. Approximately one is willing to give new capital to oil and gas investment. The story is the same for public companies and international exploration.”

Facing the threat of institutional investors citing ESG concerns to pull capital out of fossil fuel projects, oil and gas companies are trying to flip the script: they are aiming to use the concept of RSG to position their projects as ESG investment opportunities, especially since the two acronyms bear a striking similarity.

Never mind that gas drilling seems to go against the very idea of ESG investing. As EQT CEO Toby Rice noted in a press release about the company’s pilot project, “This partnership aligns with our commitment to ESG leadership and to meeting the evolving needs and expectations of our stakeholders.”

Experts say, however, that so far there is very little information on the specifics of responsibly sourced gas, or the criteria being used to certify these gas operations as ESG-appropriate or less harmful for the environment. Moreover, RSG certification appears to gloss over the fact that far less pollution comes from the extraction of gas than is generated by its inevitable combustion — and no matter how fossil gas is sourced, it still releases the same amount of harmful emissions when it is burned.

“None of the certifying organizations I’ve looked into have clear instructions on what responsibly sourced gas means. It’s a very open question as of now,” said Sharon Kelly, an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

“It’s the Wild West, and there are no industry-wide standards,” Kelly added. She explained that there are a lot of different standards for certification of responsibly sourced gas that are competing for credibility among investors like banks and oil and gas analysts. Many of these standards rely on metrics like methane emissions, wastewater handling, and air pollution. But the standards often face scrutiny and skepticism by environmental groups, said Kelly, because most were developed with the help of fossil fuel interests, which have a history of prioritizing their bottom line above all other concerns.

Greenwashing efforts like embracing “responsibly sourced gas” and misleading the public with terms like “unabated coal” could prove to be the fossil fuel industry trying to squeeze the last bits of profit from infrastructure investments in the face of climate change–driven public demands and a rising renewable energy sector. And while the Biden administration appears to be aiding the efforts, experts aren’t fooled. No matter what people choose to call them, they say, gas, oil, and coal projects have no place in the climate change era.

“Any ESG fund or serious government plan needs to exclude gas in all of its forms,” said Henn. “Renewable energy is cheap, reliable, and widely available. We need to stop financing and building oil, gas, and coal projects across the board.”