Equinor is a multinational oil, gas and energy company headquartered in Norway led by CEO Eldar Sætre. In 2020, according to Forbes, its reported sales were $60.3 billion. In 2020 it disclosed emissions of 265 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, one million more than in 2019.
In 2018, Statoil changed its name to Equinor, which the company said reflected its transition away from oil and gas to a “broad energy company”.
The truth behind the greenwashing
By 2026, Equinor plans to have increased its oil and gas production and maintain over 95% of its energy production from fossil fuels.
Despite the company’s climate action pledges, the Climate Action 100+ Net Zero Company Benchmark finds that Equinor only meets some of the Benchmark’s targets disclosure criteria – whilst Equinor does have a qualifying ambition to reach ‘net zero’, it does not disclose short, medium and long-term GHG reduction targets which cover all its relevant emissions and are aligned with the net zero goal.
Equinor is also scored ‘No’ for failing to commit to align its capital allocation (investments) with its targets, let alone with the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The Benchmark estimates that over $1.3 billion of Equinor’s 2019 capital expenditure on ‘upstream’ fossil fuel extraction and production, and 85% of the company’s future capital expenditure, conflict with the International Energy Agency’s ‘Beyond Two Degrees’ scenario. In this scenario, total temperature rise is limited to 1.75°C by 2100. More and quicker emissions reductions would be required to limit temperature rise to the Paris goal of 1.5°C and to avert more climate harms to people and to the environment.
But its ads tell a different story…
The 2018 rebranding of Statoil to Equinor, which the company said reflected its transition away from oil and gas, was criticised as “greenwashing”.
Despite its claims to be developing as a “broad energy company,” between 2010 and 2018 Equinor was reported to have dedicated just 2% of its capital expenditure on sources of low-carbon energy like wind and solar, and between 2015-2017 just 0.6% of its revenue on low-carbon technology R&D. By the end of 2020, it had installed capacity of 0.7GW renewable energy. In 2018, Equinor’s CEO said that the company was spending $32.5 million on the rebranded name.
Equinor has not reduced its annual Scope 3 emissions. In fact, they have slightly increased since 2015, to 247 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2019 and 250 million tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2020.
Equinor’s net zero ambition includes a ‘get out’ clause that “success will depend on society moving towards net zero in 2050”, although what this means in practice is unclear. The Paris Agreement already records the world’s agreement to pursue efforts to move to net zero in 2050.
The company’s targets exclude its Scope 3 emissions relating to non-energy products like petrochemicals, although lifecycle emissions from petrochemicals like plastics are a major contributor to climate change and the company assumes “that an increasing share of oil and gas will be used for petrochemicals towards 2050”.
Equinor’s targets also exclude all traded oil and gas which they don’t produce, but do buy and sell. The company trades about as much as it produces; over two million barrels of oil per day traded compared to a production of 2.07 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2020.
Equinor pledges its support for the Paris Agreement. It’s 2020 Annual report says “We are an international energy company committed to playing a leading role in the energy transition – providing for continued value creation in a net zero future.”
In January 2020, the company announced a package of targets to bring down its emissions.
For its operations in Norway (Scope 1 and 2 emissions), Equinor says it would aim to reduce, in absolute terms, the emissions produced through its operations by 40% by 2030, and to “near zero” by 2050, all against a 2005 baseline.
Globally, it wants to reach “carbon neutral” operations (Scope 1 and 2 emissions) by 2030. This means that it plans to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide as it produces in its operations (it says, through plans to use quota trading systems and offsets).
In November 2020, the company announced that it would become net zero by 2050 including Scopes 1, 2 and 3 emissions. The emissions from Equinor’s products (Scope 3 emissions), make up the vast bulk of its overall emissions. Equinor aims to reduce the ‘net carbon intensity’ of the energy it sells by 100% by 2050.
The company plans to increase its renewable energy capacity to 4-6GW by 2026 and 12-16 GW by 2035.
Continued exploration, planned production increases
In 2020, Equinor approved four new oil and gas projects, two in Norway and two internationally. Equinor says it “intends to continue to mature its attractive portfolio of exploration assets” and it recorded exploration expenses of $3.4 billion in 2020.
Equinor’s business strategy in its 2020 Annual Report for the Norwegian Continental Shelf oil and gas fields which make up 60% of the company’s fossil fuel production talks of the “large remaining resource potential” and says that it may reach “a potential historically high in production levels in 2025”.
The remaining 40% of Equinor’s fossil fuel production comes from its international oil and gas projects. Here, in 2020, the company “continued exploration activity outside Norway and drilled offshore wells in Brazil, Canada, UK and Azerbaijan in addition to onshore exploration wells in Argentina, Algeria and Russia.”
Equinor’s ‘international climate roadmap’ document sets out the aim of growing the company’s operated production in its ‘international portfolio’ by 300% while reducing emissions intensity by 50%, all by 2030. This amounts to a planned increase of 150% in the absolute amount of GHG emissions.
In January 2020, Equinor opened the largest oil field in Western Europe – the “giant” Johan Sverdrup field – which has an estimated 2.7 billion barrels of oil and is set to be active for 50 years. The company is also heavily involved in Arctic oil and gas exploration and says this will be “an important contributor to securing supply for the growing global energy demand”.
Equinor has not committed to reduce its oil and gas production by 2030, the date by which IPCC scenarios say emissions from fossil fuels will need to be substantially reduced. Analysis tells us that there is already too large a stock of developed oil and gas reserves for a safe climate.
Instead, the company estimates 2% more production in 2021 than in 2020, and “expects to deliver an average annual oil and gas production growth of around 3 percent from 2019 to 2026.” It puts off “an expected gradual decline in global demand for oil and gas” until after 2030, too late for safe climate pathways.
Although Equinor does not yet give separate financial figures for its renewable electricity operations, it is clear that they remain a tiny part of its overall business. The net income from Equinor’s renewable investments was $163 million in 2020, which is less than 5% of Equinor’s total net operating loss of 2020 of $3.4 billion. This part of its business is so small that in the company’s financial reporting it is lumped in with support functions under the title ‘Other’, “due to the immateriality of these operating segments”. Despite talk of growing renewable capacity tenfold by 2026, the company’s ‘New Energy Solutions’ renewables electricity production actually decreased 5% between 2019 and 2020, and it sold away parts of offshore wind power assets worth over $1 billon.
The company says it wants to develop renewable capacity to 4-6GW by 2026 and will become a global offshore wind major, but another Scandinavian oil and gas company which switched to become an offshore wind business, Ørsted, already had 7.6GW of offshore wind by the end of 2020 and aims for 15GW by 2025.
By 2026, Equinor says its plans to reach a renewable energy share of just 4%, compared to 55% in oil and 41% in gas. Applying a different calculation method, the company’s sustainability report explains that this target amounts to a smaller share: 1%.
Promoting fossil fuel gas
The company calls gas “the perfect fuel to balance renewable energy”. It even says that “[g]as is attractive from an environmental perspective too, as it emits between 50 and 65 per cent less CO2 in electricity production than coal”. By focussing on emissions from combustion in electricity production, this selective claim ignores the emissions from methane leakage along the 11,880km of gas pipelines it operates and in distribution systems.
As the second largest gas supplier in Europe, Equinor says that “[w]e believe that Europe should continue to invest in natural gas as the most cost-effective and readily-available solution to meeting its energy security and emission reduction targets.” But the company faces criticisms that investment in new gas infrastructure will ‘lock-in’ harmful emissions for decades to come and that carbon-intensive gas is not the best way to manage the intermittency of renewable energy.
In September 2019, the company was warned by the UK advertising regulator over implying that fossil gas is a “low carbon energy source”.
Wishful thinking around CCS
Against the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel companies every year, the entire global operational CCS capacity in 2020 was less than 40 million tonnes of CO2. That is roughly 15% of Equinor’s 2020 emissions alone. Analysis shows that reaching climate targets whilst continuing with today’s oil and gas projects requires a rapid and massive acceleration in CCS. However, forecasts for CCS growth have failed to materialise in the last 20 years and net-zero commitments based on the technology have been criticised as wishful thinking. Experts consider that any future development of CCS will come too late for urgent pathways to a safe climate, and highlight numerous problems and barriers to short-term deployment.
Equinor says that carbon capture (use) and storage (CCS) to capture emissions from ongoing oil and gas production will be increasingly important in its 'net-zero' aims. For its net zero ambition, the company assumes a “well-functioning market for carbon capture and storage”, which does not yet exist.
Equinor has one operating CCS project, Sleipner, and is involved in two other initiatives at earlier stages (Northern Lights and the UK Northern Endurance Partnership). The company reports that the Sleipner CCS facility captures about 1 million tonnes CO2 annually since 1996. Northern Lights’ capture capacity is listed as between 0.8 and 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
These amounts of CO2 are dwarfed by Equinor’s disclosed 2020 emissions of 250 million tonnes – they add up to less than 3%. Equinor owns 58% of the Sleipner project, and the other owners (including Exxon) can be expected to want to claim its captured emissions to set against their fossil fuel businesses too.
Obstructing climate measures
Despite saying it will leave groups that obstruct efforts to reach the Paris Agreement goals, Equinor remains a member of a number of powerful trade associations that have a history of obstructing climate measures. These include the American Petroleum Institute (API), Fuels Europe and the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA).
Leaked documents show Equinor lobbying the UK government for a sponsorship role at COP26, and it has also lobbied to water down EU green standards regarding fossil gas.
More greenwashing profiles
We’ve put together explainers of some of the key terms and phrases used in these Greenwashing Files.
What are GHGs?
GHGs stands for greenhouse gases - this is the group of seven gases generally seen as contributing to global warming, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).
What are the Paris goals?
The goals which countries agreed on in Article 2(1) of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
What is CO2e?
CO2e stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, a measure of greenhouse gases. Other non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases are converted to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide on the basis of their global warming potential in order to produce a single greenhouse gases measure.
What are Scope 1-3 emissions?
Scope 1-3 emissions are the most widely used international carbon accounting tool. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol categorises a company’s GHG emissions into three groups:
- Scope 1 covers direct emissions from the company’s owned or controlled sources (e.g. burning fuel, company vehicles, emissions from the company’s own industrial processes).
- Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the company.
- Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain, including emissions from the use of its products.
Is gas clean?
Many fossil fuel companies make questionable claims about the sustainability of fossil fuel 'natural' gas, frequently marketed as ‘the cleanest-burning’ fossil fuel. Burning gas may produce less CO2 than burning coal or oil, but it is still carbon intensive, and not a viable long-term energy source – unlike renewable energy. Climate goals mean that gas use must be reduced, not increased.
On a full ‘lifecycle’ basis, generating electricity by burning gas produces on average more than 10 times the emissions of real low-carbon electricity sources like solar, and more than 40 times the emissions from wind power. As well as emitting significant CO2 when burnt, extracting, transporting and storing fossil fuel gas leaks methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. How much is leaked is critical - if leakage isn’t kept to low enough levels, the overall climate impact of gas can be worse than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Measuring leakage is challenging, and significant advances in reducing leakage are needed.
Is gas a backup for renewables?
Currently gas power is not typically limited to a ‘backup’ function when variable wind and solar renewable energy drops off. Instead, gas is a significant source of regular electricity generation globally, providing electricity that could be replaced by increasingly cheaper renewables. Meanwhile, investments in new gas infrastructure with decades-long operating lifetimes are set to 'lock in' unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions.
Is carbon offsetting the answer to fossil fuels?
Companies’ climate plans increasingly rely on vague talk of huge ‘offsets’ or ‘nature-based solutions’ schemes instead of near-term reductions in fossil fuel production. These plans, even if costed and scalable, can in practice often involve vast commercial monoculture tree plantations, which can cause negative impacts on biodiversity and communities, and struggle to guarantee carbon storage for the hundreds of years which fossil fuel emissions will remain in the atmosphere. Some companies plan to claim the carbon ‘credits’ from existing forests by relying on questionable claims that the corporate offset schemes are the only way to stop deforestation. Carbon removals and offsetting schemes like this can be a part of tackling climate change. But they are not an alternative to prioritising cutting emissions for any sector, let alone for the fossil fuel industry.
Can we rely on carbon capture technology?
Analysis shows that reaching climate targets whilst continuing with today’s oil and gas projects would require a rapid and massive acceleration in carbon capture and storage (CCS). Despite long-running talk of big plans for CCS, companies have never operated it at anything like sufficient scale.
Today, global operational CCS capacity accounts for about 0.1% of global fossil fuel emissions, and the technology cannot capture 100% of emissions. Some companies plan to use, rather than store, captured CO2, often to extract yet more oil. CCS also does not avoid upstream methane emissions and may even increase these due to the additional energy required to run the technology.
There is a history of repeated failures to scale-up CCS, and plans for economically viable CCS have been called ‘wishful thinking’. Experts highlight numerous problems and barriers to short-term deployment and consider that any future development of CCS will now be too little, too late for urgent pathways to a safe climate.
Is biomass sustainable?
Some companies are now turning from fossil fuels to forest biomass energy. Wood biomass is treated as ‘renewable’ under EU and UK law, based on a carbon accounting rule where the GHG emissions from burning biomass are counted as ‘zero’.
However, in reality, burning wood biomass can produce even more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels. Sourcing the fuel for biomass through logging is also linked to deforestation - degrading the natural carbon sinks we need for a safe climate. The carbon accounting rule is highly controversial, and does not mean that biomass is in reality ‘low-carbon’ or ‘carbon-neutral’. Because of this, scientists warn that burning wood biomass for energy creates a double climate problem - because it is a false solution to climate change that is replacing real solutions.
What are carbon emissions targets?
Emissions intensity targets – An intensity target is relative to product output, for example the amount of GHGs per barrel of oil produced.
Absolute emissions targets - An absolute target simply refers to the overall amount of GHG emissions attributable to the company. Under many intensity targets, a company can maintain or even increase its overall GHG emissions, provided it increases production enough.
What does CCUS mean?
CCS stands for carbon capture and storage. This is the process of trapping carbon dioxide produced, for example, by burning fossil fuels and then storing it permanently so that it will not contribute to global heating. CCUS, or carbon capture, use or storage, additionally refers to the use of trapped carbon dioxide for some other process.
How do you define capital expenditure?
Capital expenditure is investment by a company on major fixed assets such as buildings, vehicles, equipment or land. This is different from operating expenditure, which represents day-to-day recurring costs like salaries or rent.
The Greenwashing Files have been produced and published by ClientEarth, an environmental law charity registered in England and Wales, with research assistance from DeSmog. For more details, please refer to the registration details in the footer of our website. The information included in the Greenwashing Files is as of 25 March 2021.
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