t was February 2019, and Exxon Mobil Corp. was ready to make one of the largest-ever investments in a U.S. hub for overseas shipments of liquefied natural gas. The $10 billion project was going to be built on the Texas coast under an auspicious name: Golden Pass.
The federal government sent its highest-ranking energy official, then-Secretary Rick Perry, to celebrate the new terminal as a gift of “clean energy” to “our friends around the world.” Exxon Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods promised to showcase the “environmental benefits of natural gas.” There was no mention of the planet-warming emissions that would be released once Golden Pass starts operating, nor had forecasts of climate pollution been shared with Exxon’s investors.
But the emissions forecast is something Exxon knows.
Internal planning documents reviewed by Bloomberg Green dating from before the pandemic show forecasts for direct emissions at Golden Pass that would equal 3.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2025. That means the crown jewel of Exxon’s U.S. LNG export business would have about the same climate impact as a coal power plant, just based on the sheer amount of energy it takes to compress natural gas into a liquid for shipment. Transporting and burning the exported fuel would emit even more.
Casey Norton, a spokesman for Exxon, said in a statement that “projections prior to our 2021 business plans are no longer accurate,” including those for Golden Pass. Exxon’s statement also confirms the company maintains greenhouse-gas forecasts related to its business plans. Exxon and its peers in the industry say this data is shared publicly with regulators when required.
“Emissions estimates and actuals are updated regularly and can fluctuate based on a number of factors,” Norton said. “We evaluate emissions projections as we develop business plans that seek to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impacts.”
“Whether it’s emissions or financial information, forward-looking data is critical,” said Michelle Dunstan, global head of responsible investing at AllianceBernstein, an Exxon shareholder with $668 billion under management. “We tell our analysts to follow the carbon, trace it into the future. For a company like Exxon, its carbon is not taxed today but could become taxed at some point.”
Almost all of the industry’s public climate accounting is retrospective and seldom breaks out details on specific projects. What’s more, Exxon’s planning documents reference previously undisclosed forecasts related to at least 10 major oil and gas companies who are its partners in dozens of projects—a clear indication that tracking future emissions is standard practice across the industry, even if these numbers aren’t always made public.
Wellington Management, another Exxon shareholder with more than $1 trillion under management and with investments across the energy sector, framed the additional disclosures it wants to see in stark terms: “In short, we believe energy companies’ emission profile is becoming key to investability,” said Carolina San Martin, director of ESG research at Wellington.
Exxon said it provides regulators with some emissions estimates. In the U.S., for example, companies are sometimes required to publish a project’s “potential to emit” as part of regulatory approvals. But these numbers often differ significantly from actual emissions forecasts, and in many other countries where Exxon operates—and where several of its partners are based—there are no disclosure requirements at all.
“A carbon-constrained world is going to have direct financial impacts. We need to understand those as clearly and as soon as we can,” said Kirsty Jenkinson, director for sustainable investment at California State Teachers’ Retirement System, which is now backing Engine No. 1.
News reports on the oil giant’s internal planning data, published exclusively by Bloomberg Green in October and drawing on separate documents, revealed Exxon’s overall forecast for rising emissions through 2025. These earlier documents showed that Exxon had previously projected to increase annual emissions by as much as 17%.