Bill Huey
Bill Huey

It seems that all God’s children gotta have a climate strategy or a sustainability schtick these days, and Big Oil is no exception. ExxonMobil and Chevron—two of the nation’s largest and once best-capitalized operators—have embraced the goal of “decarbonizing the economy” or getting to zero emissions by the year 2050.

But how will they do it? Chevron CEO Mike Wirth told CNBC recently that his company would employ a combination of carbon reduction processes and carbon credits to achieve zero “net” emissions.

Pay attention to that last part, because using carbon credits to achieve “zero net” emissions is like Donald Trump using dodgy accounting methods to pay a pittance in taxes on his vast real estate holdings.

Carbon credits work like this: A company knows its emissions are going to be higher than the goal, so they purchase credits from some do-gooder organization (and there are dozens of them out there) that allow them to claim a much lower number. It’s like the old practice of selling indulgences in the Catholic Church—to cut your time in Purgatory, purchase some indulgences for your sins.

The modern version originated in the Reagan Administration. That’s right: Old Pappy was selling indulgences or at least sanctioning them. Back then, it was to make up for the blatant, outright kind of air and water pollution that was causing acid rain and fouling public water supplies. Today, it is much more sophisticated and amounts to selling air or Wall Street derivatives. Carbon credits are traded on exchanges by the ton.

Defenders of carbon credits will say that the setup is replanting rain forests and restoring wetlands, besides helping the Korowai tribe in New Guinea establish schools and end their cannibalistic ways, but honest accounting is honest accounting, and carbon credits are a dodge like any other dodge.

So next time you see a warm and fuzzy television commercial about the great strides being made by these companies, switch your PR radar to high beam and look closely at the real numbers.


Bill Huey is president of Strategic Communications and the author of Carbon Man (Kindle, 2010).