Over the past decade, the four U.S. oil and gas corporations that contributed most to industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1988 to 2015 showered their CEOs with nearly $1.2 billion in compensation, according to a Truthout analysis of corporate disclosures.
Truthout analyzed CEO compensation disclosures of the eight U.S. corporations over the past decade (2013 to 2022) identified among the top 50 emitters of cumulative Scope 1 and Scope 3 industrial greenhouse gas emissions from 1988 to 2015, according to the 2017 Carbon Majors Database Report. We added up total CEO compensation as reported in company proxy statements, which includes base pay, stock awards and bonuses, as well as reported golden parachutes.
The eight corporations included four major oil and gas companies — ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Anadarko (now Occidental) — who disclosed payments of $1.18 billion in CEO pay between 2013 and 2022.
ExxonMobil — the fifth-biggest emitter according the report, responsible for 2 percent of industrial GHG emissions from 1988 to 2015 — disclosed $431 million in CEO compensation between 2013 and 2022, including a whopping $180 million golden parachute to former CEO Rex Tillerson when he left the company to become Donald Trump’s Secretary of State.
Chevron — the 12th biggest emitter, responsible for 1.3 percent of industrial GHG emissions from 1988 to 2015 — paid its two CEOs $252 million between 2013 and 2022, while ConocoPhillips — the 21st-biggest emitter, responsible for 0.9 percent of industrial GHG emissions from 1988 to 2015 — paid CEO Ryan Lance $239 million between 2013 and 2022. During that same time, Anadarko Petroleum (now Occidental) — the 47th biggest emitter, responsible for 0.3 percent of industrial GHG emissions from 1988 to 2015 — reported $260 million in CEO pay, including a $98 million golden parachute to Al Walker, Anadarko’s CEO until Occidental acquired the company.
Even without including the huge golden parachute payments to Tillerson and Walker, the four oil giants shelled out $903.5 million in compensation to their CEOs from 2013 to 2022.
Moreover, these are only the very top emitters. Other major U.S. fossil fuel giants are also shelling out astounding pay to CEOs. Top U.S. refiner Marathon Petroleum, for example, reported $58 million in CEO pay from 2020 to 2022.
The top-emitting U.S. coal company from 1988 to 2015, Peabody Energy — with the 16th biggest emissions, responsible for 1.2 percent of industrial GHG emissions — paid two CEOs $89 million between 2013 and 2022. Peabody is still by far the top U.S. coal producer. Arch Coal — with the 28th biggest emissions, responsible for 0.6 percent of industrial GHG emissions — paid CEO John Eaves $60 million from 2013 to 2022.
Cara Tobe, co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America’s (DSA) Green New Deal Campaign Commission, notes that the CEOs raking in personal fortunes while they oversee fossil fuel operations won’t be severely impacted by increasing climate chaos. “The world burning and drowning won’t actually affect them because they can hop on their private jets and get on their green eco-yachts,” she said. “None of this is actually going to change the lives of billionaires at all.”
Meanwhile, 2022 saw a historic boom in oil and gas profits, with ExxonMobil and Chevron raking in $55.7 billion and $36.5 billion respectively. ConocoPhillips reported $18.7 billion in 2022 profits. Moreover, the industry is expanding oil and gas production. ExxonMobil and Chevron have announced major increases in oil projects, while the Biden administration just approved ConocoPhillips’s Willow project, which has been called a “carbon bomb” that could produce the equivalent in annual carbon emissions of 66 U.S. coal plants.
A November 2022 report by Oil Change International found that “new oil and gas production approved to date in 2022 and at risk of approval over the next three years could cumulatively lock in 70 billion tonnes of new carbon pollution,” which would be “17 percent of the world’s remaining 1.5°C carbon budget, or the lifecycle emissions of 468 coal power plants.” The top six private corporations responsible for the most oil and gas expansion in 2022 include Chevron (#2), ExxonMobil (#4) and ConocoPhillips (#6).
All this comes as Big Oil backtracks on climate pledges while continuing to spend millions lobbying against climate regulations and seeking reputational cover through greenwashing.
“We keep seeing the big oil and gas companies respond with more delay and denial, and failure to take responsibility for their central role in causing the climate crisis,” said Kelly Trout, research co-director at Oil Change International.
This core contradiction between the desperate human need to immediately address climate chaos versus the fossil fuel industry’s dedication to extracting oil, gas and coal as long as it’s profitable underscores the need to build publicly driven and anti-capitalist forces that can provide a counter-power to private industry.
“Fossil fuel companies and the interrelated industries are driven to continue accumulating and polluting because that’s their nature,” Matt Haugen, a steering committee member of the DSA’s Green New Deal Campaign Commission and a research fellow with the Climate and Community Project, told Truthout. “The profit motive is incompatible with solving the climate crisis.”
“A Survival Guide for Humanity”
On March 20, 2023, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the final installment of its sixth assessment report, the AR6 Synthesis Report. Its key findings were dire, but it also lifted up pathways for avoiding the worst outcomes of climate change.
The report asserted that human activities “have unequivocally caused global warming,” with global surface temperature reaching 1.1°C above pre-industrial averages. It stated that “widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred” and that human-caused climate change is “already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe.” It forecasted that, under current trajectories, “warming will exceed 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C,” and emphasized that “vulnerable communities who have historically contributed the least to current climate change are disproportionately affected.”
Essentially, the world is already locked into decades of worsening climate impacts that will inordinately affect people least responsible for causing the crisis but who possess the fewest resources for dealing with it, especially within the Global South.
At the same time, the panel headlined its press release with the plea that “urgent climate action can secure a livable future for all.” It stated that “multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change” exist and that “they are available now.”
Last month’s dire IPCC warning arrived after a 35-year history of rising alarm from the panel. The IPCC was created in 1988 with the goal of “provid[ing] governments at all levels with scientific information that they can use to develop climate policies.” Today, it’s the definitive global authority on climate change. Thousands of researchers contribute to the IPCC’s regular assessments, based on collective and cooperative analysis of the mass of scientific literature. It has 195 member countries.
Over the course of its existence, the IPCC has issued six major assessment reports as well as special releases like its 2018 report on the impacts of a 1.5°C rise in global warming and how to prevent it. “They are the most comprehensive global scientific assessment of the situation we’re in, in terms of the climate crisis impact and what we need to do to confront it,” Trout told Truthout.
The alarm expressed in the findings of AR6 was matched by the response of UN Secretary General António Guterres, who called the report a “survival guide for humanity” and declared that “our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.”
More notably, Guterres proposed an “Acceleration Agenda” to address the climate catastrophe that includes ending all international public and private funding of coal, halting all licensing or funding of new oil and gas and all expansion of existing oil and gas reserves, and “establishing a global phase-down of existing oil and gas production, compatible with the 2050 global net-zero target.”
Guterres also proposed that all G20 nations – the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters – agree to a Climate Solidarity Pact where they make “extra efforts to cut emissions” and “wealthier countries mobilize financial and technical resources to support emerging economies in a common effort to keep [the goal of] 1.5°C alive.”
With this urgent need to change course and keep oil, gas and coal in the ground, there’s a gaping problem: Our global capitalist system remains dominated by the profit motive and the rule of corporate power, with Big Oil corporations and many governments ignoring the IPCC’s pleas. Indeed, over the past decade, as the urgency of the climate crisis has intensified, fossil fuel corporations have continued to rake in huge profits while rewarding their top executives with lavish pay.
“Build a World Around People Instead of Profit”
Haugen says the IPCC’s attempts at global cooperation to address climate change are undermined by the interwovenness of the profit motive within a global capitalist system where producing fossil fuels remains lucrative. He says adequately responding will involve building “a countervailing power that can challenge these entrenched interests and defeat them.”
As ecosocialists, Haugen and Tobe view the struggle for energy, ecological justice and climate justice as inextricably bound up with the wider fight against capitalism and the ruling class power that upholds it.
“The ecosocialist analysis is that increased awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into action,” Haugen said. “Raising awareness is useful, but it has to be to call people to action and to build a world around people instead of profit.”
To do that, we need to continue to build movements.
“We don’t have anywhere near that much power right now,” he said. “We have to build that from the ground up. We have to start by bringing people together and building durable relationships of masses of people that can overcome the money arrayed against us.”
Haugen and Tobe say DSA ecosocialists are trying to do this by focusing on a “Building for Power” campaign aimed at winning Green New Deal-style legislation at the city and state levels in four key areas: public power, public transit, green social housing and green public spaces. Winning this legislation involves constructing broad climate justice alliances and can help build up the structural power in the public sector and the labor movement to drive a just transition and confront fossil capital head-on.
As prime example of this, Haugen points to the “Build Public Renewables Act” in New York State, which is backed by dozens of climate justice, community and labor groups, and would put the state on a transformative, publicly funded shift towards 100 percent renewable energy while lowering energy costs and creating “a new era of green union jobs.”
While the challenges are daunting, Tobe stresses that plugging into movements like these can be an antidote to feelings of helplessness that IPCC findings can foster. “There are actionable items that you can do on the ground that help build towards taking apart that larger problem,” she said. And while it might feel impossible to confront a global problem alone, she added, “it’s not that hard if you work alongside others.”
Trout also emphasizes the need for coordinated government action now, and sees some reasons for optimism in this area — for example, with the newly formed “Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance,” an “international alliance of governments and stakeholders working together to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production” that includes significant fossil fuel producers.
“Government policy needs to actually force the hands of these companies,” said Trout, by refusing to license and insure new fossil fuel projects. “I think it’s up to governments to put the brakes on these companies’ expansion.”
While recognizing that “status quo is taking us on a bad trajectory,” Haugen says we shouldn’t feel like the situation is doomed or hopeless. Even with increased global warming, there’s no looming “point of no return” that would eliminate the urgency of organizing.
“As long as people are alive, every cubic meter of greenhouse gases, every fraction of a degree of global warming, every species that’s saved — that is worth fighting for and makes a difference in the health of ourselves and the world,” he said. “There’s always a reason to fight. You just have to get involved with people. That’s how we start changing the world.”