In a stark display of profits over the planet, the world’s five largest oil companies are set to shower their shareholders with an eye-watering sum exceeding $100 billion in 2023. This lavish payout comes at a time when the Earth is grappling with what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres aptly dubbed the “era of global boiling.” Wildfires, prolonged heatwaves, and other climate catastrophes are ravaging our planet, directly linked to fossil fuel extraction and its catastrophic impact on global temperatures.
Yet, for BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies, 2023 was a year of striking gold. After doling out $104 billion to shareholders in 2022, these oil behemoths are ramping up their generosity even further. For instance, Shell’s $23 billion payout to investors is over six times what it plans to spend on renewable energy. BP is upping its dividends by 10%, and Chevron is potentially topping its massive $75 billion stock buyback from last year.
Alice Harrison from Global Witness points out the stark contrast between the fortunes of fossil fuel shareholders and ordinary people suffering from fuel poverty and climate disasters. “The global energy crisis has been a giant cash grab for fossil fuel firms,” she states. As households struggle to afford heating and countries suffer from climate-induced extreme weather, these companies are doubling down on oil and gas while fattening the wallets of the wealthy. It’s a blatant display of the fossil fuel economy’s bias towards the rich.
2023 also saw heightened demands for accountability from the fossil fuel sector. Over 1,600 institutions have been pressured into divesting from fossil fuels, and the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, hailed as a historic climate investment, kicked in.
However, according to Dieter Helm, an economic policy professor at the University of Oxford, the industry’s lavish spending on new projects and shareholder payouts signals a lack of fear of a real energy transition. They’re betting big on the continued demand for fossil fuels, and sadly, our current climate progress, or lack thereof, seems to prove them right.
This year, despite growing climate concerns, U.S. President Joe Biden approved the controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, set to emit a staggering 280 million metric tons of CO2. He also pushed for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, with emissions equivalent to over 89 million metric tons of CO2. Meanwhile, the U.K. government greenlit a massive North Sea oil drilling field, and French giant TotalEnergies pushed ahead with the East African Crude Oil Pipeline.
Climate activist Vanessa Nakate pointed out the absurdity of these payouts following the establishment of a loss and damage fund at the U.N. Climate Change Conference. The fund, aimed at helping developing countries combat the climate crisis, pales in comparison to the profits raked in by fossil fuel investors.
Prem Sikka, a member of the U.K. House of Lords and co-founder of the Tax Justice Network, minces no words in his criticism of these oil giants. He accuses them of fueling inflation, pollution, and poverty, while governments stand by, allowing their monopolistic control to go unchecked.
As we witness these staggering payouts in the midst of a climate emergency, it becomes clear that the priorities of these oil giants are misaligned with the needs of our planet and its people. The time for drastic action and a real shift towards renewable energy has never been more urgent. But with the fossil fuel industry entrenched in profitability, breaking free from this destructive cycle remains a formidable challenge.