Recently, ExxonMobil has been putting out these ads that tout its efforts to "reduce" emmissions. The one I always see is of a woman of color standing in front of a backdrop of gas refineries and saying, "Heavy industry with low emissions. Let's deliver." Sometimes, the ad will be longer and tout solutions such as carbon capture and clean energy from "hydrogen" (e.g., usually by using methane).

These ads imply that this company is trying to do something to combat the worsening of climate change. Yet, given this company's historical (and current efforts) to deny the full extent of climate change, we must view them with heavy skepticism. ExxonMobil is not trying to "save the planet" but perpetuating a form of greenwashing propaganda, and today, I wanted to explain the reasons why this is the case.

A brief breakdown of what this jargon means

Since this company's propaganda relies on using complex terms that people may or may not understand, we must explain what ExxonMobil means by words like "clean" hydrogen and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) (note: if you already know all this stuff, skip to the next section).

CCS means pulling carbon at the point of emission and then storing it somewhere, usually underground. It is not to be confused with Direct Air Capture (DAC), a technology that theoretically pulls Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere. ExxonMobil is not touting Direct Carbon Capture because the technology has yet to be deemed feasible on a widespread scale (who knows if it ever will be). However, the company most likely benefits from people's confusion between these two terms.

When ExxonMobil is talking about "clean" hydrogen, it is advocating for using fossil fuels such as natural gas (i.e., methane) to produce hydrogen, the latter of which the Department of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (a subdivision of the US Department of Energy) claims "…is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water." Water is, after all, a much better byproduct than CO2.

However, while this consumption is better, emissions are still involved if you use fossil fuels to create that hydrogen. This is where Carbon Capture and Storage is supposed to come in. Since CCS is used to allegedly store the majority of the Carbon Dioxide underground when the fossil fuels are used to create hydrogen fuel cells, less CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere (again, allegedly) — hence the tagline "heavy industry with low (not no) emissions." ExxonMobil is trying to make the case that with these few tweaks, they will be able to curb the majority of their carbon emmissions (by 2050).

Now, you can create hydrogen with renewables through separate processes, but that's different from what ExxonMobil is advocating for. They are trying to claim that the fossil fuel industry can be retooled to be "green," and their claim very much depends on whether Carbon Capture and Storage, as well as Clean Hydrogen, will work as advertised.

F@cking with methane is a bad idea

It needs stressing that the substances ExxonMobil is asking us to rely on to create "clean" hydrogen are "natural" gases like methane, which, according to the EPA, has "a global warming potential more than 25 times that of carbon dioxide." We still need to extract it from the Earth, too, usually via hydraulic fracking (i.e., injecting water, sand, and other chemicals deep into the ground to crack rock and allow more oil and natural gas to come to the surface) so that it can be used in a separate facility to create hydrogen fuel cells.

Fracking, on a fundamental level, requires altering the geology of where it happens — you are cracking the rocks beneath the Earth. It is a process that has come under intense scrutiny for creating high amounts of pollution. Plenty of studies have indicated that the chemical substances used to extract methane can leak into the water table. Hydraulic fracking has also been noted to increase geological activity (i.e., earthquakes) in the areas where drilling occurs.

Again, methane is 25 times worse than carbon as an emission, and even if everything goes right with extraction (which we have already established is not happening), there are then problems with transportation. Methane must be liquified, usually via high-energy refrigeration (see "Liquified Natural Gas"), stored in a pressurized environment to be transported long distances, and then regasified at the point of origin. There are a lot of ways that process can and does break down. Indeed, the most common way methane escapes into the atmosphere is during transit. Millions of tonnes of methane are estimated to leak from pipes every year. As stated in one Environmental Defense Fund report:

"Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, meaning that all leakage from natural gas pipelines contributes to harmful climate pollution. EDF analysis, using the latest research, finds that U.S. natural gas pipelines are leaking between 1.2 million and 2.6 million tons of methane per year."

Before we even get to the technology that companies like ExxonMobil are touting as the solution for climate change (i.e., so methane and other fossil fuels can be used to create hydrogen fuel cells), we have to contend with the fact that the entire supply chain to get to that point will be detrimental to our environment. It's quite frankly not worth the risk, and unfortunately, this is just one small problem with CCS — the bigger one is that the technology may just be keeping oil and gas extraction alive for years to come.

It might extend oil & gas projects

It's important to remember the history of CCS. It's not a new development but a rebrand of an old technology called "Enhanced Oil Recovery." Rather than capture gas byproducts inside a permanent storage system, one way these companies extended the lifespan of an oil or gas formation has been to reinject collected gases into said formation to build up pressure so more oil, methane, and other fossil fuels would come to the surface.

As the truth of climate change has become undeniable, this technology has been rebranded as the solution to the climate crisis, but it wasn't designed to do that. Indeed, most current Carbon Capture and Storage projects are Enhanced Oil Recovery projects devoted to extending oil and gas formations, not permanently capturing carbon. We have to assume that this trend will continue. As Bruce Robertson wrote in 2022 for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis:

"The [IEEFA] has estimated that most of the total captured carbon throughout history found its use in enhanced oil recovery — approximately 80–90 percent. Only a small proportion of carbon capture projects (approximately 10–20 percent) have stored carbon in dedicated geological structures without using it for oil and gas production."

As things currently stand, rather than wrapping down overall production, Enhanced Oil Recovery has the potential to extend the life of oil and gas formations. The expansion of CO2 "storage" pipelines only makes that possibility more likely, not less.

We will still have to worry about leaks with CO2

Then there is the issue of what happens once most carbon is "captured" (keep in mind that even under the most theoretical of circumstances, some CO2 is still escaping into the atmosphere). In theory, the CO2 is transported to a storage site or an adjoining factory for reuse (this may have started sounding familiar). But if you are very clever, you might be asking yourself, "What happens when this carbon leaks out at any stage of the process?"

Again, one of the more significant concerns is that this technology works as advertised, but leaks are widespread in the current natural gas space. Are we expected to believe the problems already rampant in the oil and natural gas industry will not continue with the transportation and storage of carbon?

Pipelines meant to transport and store carbon can and have leaked. In one infamous example in Satartia, Mississippi, the pipeline ruptured. According to a report by NPR, hundreds had to be evacuated, and 45 people were hospitalized. Years later, respiratory and brain issues are still common. According to Anna Mattson in Scientific American on CO2 leaks from such pipelines:

"A study released in May found that carbon capture pipelines are more likely to experience small punctures than large ruptures such as the one in Satartia. Smaller holes release the gas at a slower rate, which makes them harder to locate. And a delayed response to smaller punctures could cause them to be deadly.

When CO2 vaporizes and escapes, it causes the temperature in the pipeline to drop immediately — a process [described] as "violent." The escaped gas doesn't ignite or dissipate. It moves quickly along the ground and can collect in low-lying areas, including small valleys and basements near the pipeline route. If a person in one of these pockets breathes air with a 10 percent concentration of CO2, they can fall unconscious within one minute."

Oil companies often try to stress that the risk of leaks is small. Yet, when even small leaks can have such devastating consequences, it's worth wondering if this technology should be ditched in favor of other technologies that do not have the same drawbacks (see renewables and natural carbon sinks).

While leaks are allegedly believed to be low once they are successfully stored underground, there is the issue of the CO2 that escapes at the source. According to a paper by Yuanrong Zhou, leakage at both active and idle wells (especially the latter) is very common. As Zhou writes: "Based on historical information, researchers estimated an average of 7.5% of wells may experience continuous leakage, at about 150 metric tons of CO2 per year for active wells and 300 metric tons of CO2 per year for abandoned wells."

We can increase regulation in these areas to mitigate that leakage — something Zhou and most academics in this area stress passing — but the truth is that we will only know the leakage rate for these projects well after the fact. Implementing this technology at the scale needed to theoretically curb emissions will have all sorts of unintended direct and indirect effects we cannot anticipate. Again, it isn't worth the risk.

Little CO2 captured, bad storage

And all of this is before we get into the efficiency and cost of the current technology. While many CCS facilities are in construction, only a few have been completed for the explicit purpose of long-term storage, and the ones studied by third parties have often revealed less than stellar results. As the Center For Internal Environmental Law claimed of one example in Texas:

"The Petra Nova carbon capture facility installed at a coal-fired power station near Houston, Texas, in 2017 illustrates the failure of CCS to deliver meaningful emissions reductions and the folly of deploying CCS in service of fossil fuel extraction and use. During its operation, the CCS system only captured 7 percent of the power plant's total CO2 emissions, well below the company's promises to reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent."

The IEEFA conducted a study of 13 flagship CCS facilities and found that "Failed/underperforming projects considerably outnumbered successful experiences." That report also noted that CCS does not account for the majority of Scope 3 emissions —i.e., the emmissions created when the product is burned by consumers outside of initial production. As the report goes on to claim:

"It is obvious that [Carbon Capture & Storage] in the [oil and gas] sector is not about reducing Scope 3 emissions from the final combustion/use of gas. Rather, it is about minimizing production-related Scope 1 emissions from gas with excessive CO2 content."

In essence, little thought and care is being placed into what happens to these emissions further down the supply chain.


The technology is also expensive because the markets for carbon outside of the oil and gas industry are small (i.e., outside Enhanced Oil Recovery). CCS is only being made economically viable via massive subsidies from the federal government, paying these polluters directly to store CO2 underground. These are subsidies that could be plugged into more viable renewable sources such as solar. "A dollar spent in renewable technologies will avert a lot more emissions than CCS will," MIT Professor Charles Harvey told CBS News.

We have to contend with the fact that right now, this technology does not work as advertised. We are being asked by the fossil fuel industry to roll CCS out en masse as the solution to the very problem the oil and gas industry helped cause, and doing so ignores the lessons of the last fifty years.

A gassy conclusion

Again, we are being told to preserve the oil and gas industry through the magic of Carbon Capture and Storage so we can use fossil fuels such as methane to create "cleaner" technologies. Yet the technology behind this modern-day alchemy (i.e., carbon capture and storage) does not appear to work, comes with high economic costs, and might even extend oil and natural gas production much longer than necessary.

While we need to switch our energy production to something greener, the natural question becomes, "If hydrogen fuel cells are so amazing, why not just use something like solar to create them?" If we must ramp up production for these things (a big if), why use methane as a middleman when it has so many drawbacks?

And, of course, ExxonMobil doesn't have an answer to this other than its existence. It has built its identity around fossil fuels and wants to keep the gravy chain going. But that is not a good enough reason to justify the continued mining of a highly volatile substance such as methane. A substance whose effects will be felt much more immediately than CO2 and will impact us not 50 years from now but in the present.

Don't let a self-assured commercial convince you otherwise. ExxonMobil gave us our precarious present. It should not be involved in building a better future.