Bullsh*t Intensity

Amy Westervelt
Hot take

Dec. 5, 2021

If you spend any time on social media or reading the news online, you might have spotted the fossil fuel industry's new favorite term: "emissions intensity." As the world has tired of their endless torrent of meaningless net-zero drivel, the industry has pivoted to something that sounds more real and yet is an even bigger pile of bullshit. Chevron wants you to know that it takes climate change so seriously it has tied executive bonuses to reducing "emissions intensity." BP is aiming to cut the "carbon intensity" of its products by 50 percent by 2050 or sooner—the neat trick here is that by tweaking it to "carbon intensity" they can keep gas out of the equation entirely. ExxonMobil is on track to deliver a 15 to 20 percent reduction in "greenhouse gas intensity" by 2025. Amazing! So...what the fuck is emissions intensity?

Yeah. Exactly.

"So what it means is you're reducing the amount of carbon dioxide or methane associated with producing a barrel of oil or a barrel of oil equivalent when talking about natural gas," explains Josh Eisenfeld, a campaigner with Earthworks. These are also what are sometimes referred to as "upstream emissions" or "Scope 1 and 2 emissions," and they account for 10 percent or less of the emissions associated with fossil fuels.

"It doesn't include the carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases that come from the product," Eisenfeld explains. "Because you can't reduce the number of greenhouse gases associated with a barrel of oil, that won't change. As long as you're producing a barrel of oil, that barrel of oil is going to have carbon associated with it...It's a term that was created by the industry to create the illusion of progress without actually holding industry accountable to any overall emission reduction."

Chevron has been so over the top with its claims on this front—bragging about its "emissions intensity" gains while also expanding oil and gas production—that it became the focus of a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year for violating the agency’s guidelines governing environmental marketing. Those guidelines, known collectively as the "Green Guides," include various industry-specific guidelines. "One industry that's not there—because when the FTC created the 'Green Guides' in 1992 I don't think they ever thought they'd have the audacity to claim to be environmentally friendly—is the oil and gas industry," Eisenfeld says. But that doesn't mean the guides don't apply to the industry. So in early 2021, Earthworks, Greenpeace, and Global Witness teamed up to file a formal complaint. In it, the groups ask the FTC to "investigate and take action to enjoin Chevron Corporation (“Chevron”) from making false and misleading claims about the company’s business practices."

The complaint calls particular attention to Chevron's various "emissions intensity" claims. So next time you see one of these ads on Twitter, or in a newsletter, or on the New York Times' website, please feel free to call these companies out for spreading an intense amount of bullshit.