We supervised a study by six masters students from Universiteit Utrecht, looking at how public communication from the “Big Five” oil and gas supermajors changed following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. We analysed the data the students collected statistically to see if and how communication has changed since the invasion. InfluenceMap provided data from 2021, and assistance in applying the methodologies and analysis. Reclame Fossielvrij (Fossil Free Advertising) provided expertise and insights into oil and gas companies communications, and the phenomenon of greenwashing.
The study found that following the invasion:
- Major oil and gas companies in the US and Europe became less active on social media, with the exception of ExxonMobil.
- Oil and gas companies posted less about the benefit to the community and economy, and in Europe proportionally more about the pragmatic and patriotic benefits of their activities.
- The 3 European companies recorded a significant increase in ‘patriotism’ in their social media posts – up from a negligible 0.1% to 9.4%. Claims that fall within this ‘patriotic’ category include things like ‘energy security’ and ‘energy independence’.
- US companies increased the proportion of their social media posts claiming that their activities were green, no significant difference was observed for European companies.
The study formed part of a student project, the full report of which can be viewed here:
In September 2022, InfluenceMap produced a report ‘Big Oil’s Real Agenda on Climate Change 2022’, analysing the public communications of the 5 largest oil and gas companies and comparing this to their lobbying activities and capital expenditure. Specifically, 49-70% of the total narratives that companies presented to the public were about their purported green activities, whereas the proportion of capital expenditure allocated to (self-declared) green technologies was 5-25%. The latter included technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) as well as renewables. Their lobbying activity also consistently advocated for expansion of fossil-fuel activities.
We were curious to extend this research. We supervised 6 students doing their Masters in Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, with data and methodological assistance provided by InfluenceMap and expertise in campaigning against greenwashing from Reclame Fossielvrij. The students gathered data on all social media posts of 5 oil and gas supermajors in the 6 months following the onset of the war in Ukraine. We then performed statistical analysis on these data, comparing them to data provided by InfluenceMap from the same time period the previous year.
Greenwashing by fossil fuel companies
In recent years, many fossil fuel companies have announced net zero targets and are communicating about low-carbon activities. However, multiple past studies indicate that these so-called ‘green claims’ by fossil fuel companies must be interpreted with caution as these claims do not match the actual activities of these companies, and fossil fuel companies simultaneously lobby for the continued use of fossil fuels and with that hinder climate action. This phenomenon of poor environmental performance but positive communication about environmentally-friendly corporate activities is known as greenwashing.
The effect of the war in Ukraine on oil and gas supermajors’ communications
Since the onset of the war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, there have been gas and oil shortages around the world and especially in Europe as a result of sanctions on Russian oil and gas and countermeasures from the Russian government. In this context, US oil and gas companies have increased their lobbying activities regarding oil and gas, including the promotion of policies in favour of these fossil fuels. There were indications that oil and gas companies adjusted their communications to respond to the public’s perception and centre it around what enhances their image.
Analysis of supermajors’ social media posts
All social media posts and videos in the 6 months following the invasion from the “Big Five” oil and gas supermajors (Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and TotalEnergies) were analysed. Claims in the posts were categorised as in InfluenceMap’s report, namely whether the post claims that the company:
- provides climate solutions, e.g. by reducing emissions, “fuelling” the energy transition, or claiming that fossil fuels can be “clean” (“Green claims”)
- is good for the local community, e.g through providing jobs and philanthropy, or for the economy (“Community & economy claims”)
- provides a pragmatic energy mix, e.g. affordable, reliable energy, or other uses of oil and gas (“Pragmatic claims”)
- is good for the country/region, e.g. by helping with energy independence or showing energy leadership (“Patriotic claims”)
Key findings of the social media analysis
- The number of claims on social media platforms decreased for all supermajors, except ExxonMobil, after the onset of the war (from 1479 to 1083 total posts in the assessed periods).
- The share of community & economy claims in the total of all supermajors decreased from 15% to 6%.
- The share of claims about a pragmatic energy mix and patriotism increased for European supermajors, the patriotic claims most of all, from 0.1% to 9.4%.
- US supermajors became more vocal about green claims (45% to 59%), while European supermajors’ share of green claims did not change significantly.
- Shell’s share of green claims decreased by 19 percentage points. Instead, Shell increasingly posted about pragmatic energy mix (0% to 7%) and patriotism (1% to 16%).
- In total, there were 50 mentions of Ukraine in the European supermajors’ 668 posts, compared to 3 in the US supermajors’ 415 posts.
Interpretation and avenues for future research
The increase in patriotic and pragmatic claims in Europe following the invasion is likely to be a reaction to widespread worries about energy security following sanctions on Russia as well as patriotic public sentiment. The decrease in communication is less clear – it could be that companies were trying to “lie low”, or that they were focussing more on their local accounts.
This research was conducted within a short period of 2 months; it would require more in-depth research to further investigate and explain the trends that were observed. Future research could for example try to explain the decrease in community and economy claims. Were the supermajors more careful in communicating about the benefits of oil and gas for the community and economy since the onset of the war in Ukraine? Would it leave them open to scathing criticism given that the media were reporting on record profits while Europeans were suffering high energy prices, or is there another possible reason? The increase in green claims in the US is also intriguing. Could it signal a shift in public perception of the climate crisis, which has already happened in Europe?
Furthermore, both this research and the previous report by InfluenceMap (2022) focused on communications of the 5 supermajors in the Global North. Analysing narratives used in the Global South, and comparing them with those in the Global North, could potentially be used to influence the public perception of greenwashing by supermajors in the Global North, as well as provide culture- and region-specific messaging to expose greenwashing elsewhere in the world.
It would be interesting to extend the communication sources analysed, for example by also including advertisements, to increase the number of oil and gas companies assessed, and to analyse other types of multinational companies.
With the right support, Aaron and Linda (Solid Sustainability Research) could continue working with this methodology and provide further insights into the communications of multinationals. Solid Sustainability Research provides independent research with insights from data, and tools to communicate good ideas.