Oil and gas plant with green smoke

Oil giants use search engines for greenwashing, study finds

Image credit: Photo 18759598 © Wenbin Yu | Dreamstime.com

A group that works to counter online disinformation says oil firms are using Google to downplay their environmental impact, despite the search engine's pledge to not profit from climate misinformation.

Nearly half of the $23.7m (£21m) large oil and gas companies spent on Google advertising have targeted search terms on environmental sustainability, according to a new report. 

These are the conclusions drawn by a team of researchers with the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a US nonprofit group that studies disinformation online.

The team examined more than 32,000 search ads on Google's US site paid for by five major fossil fuel companies – ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, and Aramco – and targeting 61,000 different climate-related queries over the past two years. 

The scientists' goal was to understand how search engines could be used to downplay the industry's impact on global warming. 

The nonprofit's findings, published in its latest report, stressed that Google has been permitting oil firms to downplay their role in climate change through its search adverts, despite the search engine giant pledging it would stop taking money for ads that counter the scientific consensus on global warming. 

"Google is used by billions of people as the primary lens to find information – if you can buy the right to be at the top of the search result, you can distort the lens people use to see the world," said Imran Ahmed, founder of the CCDH.

Ahmed also accused Google of being complicit in the "climate denial industry".

The CCDH found that the firms were purchasing ads on Google's front page to display to users searching terms like "net zero" and "eco-friendly", filling the space with ads that twisted the facts on climate change or dissembled the companies' track records on planet-heating emissions and pollution.

For example, a person searching for information about the potent greenhouse gas methane would find an advertisement from a firm like BP promoting the company's commitment to "zero routine flaring" of the gas, a reference to the widespread practice of burning off the unwanted natural gas that escapes during crude extraction.

The investigation found that Shell alone spent $181,000 on ads targeting searches for "net zero company" and Saudi oil company Aramco bought out Google ads calling itself "one of the lowest carbon emitters in our industry".

The ads deemed to be "greenwashing" by the report's authors were likely viewed more than 58 million times, it said.

"It should not be the case that someone searching for information using terms like 'net zero company' ... is instead greeted with greenwashing ads from Big Oil," the report said.

In response, Google spokesperson Michael Aciman pointed to the company's stance against climate disinformation and stressed that none of the ads flagged by the researchers breached the company's policy, which applies to a specific set of statements commonly made by climate change deniers.

"Last year, we launched a new, industry-leading policy that explicitly prohibits ads promoting false claims about the existence and causes of climate change," he said in a statement.

"When we find content that crosses the line from policy debate or a discussion of green initiatives to promoting outright climate change denial, we remove those ads."

A Shell spokesperson said the company aims to become a net-zero emissions business by 2050.

"We're already investing billions of dollars in lower-carbon energy. To help alter the mix of energy Shell sells, we need to grow these new businesses rapidly," the spokesperson said in a statement. 

"That means letting our customers know through advertising or social media what lower-carbon solutions we offer now or are developing, so they can switch when the time is right for them.

Ahead of the 2021 COP26 climate talks, Google pledged to no longer make money from content that "contradicts well-established scientific consensus around the existence and causes of climate change".

Earlier this year, a BBC investigation found that BP and other oil companies were under-declaring the amount of methane emitted by flaring at their oil fields. Last month, the Climate Action Against Disinformation coalition released a report showing that Google is still a major provider of display ads for climate change denial sites.

Over the last few months, oil companies like Aramco and BP have reported massive rises in global profits, as a result of the global energy crisis provoked by rising inflation and the war in Ukraine. The situation has prompted calls for the government to ramp up windfall taxes to help UK households cope with high energy prices this winter.

In August, a UK oil and gas body said that the windfall tax on energy firms should be scrapped by 2025 or it will have a “detrimental impact” on investment in the domestic sector.

To address the problem of greenwashing, the new CCDH report calls on Google to stop running ads that "distort" climate change information and to publish a library of its ads so researchers can more easily monitor the platform.

"It’s time for Google to come clean about its own gaslighting," Ahmed said. "The planet can’t wait for corporations to decide to act responsibly. 

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