Big Oil Bets Against America’s Energy Future, Congressional Research Service Report Finds

JR: America’s future depends on rapidly accelerating the transition to clean energy. That’s the only way to avert the chaos of peak oil and catastrophic climate change.CAP’s Valeri Vasquez has the story of how Big Oil continues to bet against America’s future.

We’ve seen this movie before: A global crisis rocks international energy markets, driving up the cost of petroleum. Spiking prices help Big Oil rake in huge profits, reinvesting handsomely in their own stock to spur share values and enrich senior executives. And they shamelessly defend billions of dollars in annual government subsidies even as the money rolls in.

But that’s not the least of it: the largest of these companies, ExxonMobil, pays a lower effective tax rate than the average American. Meanwhile, families across the country are forced to pay exorbitant amounts of hard-earned cash at the pump because they’ve got few transportation options — gasoline runs the car that they rely on to get to work and ferry their kids to school.

Now, at the request of Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has confirmed just how little the nation’s five primary oil companies care to invest in the future of American energy security.


During these difficult economic times, oil giants are doing very little to drive the innovation that stands to free us from the financial turmoil in the world petroleum markets. A 2009 CAP analysis determined that while most of the top oil companies claim publicly to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development, these “greenwashing” campaigns are “little more than empty rhetoric.” All told, they devoted a mere 4 percent of their collective 2008 earnings to green R&D.

Despite the consistently massive financial gains that allow these companies to buy back their own stock — more than 50 percent this year by ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips — the CRS Research and Development by Large Energy Production Companies report shows that the amount invested in clean energy R&D is miniscule. CRS researchers found that:

Total R&D expenditure of the five [largest oil] firms in 2010 was $3.6 billion. Financial documents do not include what portion of this [was] spent on green R&D… expenditures remained flat in 2010 but revenue and income rose with oil price

Considering that CRS calculates profits for these companies in the neighborhood of $77 billion for 2010, the comparative percentage of this investment is small. In putting together the report, the Senate Finance Committee asked how much the Big Five each spent in 2010 exclusively on “clean, non-petroleum-based alternative transportation fuels.” The chart at the top of the page puts the companies’ self-reported investments in perspective.

Shell, which netted $20 billion in profits during 2010, did not provide a response.

Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, and Shell have benefited enormously from lack of choices The crisis/price spike/extreme earnings cycle is one that’s repeated itself yet again in 2011, as the Center for American Progress (CAP) has documented at quarterly intervals.


And even as domestic drilling surges to a nearly twenty-year high, our limited national petroleum supply will never be enough to satisfy our demand.

This year, first and second quarter Big Oil profits stand at a grand total of $67.4 billion, more than doubling the half-year earnings of both 2009 and 2010. According to the CRS report, each of the top five companies has big plans for ramping up clean energy R&D:

ExxonMobil is partnering with Synthetic Genomics in developing algae biofuels. The research and development program could total $600 million over the life of the project if Congressional Research Service milestones are attained. Shell is part of a joint venture to produce ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil, and is developing technology to process ethanol from straw with Iogen Energy, of Canada. Chevron is a global partner with Cleantech Open in encouraging clean technologies [and] has partnering agreements in solar energy, biofuels, and geothermal energy around the world.

BP announced in 2010 that it plans to invest $8 billion in alternative energy through 2015. ConocoPhillips is developing lithium batteries to improve energy efficiency in transportation and stationary uses. The ConocoPhillips Energy Prize is a joint program with The Pennsylvania State University offering a prize of $300,000 for ideas in alternative energy, energy efficiency, and combating climate change.

The CRS report admits “these investments are not all for R&D” but optimistically notes that “they demonstrate the interest that oil majors have in alternative technologies.”

But that “interest” isn’t turning into the massive investments we need. President Obama understood this when on September 12 he presented the financing plan for his newly unveiled American Jobs Act. The proposal cuts $41 billion in unnecessary annual oil and gas subsidies, and puts those funds towards a much anticipated job creation package that includes energy efficiency measures.


A secure, affordable national energy policy requires funding for more R&D and deployment of clean energy. Such investments would put the Big Five in a position to profit themselves as they help “rebuild the economy the American way” by getting an edge on the competition in these emerging technologies. Right now, these companies are falling far short of what we need.

— Valeri Vasquez is a special assistant to the energy team at the Center for American Progress