Fossil fuel giants’ record payouts amid deepening climate crisis

The world's five largest oil companies, BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies, reported record profits and approved major new fossil fuel projects.


2023 has been characterized by severe weather phenomena, a testament to what UN Secretary-General António Guterres termed the “era of global boiling.” This year saw wildfires and prolonged heatwaves affecting millions globally. Scientists have confirmed these events are a direct result of fossil fuel extraction and planetary heating. Contrasting with these environmental challenges, the world’s five largest oil companies, BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies, reported record profits and approved major new fossil fuel projects.

Despite growing awareness of climate change impacts, these companies planned to distribute over $100 billion to shareholders. An economist pointed out this indicates little concern from executives about a decrease in demand for fossil fuels.

The year 2023 marked a significant financial boon for the fossil fuel industry. According to The Guardian, BP, Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and TotalEnergies spent $104 billion on shareholder payouts in 2022 and are expected to exceed this figure in 2023. Shell’s plans alone include payments of at least $23 billion to investors, overshadowing its investment in renewable energy.

BP also signaled increased dividends, promising a 10 percent raise for its shareholders. Similarly, Chevron indicated it might surpass its $75 billion stock buyback announced in the previous year. These decisions highlighted a trend where profits soared, even as global concerns about the climate crisis intensified.

The disparity between the oil giants’ profits and the public’s struggle is stark. Alice Harrison from Global Witness highlighted this contrast, noting that as people across Europe struggle with fuel poverty, shareholders of fossil fuel companies enjoy significant paydays. “The global energy crisis has been a giant cash grab for fossil fuel firms,” Harrison told The Guardian, critiquing the industry’s lack of investment in clean energy.

Households worldwide have been grappling with the ramifications of climate disasters, exacerbated by the actions of these companies. Yet, the focus remains on enhancing investor returns rather than addressing the pressing need for sustainable energy solutions.

The strategy of these oil companies indicates a clear direction. Dieter Helm, speaking to The Guardian, suggested that the industry’s confidence in fossil fuels’ future is evident in their investment and payout strategies. “These companies are investing a huge amount in new projects… confident that they’re going to make big returns,” he said.

This approach reveals an apparent indifference to the urgent calls for a transition to renewable energy sources. The companies’ investment in fossil fuel projects, despite the growing climate crisis, indicates a belief in the sustained relevance of these energy forms.

2023’s global energy crisis became a lucrative opportunity for oil firms. The industry capitalized on the situation, leading to soaring profits amid widespread economic hardships. This has led to accusations of profiteering from the crisis, as millions face a cost-of-living crisis driven by high energy costs.

The disconnect between the industry’s profitability and the public’s struggles during this crisis has drawn sharp criticism. Campaigners argue that the industry’s focus on shareholder gains amidst a global crisis is both unethical and unsustainable.

In response to the environmental impact of fossil fuels, divestment movements have gained significant traction. More than 1,600 institutions have pledged to divest from fossil fuels, signaling a shift in investment priorities. Additionally, the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, celebrated as a major climate and energy investment, marked a policy shift towards sustainable energy solutions.

Despite these developments, the fossil fuel industry’s continued investment in oil and gas projects suggests a reluctance to embrace this shift fully. The industry’s approach contrasts with the growing global momentum towards renewable energy and sustainability.

The recent actions of the fossil fuel industry raise questions about their long-term strategy in the face of climate action. Helm’s analysis suggests that the industry is not yet convinced of a significant shift away from fossil fuels. He argues that the industry’s confidence in future profitability, despite the climate agenda, is reflected in their ongoing investments and generous shareholder payouts.

This perspective suggests that the industry may not see the climate agenda as an immediate threat to its business model. The continued investment in new fossil fuel projects indicates a belief in the ongoing demand for these energy sources.

The oil industry has employed strategic share buybacks to manage investor expectations and public perception. Trey Cowan of the IEEFA noted the potential for record distributions to shareholders in 2023, highlighting the industry’s focus on maintaining investor confidence.

These strategies also play a role in future-proofing the companies against shifts in market dynamics and public sentiment. By reducing the number of shares in circulation, these firms aim to stabilize their financial standing and appease investors amid growing public criticism.

Government policies and actions are critical in steering the fossil fuel industry amidst the climate crisis. The Biden administration’s approval of projects like the Willow oil drilling in Alaska has drawn ire from climate campaigners. These decisions highlight the complex role governments play in balancing economic interests with environmental protection.

The tension between supporting fossil fuel industries for economic reasons and committing to climate action objectives presents a significant policy challenge. Governments are tasked with navigating these competing priorities to achieve sustainable and environmentally friendly energy policies.

Prem Sikka, a member of the UK House of Lords and co-founder of the Tax Justice Network, summed up the situation: “They have picked people’s pockets, fueled inflation and pollution, and deepened poverty.” His statement captures the growing public discontent with an industry perceived as prioritizing profits over the planet’s health.

Vanessa Nakate, a climate campaigner, criticized the industry following the UN’s loss and damage fund deal, saying, “They have picked people’s pockets, fueled inflation and pollution, and deepened poverty.”


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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.