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Oil Giants Sell Dirty Wells to Buyers With Looser Climate Goals, Study Finds

Oil Giants Sell Dirty Wells to Buyers With Looser Climate Goals, Study Finds

The transactions can help major oil and gas companies clean up their own production by transferring polluting assets to a different firm, the analysis said.

: May 10, 2022

When Royal Dutch Shell sold off its stake in the Umuechem oil field in Nigeria last year, it was, on paper, a step forward for the company’s climate ambitions: Shell could clean up its holdings, raise money to invest in cleaner technologies, and move toward its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

As soon as Shell left, however, the oil field underwent a change so significant it was detected from space: a surge in flaring, or the wasteful burning of excess gas in towering columns of smoke and fire. Flaring emits planet-warming greenhouse gases, as well as soot, into the atmosphere.

Around the world, many of the largest energy companies are expected to sell off more than $100 billion of oil fields and other polluting assets in an effort to cut their emissions and make progress toward their corporate climate goals. However, they frequently sell to buyers that disclose little about their operations, have made few or no pledges to combat climate change, and are committed to ramping up fossil fuel production.

“You can move your assets to another company, and move the emissions off your own books, but that doesn’t equal any positive impact on the planet if it’s done without any safeguards in place,” said Andrew Baxter, who heads the energy transition team at the Environmental Defense Fund, which performed the analysis.

Transactions like these expose the messy underside of the global energy transition away from fossil fuels, a shift that is imperative to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

For the four years before the Umuechem sale in Nigeria, satellites had spotted no routine flaring from the field, which Shell, together with the European energy giants Total and Eni, operated in the Niger Delta. But immediately after those companies sold the field to a private-equity backed firm, Trans-Niger Oil & Gas, an operator with no stated net zero goals, levels of flaring quadrupled…

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