ExxonMobil has been under fire for supposedly misrepresenting the impact climate change policies will have on oil reserve estimates, but the criticism likely does not reflect reality.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched an investigation in 2015 initially with a premise that Exxon had conspired to cover up climate change science. Unable to produce evidence of that, Schneiderman has since begun a probe over allegations the company downplayed how climate change impacts its balance sheet. Schneiderman has more recently focused on oil reserve estimates. Exxon has kept its reserve estimates steady while some rival companies have downgraded.
“The climate change activists have argued that all this is happening because the fear that climate policies will mean the reserves are left in the ground,” said Michael Lynch, president of SEER, an energy analysis firm. “The reality is it’s overwhelmingly a function of lower oil and natural gas prices.”
Exxon and other oil companies make estimates on what they are likely going to extract from oil fields. Proven reserves account for a 90 percent likelihood oil is recoverable at current costs and technology. The probe alleges Exxon hid from investors the impact that climate change regulations could have.
“If Exxon downgrades those oil sand reserves, the dollar impact is actually going to be a fraction of what the barrel impact is,” Lynch said in a call with reporters on Thursday. “So it’s really not that big a deal for the stock price.”
Reserves commonly get downgraded when it’s no longer profitable to extract them. Rival companies have had to cut reserve estimates in the face of falling prices. Even so, the decision by Exxon not to downgrade likely has little to do with climate change or related policies.
“A lot of what’s written outside the press is done by non-experts, non-technical people who don’t understand what reserves are,” Lynch said. “This is especially true of people arguing that climate change is going to leave a lot of oil reserves stranded and that companies should account for that in their annual reports.”
Exxon Spokesman Alan Jeffers previously stated the company didn’t downgrade reserve estimates because they expect the reserves to be profitable in the long term. Lynch notes reserve estimate fluctuations are actually fairly common and some metrics can be subjective because it’s impossible to predict everything.
“Energy discussions and policy making tend to be dominated by non-experts,” Lynch said. “I would say the same is probably true about the people in the New York Attorney General’s office, and this is kind of a problem that we run into in so many of these debates.”
The Wall Street Journal previously reported that rival companies have had to slash $200 billion from their combined holdings since 2014. It highlights falling energy prices as the likely contributor.
Schneiderman did not respond to a request for comment by InsideSources.