Petrol & Diesel

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of the 5 big oil companies 

We also look at climate denial, investment in renewables, transparency and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying petrol:

  • Buy less. The only recommendation we can really make regarding buying petrol is to buy less. You may want to consider an electric car.

  • Drive less. You may be able to car-share, find alternative transport, or even an alternative to the journey itself.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying petrol:

  • Avoid it. We would recommend you don't buy petrol at all if you can help it.

  • Avoid Diesel. Diesel emit 7-10 times more NOx per mile than petrol cars and the World Health Organisation has classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic. Living in cities with high levels of NO2 has been associated with low birth-weight babies and small head circumferences, as well as excess deaths and heart attacks.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Our Analysis

This guide compares the biggest companies that both extract or refine oil, and also retail at least half the petrol, and diesel, in the UK – ExxonMobil (Esso), Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Chevron (Texaco), and Phillips 66 (Jet). The provenance of the rest (sold by supermarkets and independents) is not known. 

Unfortunately there is no clear ethical choice on our table. All the companies are involved in extreme fossil fuels, lobby groups and likely tax avoidance. All are also marked down under our Human Rights or Workers’ Rights categories. There is no such thing as an environmentally friendly, not-for-profit or fair trade petrol company. 

The real choice in this market is about how much of the stuff you use, and we have also updated our guides to Bikes and Cars (including electric) to help you navigate the alternatives.

The environment

After retreating from previous investments in renewable energy, oil companies appear to be taking an interest again. However, they are committing only a few percent of what they invest in fossil fuels, and this slight shift is far, far short of what is needed to meet the Paris climate agreement.

Although the World Bank has said it will stop financing new oil and gas projects in 2019, oil and gas companies themselves are still planning to grow in these areas wherever they can. While the UK is banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, Shell is planning to increase its number of petrol stations by a quarter by 2025, mostly in China, India, Indonesia, Russia and Mexico.

In public, companies may be vocal about their support for the Paris agreement, but some suspect that that's largely because switching from high-carbon coal to lower-carbon gas has been touted as part of the short-term answer, and gas is a big part of these companies portfolios. Increasingly though, this is shale gas, obtained by fracking. 

In private, these same companies are lobbying against public policy to combat climate change. Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips (from which Phillips 66 spun off) are all members of the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers(IOGP), one of a number of trade associations that pressured the EU for “the removal or phasing out of renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, and of individual national support schemes for renewables”, according to a 2015 report.

Shell and BP are members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI), which says it “aims to lead the industry response to climate change”. However, almost half of its billion-dollar fund is going towards controversial carbon capture technology, and none towards development of solar, wind, or any other renewable energy technology.

Carbon Intensity 

Oil from tar sands and LNG (liquefied natural gas) have emissions intensities two to three times greater than conventional oil or gas production.

Which companies are most involved in these high carbon intensity energy sources?
 

Company

Tar Sands Reserves 

(millions of barrels)

North American LNG export

(Proposed or existing attributablebillion cubic feet per day)

Exxon  4664.8 4.97
BP 1267.95 BP is also involved but is not in the top 25 companies
Chevron 1080.12 Chevron is also involved but is not in the top 25 companies
Shell 540.06 1.46
Phillips 66

Phillips 66 is also involved but is 
not in the top 25 companies

 

Climate denial and deception

Exxon’s long and deep involvement in climate misinformation and lies is well known. Over the past few decades it has given around $35 million to dozens of right wing think tanks that have pumped out huge amounts of climate denier nonsense. Greenpeace created the website ExxonSecrets to keep track of all of the donations and the links between the myriad different organisations. What proportion of the garbage on the Internet on the subject was paid for by the company is impossible to tell.

It has also funded US politicians who don’t believe in the science. 18 of the 22 senators who sent a letter to President Trump urging him to abandon the Paris agreement collectively received $371,000 from ExxonMobil between 2011 and 2016. 

Having repeatedly denied funding climate denial, in 2007 Exxon admitted that, yes, it had been doing it, but that it would stop. But it didn’t. While its role has subsequently been somewhat overshadowed by the Kochs, who have taken over as the High Priests of Climate Lies, the evidence suggests that it is still involved.

What has recently made the story morally (and possibly legally) worse is that documents have come to light that have demonstrated that Exxon has internally been accepting climate science for decades. In other words, it hasn’t even been a matter of self-deception, it has been a matter of conscious lying.

In 2016 the Union of Concerned Scientists rated all of the major oil companies on their levels of climate deception, disclosure and action. A summary of their ratings can be seen in the box below (Phillips 66 was not rated)

  Shell BP Chevron EXxonMobil  

Renouncing disinformation e.g:

  • Accuracy of own statements
  • Not being a member of industry groups spreading disinformation 
Fair Poor Egregious Egregious  

Planning for carbon-free world e.g:

  • Using internal carbon price in investment decisions
  • Disclosing emissions and investments
  • Having emission reduction targets
Fair Poor Poor Poor  
Supporting US climate mitigation policies Fair Good Fair Fair  
Disclosing climate risks to shareholders Poor Fair Fair Poor  

Climate change and human rights

In March 2018 the Philippine Human Rights Commission held the first public hearing in its inquiry into the responsibility of the “carbon majors” for human rights violations resulting from the impacts of climate change. Philippine communities and civil society groups began this process in 2015, after a typhoon killed over 6000 people in the Philippines in 2013.

They used calculations which showed that Exxon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and BP among others shared a significant amount of responsibility for carbon emissions, and used science which linked those emissions to natural disasters such as typhoons.

Investments in renewables

Shell is investing $2 billion annually in renewables, with a stated goal to cut its carbon emissions by 20% by 2035, and 50% by 2050. This is the highest renewable investment of all the oil companies, but it is still a low proportion of its $25-30 billion total annual investment.

Exxon is reported to be spending $1 billion per year researching, developing and deploying low-carbon technologies.

BP pulled out of renewables dramatically after having branded itself as “Beyond Petroleum” and made a lot of noise about its renewable investments in the early years of this century. It is now creeping back in slightly, but not much: in 2018, it announced that out of its $15 to $17 billion annual investment, about $0.5 billion will be invested in low-carbon technology.

Chevron is another one who is getting out rather than getting in. In 2014, it began reducing its investment in renewables. It wasn’t possible to get figures for what it invests now. 

On Phillips 66 it was not possible to get information. As oil companies usually broadcast major renewable investments, it is likely that they are low.  

Transparency, tax and Trump

In February 2018, the two American oil giants ExxonMobil and Chevron provoked a “grievance” from US civil society groups, by refusing to disclose the tax payments they make to the US government. This undermines the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) of which they are board members, and has led to the US withdrawing from the EITI just a few years after it joined.

The EITI is based on the principle that the wealth from a country’s natural resources should benefit all its citizens, and campaigners suspect these companies are hiding the special deals they have been given by the US government. The civil society groups involved have made several statements to the EITI, calling for Exxon and Chevron to be removed from the board, for penalties for wilful misconduct, and changes to the grievance procedure.

Meanwhile, Trump's latest tax reforms are set to benefit oil companies more than anyone else, and to encourage an expansion of fossil fuel exploration. Not only has the corporate tax rate dropped from 35% to 21%, but with changes in how capital expenditure can be deducted from tax, and the energy industry being one of the most capital-intensive sectors, Phillips 66 has been predicted to see its earnings next year increase by 16%.

Trump's position is clear. He even had personal investments in Phillips 66, affiliated to the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), to which he gave the go-ahead just days after taking office in January 2017. The pipeline had been stalled by Obama after high-profile protests lead by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose water supply is just downstream. Within the year, the nearby Keystone pipeline whose extension Trump also revived, and which carries crude oil from Canada's tar sands, spilled about 5000 barrels.

The fight in the courts

In January 2018, Richmond became the eighth Californian city in less than a year to take the major fossil fuel companies to court over climate change. New York had filed a lawsuit just two weeks earlier, and it was announced in February that Paris was also considering legal action. 

Several previous cases trying to hold companies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions have been dismissed. San Francisco and Oakland are trying a new tactic – they are saying that for the companies to have promoted fossil fuels when they knew they were damaging constitutes a “public nuisance”.

This is similar to past cases against the tobacco industry and companies that sold lead paint. In late 2017, a California court ruled that three lead paint companies had caused a “public nuisance”, which could provide a precedent. 

But the industry is fighting back. Exxon is starting to sue its critics, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has launched a campaign accusing activists and others of trying to undermine the American economy, and the energy industry is even trying to sanction lawyers for using novel legal arguments to protect nature.

In May, an attorney representing Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips, requested that a federal judge dismiss the lawsuits brought by San Francisco and Oakland, on the grounds that global warming was an issue that should be handled in Congress, not the courts. In the same case in March, the judge had ordered that groups filing briefs on the side of the companies should reveal their funding sources. It turned out that a think-tank denying the reality of man made climate change in the court was funded by Exxon, among others.

In February 2018 the 50/50 Climate Project reported that 21 of the biggest energy and utility companies in the United States had spent $673 million dollars over six years to influence the political system. For example, Chevron opposed renewable energy initiatives in California, while ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil worked to preserve fossil-fuel tax breaks in Alaska.

When politicians are subject to so much lobbying, and oil companies are funding think-tanks to spread climate denial, its not surprising people turn to the legal system to try to seek justice. You can sign a petition to support Friends of the Earth Netherlands, who are taking Shell to court for not doing enough to combat climate change. 

The biofuels in your tank

Since 2008 the UK has had targets for biofuel as a percentage of road transport fuel, known as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). The idea was to reduce carbon emissions. 

At the time, a coalition of groups signed a letter to the UK government opposing the RFTO because of its expected impacts on food prices and therefore food security and hunger; as well as land conflicts, not to mention a rise in carbon emissions due to indirect land use change (ILUC). They were also not confident that the 'sustainability standards', proposed to come along two years later, would be able to prevent these negative impacts.

Since 2009 most of the growth in biodiesel in the EU has come from palm oil, now accounting for roughly a third of EU biodiesel. It is said to be three times as bad as fossil-fuel based diesel in terms of climate impact, due to deforestation. In January 2018, the European Parliament voted to stop the use of palm oil for production of biofuels in the European Union (EU) by 2020, but in June this was weakened to a capping at 2019 levels, aiming for a phase-out by 2030.

The vote also included a cap on food-based biofuels. Campaigners say what’s really needed is an end to food-based biofuels, (which, on average in the EU, increase greenhouse gas emissions, when land use change is taken into account), and more development of biofuels from wastes and residues.

Government data shows that the largest suppliers of fuel in the UK, including the companies on our table (except Chevron), supply more than 95% of the biofuels in the UK market. As the table below shows, most of the feedstock is not from the UK, but figures for palm used are low. Biofuel in the UK is about half biodiesel (mainly from used cooking oil), and half bioethanol (mainly from wheat, sugar beet, corn and starch). 

Renewable fuel in the UK – % from UK and % from palm

  % of feedback supply from UK % based on palm
BP 23 0
Esso (Exxon) 11 3
Phillips 66 3 5
Shell 8 0

Company behind the brand

BP may not be involved in fracking in the UK, but a report by Platform London, published in December 2017, reveals the company's role in pushing fracking in Patagonia. Titled “BP’s fracking secrets: Pan-American Energy and Argentina’s shale mega-project”, the report also covers the company’s worrying track record on safety and environmental impacts.

BP is also a lead player in the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline that is currently being constructed across Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy, and has a Production Sharing Agreement with SOCAR (State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic). Platform say we should be concerned that this pipeline “will drive climate change by locking the EU into gas consumption until at least 2050.”

Not only that, but Amnesty's 2017/18 update on Azerbaijan stated, “Authorities intensified the crackdown on the right to freedom of expression, particularly following revelations of large-scale political corruption. Independent news outlets were blocked and their owners arrested. Critics of the government continued to face politically motivated prosecution and imprisonment following unfair trials.”

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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