Revealed: oil sector’s ‘staggering’ $3bn-a-day profits for last 50 years
The oil and gas industry has delivered $2.8bn (£2.3bn) a day in pure profit for the last 50 years, a new analysis has revealed.
The vast total captured by petrostates and fossil fuel companies since 1970 is $52tn, providing the power to “buy every politician, every system” and delay action on the climate crisis, says Prof Aviel Verbruggen, the author of the analysis. The huge profits were inflated by cartels of countries artificially restricting supply.
The analysis, based on World Bank data, assesses the “rent” secured by global oil and gas sales, which is the economic term for the unearned profit produced after the total cost of production has been deducted.
The study has yet to be published in an academic journal but three experts at University College London, the London School of Economics and the thinktank Carbon Tracker confirmed the analysis as accurate, with one calling the total a “staggering number”. It appears to be the first long-term assessment of the sector’s total profits, with oil rents providing 86% of the total.
Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels have driven the climate crisis and contributed to worsening extreme weather, including the current heatwaves hitting the UK and many other Northern hemisphere countries. Oil companies have known for decades that carbon emissions were dangerously heating the planet.
“I was really surprised by such high numbers – they are enormous,” said Verbruggen, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and a former lead author of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
“It’s a huge amount of money,” he said. “You can buy every politician, every system with all this money, and I think this happened. It protects [producers] from political interference that may limit their activities.”
The rents captured by exploiting the natural resources are unearned, Verbruggen said: “It’s real, pure profit. They captured 1% of all the wealth in the world without doing anything for it.” The average annual profit from 1970-2020 was $1tn but he said he expected this to be twice as high in 2022.
The profit-grabbing is holding back the world’s action on the climate emergency, he said: “It’s really stripping money from the alternatives. In every country, people have so much difficulty just to pay the gas and electricity bills and oil [petrol] bill, that we don’t have money left over to invest in renewables.”
Some of the rents go to governments as royalties, says Prof Paul Ekins, at University College London: “But the fact remains that, over the last 50 years, companies have made a huge amount of money by producing fossil fuels, the burning of which is the major cause of climate change. This is already causing untold misery round the world and is a major threat to future human civilisation.
“At the very least these companies should be investing a far greater share of their profits in moving to low-carbon energy than is currently the case. Until they do so their claims of being part of the low-carbon energy transition are among the most egregious examples of greenwashing.”
Mark Campanale, at Carbon Tracker, said: “Not only is the scale of these rents eye-watering, but it is salient to note that, in the midst of a cost of living crisis caused by record oil and gas prices, this flow of money to a relatively small number of petrostates and energy companies is set to double this year. Shifting to a carbon-neutral energy system based on renewables is the only way to end this madness.”
The Guardian revealed in May that the world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are planning scores of “carbon bomb” oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts. The fossil fuel industry also benefits from subsidies of $16bn a day, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Verbruggen’s analysis used the World Bank’s oil rent and gas rent data, which the bank compiles country-by-country and is expressed as percentage of global GDP. He then multiplied this by the World Bank’s global GDP data and adjusted for inflation to put all the figures in 2020 US dollars.
Verbruggen said oil-rich nations, such as Russia and those in the OPEC cartel, including Saudi Arabia, kept rents high by restricting supply: “They change the fundamentals of the markets.” Military action, such as the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and political action, such as the embargo on oil exports from Iran, had also increased the rents, he said. If all available oil and gas could be freely supplied to the market, the price of conventional oil would be $20-30 a barrel, Verbruggen said, compared with about $100 today.
There is far more oil, gas and coal in existing reserves than can be burned if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C, the target agreed by nations in the Paris climate agreement in 2015. Campanale said: “To keep to 1.5C, this means [international oil companies alone] forgoing around $100 trillion of potential revenues. You can see why oil oligarchs and nations controlled by political elites want to keep their fossil fuel rents, the source of their power.”
May Boeve, the head of campaign group 350.org, said: “These profits have enabled the fossil fuel industry to combat all efforts to switch our energy systems. We have to dismantle such rent-seeking systems and build our future based on accessible and distributed renewable energy that is more sustainable and democratic in every way.”
Damian Carrington Environment editor