HOUSTON — Exxon Mobil, under increasing pressure from investors to address climate change, announced on Tuesday that it had the “ambition” to reach zero net greenhouse gas emissions from its operations by 2050.
The oil company, the largest in the United States, still remains behind several of its major competitors in its public climate commitments.
Exxon said it had identified 150 modifications of its exploration and production practices to help reach its goals, including electrification of operations with energy from renewable sources. Initial steps will include elimination of the flaring and venting of methane, a byproduct of drilling that is a powerful greenhouse gas.
“We’ve got a line of sight,” Exxon’s chief executive, Darren Woods, said in an interview. “By the end of this year, 90 percent of our assets will have road maps to reduce emissions and realize this net-zero future.”
Exxon’s targets include so-called Scope 1 emissions, which are produced directly by the company, and Scope 2 emissions from the generation of power that Exxon buys, such as electricity supplied by utilities.
But the new policies stop short of including Scope 3 emissions, which result from the combustion of fuels by drivers and other customers, as well as other companies along Exxon’s supply chain. The overwhelming majority of emissions linked to companies are Scope 3, and they are the hardest to control or compensate for.
European companies have begun to embrace commitments to Scope 3, which will require immense efforts, including reforestation, the capture and removal of carbon from operations, and technological advances such as fuels made from recycled carbon. Many of the companies are selling off hydrocarbon businesses and redirecting resources to renewable energy like solar and wind power.
Shell, the largest European oil company, has set a 2050 target for net zero emissions that includes Scope 3, which it says accounts for over 90 percent of its emissions. Equinor, the Norwegian national oil company, has a similar target, as does BP, although it excluded its joint operations with Rosneft, a Russian company.
By aiming for “net zero,” companies would remove more carbon than they release into the air.
The one American company that has committed to eliminating Scope 3 emissions is Occidental Petroleum, one of Exxon’s main competitors in the Permian Basin in Texas, where it plans to suck carbon out of the air and bury it in the ground. Chevron, the second-biggest American oil company, announced in October “an aspiration” of zero net emissions by 2050 from its operations, a move similar to Exxon’s announcement on Tuesday.
Environmentalists insist Exxon and other oil companies must embrace Scope 3 goals.
“Fully addressing Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions is necessary but not sufficient given that the major impact of oil and gas is in the sale and use of the product,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “To be an energy solutions provider means that you are addressing the carbon footprint as well as energy content of the products you are providing.”
Mr. Woods said his company was making an effort to slash Scope 3 emissions by working on carbon capture and sequestration, and on advanced low-carbon fuels for aviation and other heavy transportation.
“There are opportunities as we continue to advance carbon capture,” he said. “There will be opportunities to commercialize that technology and help others reduce their emissions.”
Pressure on Exxon has increased since activist investors secured three of the 12 seats on its board in June in a stunning defeat for management. Mr. Woods said the board members were now “unified,” adding, “You can’t distinguish between the new and old.”
Exxon established a Low Carbon Solutions business last year to accelerate development of carbon capture and storage, hydrogen projects, and biofuels. It hopes to lead a carbon capture and storage project on the Houston ship channel into becoming a global model, although a carbon tax or some other price on carbon would be necessary to make it profitable.
Its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil, is planning to produce renewable diesel to reduce emissions in heavy transportation. This month, Exxon acquired a nearly 50 percent stake in Biojet, a Norwegian biofuels company planning to convert wood and wood construction waste into low-carbon biofuel.
Exxon has also set goals internationally. It recently signed a memorandum with Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company, to evaluate potential large-scale carbon capture and storage projects in Indonesia.
The company said it planned to invest $15 billion to lower emissions over the next six years. Much of that money will go into developing carbon capture and storage, hydrogen energy, and biofuels. The executive summary of its plans said “sound government policies” such as some form of carbon pricing were important “to establish market incentives” like those that have supported electric cars and renewable power.
“We’re working closely with policymakers to help them see what kinds of constructive policies can be put in place” to push carbon capture and other Exxon climate efforts, Mr. Woods said.
But such efforts have so far not satisfied much of the investment community. Last month, UBS Asset Management announced that it was selling its shares in Exxon as part of a divestment from oil and gas companies it considered laggards on climate change policy.
Mark van Baal, an activist Dutch investor who has for years pushed environmental action from European companies, has announced that his investor group would call on Exxon to set emissions goals that address not only its operations but also the emissions of its customers.
“It’s a step forward to a more ambitious approach to addressing climate change, but in and of itself it is very modest,” said Andrew Logan, a senior director at Ceres, a nonprofit organization that pushes corporations to take climate change seriously on behalf of investors.
Mr. Logan also said Exxon’s reliance on biofuels and carbon capture was concerning. “If it’s betting so much on those technologies that are dependent on outside action, that’s a somewhat risky approach to take,” he said.
Exxon’s position on emissions has been evolving over the last year. In March, Mr. Woods promised that his company was “supportive” of zero-emission goals and would try to set a goal for not emitting more greenhouse gases than it removed from the atmosphere, but he added that it was difficult to say when that would happen.
Last month, the company announced that it would aim to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from its operations in oil and gas fields in West Texas and New Mexico by 2030. It pledged to electrify its operations, improve its ability to detect and capture methane gas and eliminate the routine burning of waste gas emitted from oil wells.