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Earlier this week, Financial Times reported on yet another failed carbon credit project, but this one has a couple twists to it. FT wrote:

“Shell sold millions of carbon credits tied to CO₂ removal that never took place to Canada’s largest oil sands companies, raising new doubts about a technology seen as crucial to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. As part of a subsidy scheme to boost the industry, the Alberta provincial government allowed Shell to register and sell carbon credits equivalent to twice the volume of emissions avoided by its Quest carbon capture facility between 2015 and 2021, the province’s registry shows. The subsidy was reduced and then ended in 2022. As a result of the scheme, Shell was able to register 5.7mn credits that had no equivalent CO₂ reductions, selling these to top oil sands producers and some of its own subsidiaries.”

Certainly sounds bad at best – fraudulent at worst. Bloomberg‘s Matt Levine had a thought of a different color. First, he offered this explanation of carbon credits:

“There are two ways to think of a carbon credit:

  1. A carbon credit represents one ton of carbon that has been removed from the atmosphere.
  2. A carbon credit is a quasi-regulatory accounting quantity, where companies want to be able to tell certain audiences — shareholders, governments, activists, whoever — ‘we are carbon neutral,’ and to get to carbon neutrality you add up your carbon emissions (measured in tons) and subtract the number of carbon credits you have bought.”

With that as background, Levine poses an interesting question:

“People who bought those credits [from Shell’s Quest project] thinking that they were getting exactly one ton of reduced carbon emissions were disappointed. People who bought those credits thinking that they were getting exactly one registered carbon credit were … fine? They got the thing they paid for? Carbon credits? Do you think they are going back and restating their claims about carbon neutrality? I don’t know…”

Levine may be on to something here, but perhaps not quite. There’s more to this – see Part 2.

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Image Credit: Alexandr Blinov –

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile