There are few CEOs in the energy industry as vocal about their disdain for climate activism as Nicholas DeIuliis. Rarely a day goes by without DeIuliis, the head of U.S. natural gas producer CNX Resources Corp., taking a shot on Twitter at the politicians and celebrities urging quicker action to halt global warming.
So it came as something of a surprise when DeIuliis unveiled a 55-page report back in July that made one of the industry’s most audacious claims about curbing emissions. CNX, according to the report, is “net carbon negative” and has been for years. This means the company is removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits, precisely the kind of environmental progress that CNX’s big financial backers like BlackRock Inc. and The Vanguard Group Inc. have been demanding.The problem is that the report isn’t true for the full scope of CNX’s emissions.
The company bases its claim on the fact that it has a business that captures methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO₂ — that would otherwise be released from coal mines and sells it as fuel for power generation. But it’s still relying on the burning of coal, a fossil fuel that pollutes the air so badly that researchers say it causes thousands of premature deaths each year. What’s more, using gas for electricity produces emissions not just of carbon dioxide but often of methane itself. CNX still drills for gas in shale basins. And its greenhouse-gas accounting also doesn’t include its customers, a category that makes up the biggest share of the energy industry’s emissions by far.
In the parlance of climate scientists, CNX’s claim is greenwashing — and an extreme case of it. And the fact that a CEO skeptical of man-made climate change is spearheading the campaign to prove his company’s environmental bonafides highlights just how great the pressure from investors is on the fossil fuel industry to reform and just how great the risk of greenwashing is becoming as a result.’‘That a company whose entire business model is based on fossil fuel extraction could be carbon negative is pretty laughable on its face,” said Tom Schuster, clean energy program director at the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter. ’‘Fracking and coal mining are simply not compatible with the urgent need to stabilize the climate, which requires us to be transitioning away from CO₂.”
DeIuliis, 53, dismisses the criticism of CNX’s carbon-negative assertion. Though investors didn’t shower the company with kudos for the claim and environmentalists were quick to poke holes in it, the CEO argues that CNX has been fully transparent about the “straightforward math” underlying it. What’s more, the company has stated publicly that it will likely never reach net-zero, let alone carbon negative, for emissions if customers are included. But DeIuliis is also convinced that no other company or industry — including wind and solar power — will ever be net zero if indirect emissions are part of the equation, and that only fossil fuel producers are being held accountable for them.
“That’s what is frustrating, going from bad to ugly, about ESG,” he said in an interview. There’s no universally accepted method of measuring corporate greenhouse-gas emissions, and capturing methane from coal mines is better for the environment than drilling new wells or letting methane leak into the atmosphere, said Rob Du Boff, an ESG analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. But that doesn’t mean CNX’s carbon-negative claim holds weight.
“At the end of the day, you are still bringing more gas to the market,” Du Boff said.
Publicly, at least, oil and gas executives increasingly are either embracing the narrative of the energy transition or simply keeping quiet on the subject. Not DeIuliis. Via Twitter, a podcast and personal website, he slams corporate green pledges, deems solar and wind power a bad idea and fiercely defends fossil fuels. In his crusade against what he calls “radical environmentalism,” the CEO targets everyone from Bono to Pope Francis. Climate activism is one of many subjects DeIuliis tackles in his book Precipice: The Left’s Campaign to Destroy America, to be published next year.
(Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, has committed $500 million to launch Beyond Carbon, a campaign aimed at closing the remaining coal-powered plants in the U.S. by 2030.)
Toby Rice, CEO of EQT Corp., the largest U.S. gas producer, is measured in his assessment of DeIuliis’s views. But he stresses that EQT is taking a different path.
“It’s very brave to be vocal because you put yourself out there and there’s a lot of critics,” Rice said in an interview. “But I will tell you more of the guys in this industry are like us, are like me, in having a balanced approach” that is “more aligned with the demands of the public” in shifting to carbon-free energy sources. EQT set a goal earlier this year to zero out its own emissions by 2025, but like CNX, the company excluded pollution from its customers from the plan.
DeIuliis has deep roots in coal country. The men of his family, descended from Italian immigrants, toiled in and around western Pennsylvania’s mines, mills and railroads. Living almost his entire life within a 5-mile (8-kilometer) radius of Pittsburgh, where CNX is based, he saw firsthand the steep declines in the city’s economy as steel and other heavy industries moved out, leaving thousands without jobs.
He joined CNX’s predecessor company, Consol Energy Inc., as an engineer three decades ago, when it was primarily focused on coal mining. DeIuliis became CEO of Consol in 2014, as the company worked to transform itself into a gas driller and capitalize on surging output of the fuel from shale basins. Three years later, its coal assets were spun off and the renamed CNX became a pure-play Appalachian gas producer. Key to CNX’s carbon-negative claim is the Buchanan mine in Virginia, now owned by Coronado Global Resources Inc.
BlackRock and Vanguard are among the largest CNX shareholders. The investors, who declined to comment for this story, have pushed companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. to disclose their climate risks and plans for how to adapt to a low-carbon economy, following guidelines that include those set by the Financial Stability Board, an international body that monitors the global financial system. That’s what CNX did for the first time in the report it released in July.
“We had a handful of owners who thought it was worth pursuing,” DeIuliis said of CNX’s move. The executive said he was initially concerned that the Financial Stability Board’s framework might be “another gimmick or ESG veneer.” But “once we studied it, we thought it was a good move for us.”
DeIuliis’s rise at CNX coincided with the advance of fracking — the process that revolutionized the U.S. energy industry by making it possible to extract oil and gas from shale rocks — and Consol’s move into natural gas. The shale revolution had a major impact on Pennsylvania, where gas output soared to about 7 trillion cubic feet last year — 35 times the amount produced in 2008. The state now produces almost 20% of U.S. gas output, second only to Texas. The industry accounts for about 245,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state, according to a July study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
The gas industry “basically returned the middle class, the family-sustaining wages, the economic growth engines” for Appalachia, DeIuliis said.
While climate scientists warn of global warming’s world-destroying potential, DeIuliis says the Appalachian gas industry is facing an existential threat of its own — from the energy transition. He notes that the fuel has come under attack from environmental groups because of its impact on climate change, and in recent years, pipeline projects aimed at moving gas from Pennsylvania to markets such as New Jersey and New York have been killed because of such concerns, limiting the ability of CNX and other shale explorers to boost output. Unleashing the region’s full production potential could help boost living standards in poor, energy-scarce countries, he added.
The energy crisis in Europe and Asia has left nations scrambling to secure reliable fuel supplies. A strained gas market contributed to Europe’s record-setting spike in electricity prices, though the energy transition amplified the volatility. Still, DeIuliis argues that underinvestment in natural gas will put the U.S. at risk of a similar energy crunch , boosting the risk of power outages.
“It’s inevitable that New York or Boston is going to face an energy crisis, if winter gets cold and if supply and demand is imbalanced in part because of these types of policies,” he said.
Regardless of rhetoric from climate-skeptical energy CEOs like DeIuliis, in the long term, companies that don’t heed investor demands to address climate change are likely to face a reckoning, Bloomberg Intelligence’s Du Boff said.
‘‘Their personal beliefs are irrelevant as long as they act professionally in how they deal with these stakeholders,” he said. “It’s the ones that continue to run their businesses counter to these demands that are problematic.”