Big oil’s dirty secret in Iraq
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United Kingdom
Publishing organisation: Unearthed
Organisation size: Small
Publication date: 2022-09-29
Authors: Joe Sandler Clarke, Gurman Bhatia, Aidan Farrow, Owen Pinnell
**Joe Sandler Clarke**
Journalist with Unearthed, Greepeace’s journalism project
Scientist, Greenpeace science unit
Producer, BBC News Arabic
Unearthed combed through data on Iraq’s oil industry to reveal how its emissions vastly exceeded those that Big Oil acknowledges. At the same time, BBC journalists worked on the ground to tell the story of how the lives and health of ordinary Iraqis have been affected by flaring.
BP claims to be reducing emissions from flaring. But analysis of BP’s figures and independent satellite data showed that BP’s official emissions figures do not include those from a vast field in Iraq. If it did count its Iraq field, Unearthed found that BPs flaring emissions would be doubled.
Oil companies activities are under more scrutiny than ever before, but the way firms report their emissions lacks transparency and gives a misleading view to the public and to investors.
Our reporting raised awareness of oil companies hiding the true scale of their emissions from investors and the public by not counting emissions from assets they do not operate on a day-to-day level. We found that if BP included its share of flaring emissions from its field in Iraq, its overall flaring emissions would be doubled.
The reporting – shown in an hour-long BBC News Arabic documentary called ‘Under Poisoned Skies’ (Producer Owen Pinnell and Director Jess Kelly) that featured Unearthed’s reporting and our longread article – offered an unprecedented insight into the public health problems caused by rampant gas flaring.
The story led Iraq’s environment minister to acknowledge, for the first time, that there is a link between the high number of cancer cases in southern Iraq and out-of-control gas flaring. This had previously been denied by the government.
BP, in response to the story, promised to “work with partners on any necessary interventions”.
As a result of the reporting by Unearthed and BBC News Arabic, teams of lawyers are exploring litigation against BP over the public health damage of gas flaring in southern Iraq.
We had to adopt a variety of approaches to reveal the scale and impact of Big Oil’s operations in Iraq, and to measure how this compared to the companies’ publicly stated positions.
Unearthed used open-source satellite imagery to map flare stacks and show that oil producers in Iraq were less than 10km from people’s homes, in breach of Iraqi law.
We analysed company emissions data from BP and Italian firm Eni and identified gaps in both companies reporting by pairing this information with publicly available emissions tracking data, sourced from proprietary databases. This process enabled us to spot that BP and Eni were not counting emissions from flaring in Iraq in their annual emissions figures.
Unearthed, together with scientists from the Greenpeace science unit, advised on on-the-ground pollution monitoring in southern Iraq, which, for the first time, gave an insight into the public health impact of rampant gas flaring on the people of southern Iraq.
Context about the project:
The oil industry is not transparent in how it discloses its emissions, and working on a data-led story on this sector was a challenge. We had to painstakingly piece together emissions data from proprietary databases and then combine that with partial company emissions data disclosed in annual reports.
Ensuring that the data was properly reported required detailed consultation with experts and industry insiders, in addition to those quoted in the piece.
Added to that, through our work alongside BBC News Arabic we were working with teams of journalists based in Iraq, who had to deal with an array of security challenges both for themselves and for sources on the ground.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
This is an example of how to combine rigorous data journalism with powerful on-the-ground reporting.
It shows the real-world impact of fossil fuels and climate change, a topic that can often feel removed from people’s everyday lives.
We hope journalists use this story as a jumping-off point to further interrogate Big Oil’s emissions figures and find other parts of the world where companies are making millions from fossil fuels, while not taking responsibility for the climate and public health damage stemming from their activities.
We also hope the piece demonstrates the value of combining a huge range of innovative approaches – going beyond corporate disclosures and public data to include on-the-ground pollution monitoring, and satellite data – to provide a robust evidentiary baseline supporting powerful first-person testimony.