Oil executives want to play nice with Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager whose one-person school strike launched a worldwide movement to treat the climate crisis like the emergency it is. Deirdre Michie, head of the industry trade association Oil and Gas UK, declared in a speech recently that the sector sees climate change as “a real and present danger that we must deal with together,” and assured Thunberg that her industry “is listening.”
It’s not clear to which part. Oil and Gas UK also recently praised the start of production on a new oil field in Britain’s North Sea, which aims to pump out 100,000 barrels of oil per day in short order — exactly the type of expansion that Thunberg criticized as “beyond absurd” in a speech before the British Parliament in April.
Michie’s claim that the industry is “listening” is not the first time — and won’t be the last — that an industry leader is speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Pressure is mounting to address the climate crisis, and oil and gas companies and the politicians who have abetted them can see major climate legislation will be harder and harder to stall. Thunberg is regularly joined by tens if not hundreds of thousands of demonstrators around the world every week as part of the “Fridays for Future” movement. In Europe — where the movement has had its largest footprint — it’s been credited for making climate a top issue for voters, funneling a surge of support to the Green Party in last month’s European Parliament election, and encouraging outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May to propose making the UK the first G7 nation to achieve 100 percent net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Meanwhile, in the U.S., where the climate is emerging as a major issue of the 2020 election, grassroots groups like the Sunrise Movement have successfully pushed the idea of the Green New Deal into the national conversation, and five states — plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico — have committed to getting 100 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2050.
So after decades of spreading disinformation, fossil fuel interests the world are shifting into a different strategy: carving out a greener, friendlier image for themselves and appearing to embrace a progressive climate stance — as they continue to try to shape legislation to their benefit. The London-based think tank InfluenceMap found the world’s five largest oil companies have spent $1 billion rebranding themselves as “green” since the Paris Agreement, all the while pushing aggressively to access new supplies of oil and undermine climate rules and regulations.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report projects that 87 percent of oil and 74 percent of gas usage will need to be phased out by mid-century worldwide for the planet to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. But among the 40 largest oil-and-gas companies, 92 percent tie executive pay and bonuses to their ability to expand operations and secure new fossil-fuel development. Accordingly, the climate crisis never came up in a conference call this week between ExxonMobil and JP Morgan Chase, one of Exxon’s biggest investors. Exxon boasted about plans to extract one million barrels of oil a day from the U.S.’s Permian Basin by 2024, and to massively expand its operations in Guyana, Mozambique, and Brazil.
Under the guise of being responsible stakeholders in international negotiations, industry-sponsored trade associations like the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Emissions Trading Association have been a regular fixture of UN climate talks and enjoy close relationships with national delegations that enlist industry interests to co-sponsor happy hours and national pavilions at those annual gatherings. Last year at COP 24, the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Poland, Royal Dutch Shell climate change adviser David Hone bragged publicly about his company having helped draft sections of the Paris Agreement. According to a recent study by the Climate Investigations Center, Shell has sent 111 emissaries to meetings of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the last several years, and delegations from industry-friendly trade groups are sometimes larger than those sent by sovereign nations.
This week in Bonn, nearly 300 climate justice groups from around the world are pushing to have the UNFCC institute a conflict-of-interest policy aimed at barring polluters from influencing international climate talks. But the effort is being stymied by the European Union, the U.S., and other wealthy countries. As Jesse Bragg, of the watchdog group Corporate Accountability, tells me, “This policy doesn’t currently exist for the same reasons that this process has failed to deliver the type of ambitious and just action the globe needs: The fossil-fuel industry and its proxies have too much influence.”
In the U.S., decades of industry-funded climate denial has cast doubt on the idea that temperatures are rising at all. As investigative reporting over the past several years has revealed, both ExxonMobil and Shell conducted cutting-edge research into climate change as early as the 1960s, and internal Exxon documents show they knew as early as 1977 that the burning of fossil fuels was causing global warming. But they’ve been generously funding think tanks and members of Congress in the decades since to cast doubt on facts their own scientists had confirmed. Even after Exxon pledged to stop funding climate denial in 2007, it handed out nearly $9 million to climate deniers under the helm of CEO and future Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Reading the writing on the wall, a number of oil-and-gas companies now seem to be coalescing around the idea of a carbon tax, which would create a market incentive to reduce carbon emissions. On the surface, this looks promising: There’s broad agreement among climate and energy experts that some sort of carbon tax is an important policy for transitioning off of greenhouse-gas-intensive energy. Why would fossil fuel companies suddenly be embracing it? For one, an easy way to kill more ambitious climate legislation like a Green New Deal might be to pass a comparatively moderate compromise, banking on the hope that a Congress that passes one climate policy won’t come back for seconds. For another, oil-and-gas companies’ preferred carbon-tax plan comes with some serious caveats.
Stateside, ExxonMobil and several other U.S.-based oil and gas companies support a carbon tax — only if it comes with exemptions from environmental regulations and legal liability. (While proclaiming its support for a carbon tax in the U.S. and abroad, BP spent $13 million in 2018 to defeat a carbon tax in Washington state that didn’t include those provisions.) In particular, several companies, including BP, Exxon, and ConocoPhillips, are backing a proposal from the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), helmed by a who’s who of Bush, Clinton, and Reagan-era Cabinet officials. The group is advocating for putting a rising price on carbon that starts at $40 per ton of CO2, in exchange for kneecapping the EPA’s regulatory authority and establishing that “no party should be liable for damages from past emissions that were legal at the time.”
Notably, the CLC’s price wouldn’t meaningfully cut into oil-and-gas production. In also slashing regulations like fuel-efficiency standards, it would foreclose on the complementary policies needed for a carbon price to make a difference in sectors like transportation, a major driver of U.S. emissions. And by hastening coal’s demise, the CLC plan would likely spur new business toward natural gas, encouraging investment in new fossil fuel infrastructure that could lock in emissions for decades to come and put climate goals at risk. The CLC plan would also effectively inoculate the industry from a whole host of lawsuits it’s facing for its role in both driving climate change and misleading the public about it. Conspicuously absent from industry-led carbon-pricing conversations, too, are the hundreds of billions of dollars they receive annually from various governments, a figure that jumped by 11 percent between 2016 and 2017. Worldwide, subsidies to fossil fuels are roughly double those given to renewables.
The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing about the CLC proposal in May, as the fossil fuel industry’s newfound openness to at least certain types of climate policy in the U.S. begins seeping into the Republican Party. Previously staunch deniers like Sen. Mitch McConnell have begun to admit that climate change is both real and caused by humans. Sen. Lamar Alexander made the bold statement, “I believe that human emissions of greenhouse gases are a major cause of climate change,” and proposed a Manhattan Project for Clean Energy. Old-school deniers are finding it more difficult to peddle their wares — even with a climate denier sitting in the White House.
As some people on the right start to move away from more flagrant climate denial and junk science, letting industry sit at the climate-policymaking table — and write themselves out of responsibility — may just be a slightly slower road toward full-blown climate catastrophe. The UN’s 2018 IPCC report — which warned we’ve got 12 years to begin rapidly decarbonizing the global economy — makes clear that there’s no escaping the fact that any climate plan will need to seriously curtail investment in new fossil fuel sources. That’s a scenario the oil-and-gas companies and the politicians they donate to are keen to avoid, and we have every reason to believe they’ll continue to craft policy bent on continuing business as usual for as long as they can, however green their marketing. The biggest danger, then, isn’t that these policies are coming from the wrong people; it’s that they won’t get the job done.
A broader ethical question remains as to what should happen to the corporations that bear so much of the responsibility for this crisis, and have faced so few consequences as a result.
For that, Thunberg has an answer. “They have to be held accountable for what they have done,” she told Rolling Stone back in January. “You can’t just say that they stole something or something like that. They have done something much more serious than that. They know what they are doing will have a massive impact on life on Earth and yet they continue doing it because they want to continue to make money. And that is a crime against humanity, I think.”