Big Oil’s Belated Conversion

Photograph Source: Inchy23 – CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s been a bad year for Big Oil. A decade ago, a barrel of oil could fetch around $100. This year, prices briefly touched zero. With coronavirus lockdowns partially lifted, crude is now selling for $40 – $45. BP says demand for fossil fuels will drop 50% to 75% by 2050. On cue, Unilever just announced it will rid its cleaning products of fossil fuels by 2030, in the name of cutting carbon emissions.

Last year, after buying Anadarko, Occidental Petroleum Corporation was a $80 billion corporation. It’s now worth about $12 billion and selling off assets. U.S. shale celebrated its second acquisitions boom from 2016 to 2019; now, many of these deals won’t work. Lenders are shying away from fossil fuels, lest they get stuck with the stranded assets.

It’s worth noting that, the company that just replaced ExxonMobil in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, produces carbon-tracking software so companies can disclose emissions data to shareholders. The writing is on the wall, boldface.

Time to “reimagine energy” in the words of Bernard Looney, the CEO who will “reinvent” BP through a grand pivot to wind and sun. Better late than—never mind. It’s too late to tame California’s heat waves or to save Greenland’s ice sheets. Now, with the warming Arctic poised to release methane gas from the permafrost, we can expect tens of trillions in damage from the greenhouse gas emissions in droughts, storms, and rising seas.

Political Malpractice

Five years ago, nearly all the world’s nations signed the Paris Climate Agreement to stop global temperatures from reaching 2°C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial averages. Since then we’ve experienced the five hottest years ever recorded. Naturally, Donald Trump yanked the United States from the Paris Agreement. And now, cheered on by the American Petroleum Institute, Trump’s ex-oil lobbyist Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, has signed a Record of Decision to let oil and gas developers despoil the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a biological wonderland, with its tundra bees and polar bears, black bears and grizzlies, Porcupine caribou and ancient musk oxen.

The Trump administration’s push to exploit the Arctic Refuge isn’t just obscene; it’s ludicrous. Who will be beating down the door to the Arctic? Anyone who does show up will face costly prospecting tasks, not to mention legal actions. And money lenders just don’t want the bad PR. BP ditched Alaska in 2019 and is now selling off fossil fuel assets. The company’s $41 billion in debt and now must spend much of what it has on its belated conversion.

Democrats oppose the opening of the Arctic Refuge, but they too have enabled the fossil fuel economy. We haven’t forgotten the Obama administration’s insistence on sparing Big Oil any penalties for harming polar bears during exploration in the Chukchi Sea and the adjacent coast of Alaska.

Green Solutions?

In March 2020, an apolitical virus kept us from driving and flying. But even months of lockdowns will amount to a mere blip, reducing global heating over the decade by just 0.01°C, according to research published in Nature Climate Change. Lasting improvements could be gained. A deliberate “strong green stimulus” plan, averting 0.3°C of warming, could keep the total temperature rise to 1.5°C. It’s doable, the research team says.

Are we reading, listening and acting?

Solar and wind are heralded as our way forward. Yet they, too, create sprawl, offshore and on land. Consider the Canadian wind project poised to disrupt reindeer and the Nihtat Gwich’in people.

For years, Vermonters for a Clean Environment have pushed back at wind projects that displaced bears, bats, and migratory birds, including at the formerly untamed ridge of Georgia Mountain. The Obama administration’s stimulus funds for renewables gave rise to many similar industrial projects, and aggressive stimulus will likely resume under Biden-Harris leadership.

From Spotsylvania County, Virginia, to Devils River in Texas, to the Mojave Desert, people are struggling to defend places they know from immense solar farm projects. “These desert energy farms are not green,” CounterPunch editor Joshua Frank said about solar energy’s push against endangered species protection for Joshua trees. “There’s no need for massive solar farms in the Mojave. Every roof in California could have solar.” It goes on and on. A decade ago the Quechan people called out the Bureau of Land Management for letting a solar project prevail over archaeological sites and the habitat of flat-tailed horned lizards.

Then there are the electric car batteries, for which lithium must be unearthed from someplace—even if there are oppressive regimes in control, or endangered plant species on the site.

Real Sustainability: Controlling Ourselves

Big Oil can’t go soon enough, but its replacements have to be used with care. Humans have already altered more than half of the Earth’s land surface. By August, just eight months into 2020, we used up the amount of resources it takes the planet a whole year to regenerate. A finite planet can’t take infinite growth—of our businesses or the Homo sapiens who run them.

We need to cut our energy use down. We need real plans to stop sprawl—especially now, as the remote work trend releases people from city living and allows them to head for the countryside.

If the pandemic can teach us to work without commuting, surely it can teach us to make peace with less extravagant lives. To shift from animal agribusiness to plant proteins. To stop binge flying. To hike locally, to more deeply appreciate the culture and beauty where we live. To wear condoms as well as masks. Eco-friendly ones, of course.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.