The COP26 United Nations climate summit in Glasgow was billed by many climate leaders as the world’s “last, best chance” to avert runaway climate chaos.
It’s no surprise that oil, gas, and coal companies were present in force. The fossil fuel industry had the largest contingent at the event, according to the BBC. With 503 members, the army fielded by dirty energy companies was larger than the force of any nation present. Brazil came in second at 479 delegates. Russia brought 312, the United Kingdom brought 230 and the United States wasn’t even listed in the top ten.
That helps explain why, despite unprecedented pressure from activists outside the meeting venues protesting in the streets of Glasgow and heart rending pleas from representatives of low-lying island nations for the leading economic powers to save their islands from sea-level rise that their citizens had no role in causing, the headlines were not promising:
- “A death sentence”: Indigenous climate activists denounce Cop26 deal (The Guardian)
- Politicians Make Climate Promises they Can’t Keep (Wall Street Journal)
- Why India Defended Coal at the Close of the COP26 Climate Summit (Scientific American)
- COP26 Climate Summit Made Progress, But Came Up Short, Catholic Agencies Say (National Catholic Reporter)
- COP26 Ends with Promises, But Not Nearly Enough Progress (The Nation)
Who else to blame but fossil fuel companies? Nobody else has a material interest in letting the climate burst into flame.
Now that they’ve defeated COP26, you can expect oil companies to keep fighting against anything else the world’s leaders try to do to save the climate that might prove costly to dirty energy producers and their friends in construction, chemicals, plastics and finance.
It’s true that oil companies have recently changed their tune. Instead of denying climate science, they now claim to accept it and say they want to be “part of the solution.” To prove it, major oil producers from BP to Shell have put out plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions in the next few decades. Even ExxonMobil, the bad boy of the industry, has started making friendlier noises about climate.
But if anybody was taken in by these lies, the death of COP26, with blood all over the hands of fossil fuel lobbyists, should prove that these companies are just pouring old wine into new bottles.
Once liars, always liars.
Oil companies have lied to the public for more than a century about polluting land, water and air near oil wells, refineries and pipelines.
For the last half century, those same companies have lied about climate science and viciously attacked the personal reputations of scientists and climate activists alike.
These companies will never reform. They’ll just come up with new ways to lie.
We can never trust them to do anything but pollute our politics as much as they’ve polluted the climate.
Time to Forgive Oil Companies? Not Even Close.
Not everybody agrees, as I write in Abolish Oil Now!:
“I think we need to forgive fossil fuels,” says Saul Griffith, who won a “Genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2007 for his work as an inventor in optics, textiles, nanotechnology, and energy analysis. “We are demonizing them right now. We are getting the fossil fuel industry sort of backed into a corner. And honestly, the people in this country who know [best] how to build infrastructure at scale are in the fossil fuel industry.”
Geniusitude aside, Griffith is a genuinely smart guy who wants to electrify the whole economy, a key step to going 100% renewable, for which I applaud him. But he’s wrong that we need oil companies to build out clean energy.
Electric utilities are already getting on board, and it’s true that some construction companies that build offshore oil platforms can help build offshore wind turbines.
But if we’re going to electrify everything, replacing liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel fuel with batteries powered by clean energy to run cars, trucks, trains and planes, then we don’t particularly need the expertise of companies who know how to pump, refine, and distribute those same liquid fuels we’re trying to get rid of.
Oil companies have had plenty of chances in the past to diversify into solar and wind, and aside from a few piddling demonstration projects, they’ve said thanks, but no thanks.
Oil companies don’t want to get into clean energy. They want to keep pumping oil and gas. But if they have to lie about it in a more creative way, then they don’t mind doing a few more demonstration projects for “green” hydrogen or carbon capture that will never be commercialized and making a lot of net zero pledges that won’t be honored and won’t cut fossil fuel pollution even if they are.
If they were serious about becoming part of the solution on climate, oil companies would start lobbying against their current business. But their actions at COP26 show that they’re not about to do that. Just the opposite. They’re still lobbying for more oil, gas and coal.
So, let’s stop playing their game. We’ll forgive oil companies once they’re gone. But first, let’s abolish them.
The governments of the world, starting with the United States, could buy out the industry and then begin to phase it out over a period of 10-15 years. Government executors could direct the companies to cease all exploration for new reserves and then start shutting down the ones they have, scrapping equipment along the way.
Shutting Down Oil Cheaper than Suffering their Lobbyists
It would cost money, but not as much as dealing with runaway climate chaos. And it would respect the principle of private property. Oil company shareholders and owners could get 40 cents or 50 cents on the dollar for their assets, which, given the harm they cause to humanity through their pollution, is more than they deserve.
Fortunately, there’s already a movement to nationalize fossil fuel companies and begin shutting them down.
“Abolish these oil companies, finish them, get rid of them, no more,” says Ayisha Siddiqa, founder of of Polluters Out, a coalition led by young people who want to remove the oil and gas industry’s influence from international climate negotiations like COP26.
Activist Carla Skandier wants the federal government to buy entire oil, gas and coal companies and take ownership of their reserves and equipment. “When we talk about abolishing the fossil fuel industry, we are really talking about the urgent need for an endgame to manage the industry’s fast decline,” Skandier said.
Columbia University Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Reinhold Martin writes that the federal government can nationalize energy resources through eminent domain and other existing laws as FDR did during the New Deal when he created the Tennessee Valley Authority. He calls for an end to oil to save both the climate and American democracy:
[A]bolish oil, as an industry and as a form of social organization. In this, I simply restate a truism of climate politics, which holds that a sustainable, democratic, demilitarized future depends on the rapid elimination of fossil fuels from regular, widespread use, with a “just transition” for oil workers. Like the slave system, “oil” is more than a sector of the economy, or a source of physical energy that can be substituted by some other, less extractive form. Expressions like “oil wars,” “petro-capitalism,” and “fossil capital” delineate the ties that bind the world’s predominant energy system to its most intractable conflicts.
Buy out and nationalize oil, gas and coal producers. Pay the polluters to go home.
That’s how the British abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies in the 1830s — they compensated slaveowners for the partial market value of each enslaved person. Unfortunately, the enslaved people received no reparations themselves, a moral and practical failing of the plan. But on the upside, 800,000 men, women and children got their freedom in just a few years. And without the bloody civil war it took to free America’s slaves two decades later.
If we pay the shareholders and executives of ExxonMobil and their friends to just walk away, then we can step in and start putting an end to oil. The first thing we should do is fire all the lobbyists.