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Was 2017 the year that the tide finally turned against fossil fuel projects?

By Suzanne Dhaliwal - Open Democracy, December 21, 2017

Last week AXA announced its sell off of €700m of tar sands investments from its balance sheets, covering 25 tar sands companies and 3 major pipelines projects. Thomas Buberl, the company’s chief executive, called the projects “not sustainable and therefore also not insurable.”

This was a significant win for activists like the UK Tar Sands Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network, who have been calling on financial institutions to end investments in the tar sands projects and pipelines since 2009, and who have most recently taken their campaigning efforts to the insurance industry.

The AXA decision comes just weeks after BNP Paribas broke the news that it will no longer finance new shale or tar sands projects, nor work with companies that mainly focus on those resources. Last Friday, Norway’s largest life insurer, KLP announced that it would exclude from its portfolio any firms that derive 30 percent or more of revenues from the extraction of tar sands. In the same week the World Bank announced it would cease financing upstream oil and gas after 2019.

It’s welcome news. Based on the financial risks, climate impacts and indigenous rights violations, we have seen a significant shift in financial institutions backing fossil fuels. The Bank of England now recognizes the monetary risks associated with climate change and is advising the central banks and governments to get out of highly polluting fuels due to the pending carbon bubble and the bad business associated with ‘extreme’ energy extraction. As a result BP, Shell, Exxon and others have pulled out of major tar sands projects and pipelines.

And now the insurance industry is beginning to act more meaningfully. As early as the 1970s, the insurance industry acknowledged the risk of climate change and the need for the sector to take meaningful action. Insurers have already seen the costs of climate related catastrophes and extreme weather events skyrocket, compelling them to be among some of the first movers divesting from coal and also develop policies to stop the underwriting of new fossil fuel projects. But they have massive holdings in fossil fuels. And so they need public pressure to push them to divest.

So despite last week’s news, we must be careful not to pop those champagne corks too fast. Significant action and commitment has yet to be seen by Asian and American insurers. Moreover, regenerative steps need to be taken to ensure that the communities whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels benefit from the transition to the clean energy economy. Simply put, who will be responsible for the massive clean-ups of stranded projects and direct the green energy transition?

The GOP Tax Bill Assaults the Planet as Well as the Poor

By Basav Sen - Common Dreams, December 5, 2017

If you are an average American, your government has just declared war against you. Unless you happen to be an oligarch. I’m talking, of course, about the monstrosity of a tax bill that Congress looks set to pass.

With good reason, only about one-third of Americans support the bill, since its primary purpose is to cut taxes for corporations and fabulously wealthy people at all costs.

The costs are high indeed, since the bill systematically raises taxes on struggling lower to middle income people. It gets rid of taxpayers’ ability to deduct state and local taxes paid from their taxable income, which is a form of double taxation. While this increases everyone’s taxes, struggling working people will feel the pain of this double taxation more than oligarchs. Make the Poor (and the Middle Class) Pay Again. And Again.

It also ends the deductibility of large medical expenses, effectively a large tax increase for the seriously ill, especially the uninsured or underinsured among them. Make the Sick Bankrupt Again.

In an all-out assault on higher education, it turns tuition reductions or waivers for graduate student teaching and research assistants into taxable income, a move that would make graduate school unaffordable for most people. Make America Uneducated Again.

The bill also gets rid of tax-exempt bonds for affordable housing construction, which are used to finance more than half of affordable rental units built each year. Make Housing Unaffordable Again.

In fact, it raises taxes on most people in so many ways that it is disingenuous to even call it a tax cut. This bill is a massive tax increase on most of us.

Lost in the debate around the tax bill, however, are provisions that will make more wind-reliant Iowans and Texans jobless, leave more hurricane-struck Puerto Ricans without access to basic necessities, poison more African-Americans with toxic fumes, and submerge more Native Alaskan villages, just to enrich a particular subset of oligarchs.

The tax bill kills the modest tax credits for solar and wind power, effectively raising taxes retroactively on renewable energy developers. It also kills the tax credit for electric cars, but does not touch the much larger subsidies for fossil fuels. Make Fossil Fuel Barons Rich Again, by subsidizing them while raising their competitor’s taxes.

These changes in energy tax credits will hurt many more people than just the owners of solar and wind companies. Solar and wind energy create many, many more jobs — hundreds of thousands more — than coal, even though they account for much smaller share of our overall energy mix than fossil fuels. If the intent of the tax bill truly were to create jobs, it would reinstate the solar and wind tax credits and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, not the other way round. Make Americans Jobless Again.

What’s the plan?

By Hannah McKinnon - Oil Change International, November 1, 2017

Why we can’t hide from the discussion about a managed decline of fossil fuel production.

It is clear that the end of the fossil fuel era is on the horizon. Between plummeting renewable energy costs, uncharted electric vehicle growth, government commitments to decarbonization enshrined in the Paris agreement, and a growing list of fossil fuel project cancellations in the face of massive public opposition and bad economics, the writing’s on the wall.

The question now becomes: What does the path from here to zero carbon look like? Is it ambitious enough to avoid locking in emissions that we can’t afford? Is it intentional enough to protect workers and communities that depend on the carbon-based economy that has gotten us this far? Is it equitable enough to recognize that some countries must move further, faster? And is it honest enough about the reality that a decline of fossil fuels is actually a good thing?

In short – will this be a managed decline of fossil fuel production, or an unmanaged decline? What is the plan?

Let’s take a closer look:

Chemicals used in Deepwater Horizon spill are harmful to people, study proves; finally

By Charles Digges - Bellona, September 25, 2017

Last week, the National Institutes of Health in the United States released a report that confirmed people living along the Gulf of Mexico who were very ill, but who for seven years have been told to keep quiet up about it, weren’t crazy after all.

Thousands of them had broken out in rashes. They had been coughing up blood, wheezing, experiencing migraines, and were tormented by burning eyes and memory loss. Others were surprised by heart aliments, kidney problems, liver damage, blood in their urine and discharge from their ears. Still others muddled through cognitive decline and anxiety attacks. Many went on to die.

Yet barely anyone in a position of authority was willing to believe they were sick at all. Often, even their own doctors told them that it was all in their heads.

What these people had in common was that they had been cleanup workers on the BP’s Macondo well disaster, which for 87 days in 2010 poured 4.9 million barrels oil into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded that April 20 off the coast of Louisiana. It was the worst oil spill in US history.

Some 47,000 people responded to the blow out. Fishermen rushed their boats into the fray to coral the oil at sea. Others worked to siphon it off beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In other cases they burned it off the surface of the ocean in flames visible from space.

All of these workers toiled under a haze of chemicals dumped from the skies to bombard the ballooning slick and sink it to the bottom of the Gulf. In most cases, they didn’t have protective gear – BP and its contractors told them they didn’t need it.

The US Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency backed that up – they, too, had been assured by BP and Corexit’s manufacturer, Nalco Environmental Solutions, that it was safe.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health finally told them, after a seven-year wait, that it wasn’t.

Who's Behind Fossil Fuel Extraction? It's Not Just Republicans

By Alison Rose Levy - Truthout, September 4, 2017

Like the sections of pipe they are assembled from, pipelines with names like Algonquin, Dominion and Kinder Morgan/TCG CT Expansion are interconnected, and affect a long string of communities crisscrossing the country. The 2.5 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines frequently leak and rupture, a 2012 ProPublica investigation found.

The pipeline aggregation enacted by the past and current administrations represents a clear shift in societal priorities: US communities and regions are no long the secure recipients of outside energy but instead are subjected to extractive exploitation on their own home ground -- with few avenues for citizen protection.

The interests of the oil, gas and pipeline industries are connected -- and so are the related problems that all of us face. No matter where fossil fuels are extracted, carried, refined, exported or used, the need to avoid contamination and deter climate change connects all people. It's no longer about just one community's backyard. And to stall climate change and contamination, people need to connect the dots.

How did fossil fuel development become so pervasive? Let's take a look at a few milestones that, in recent years, have deepened the pattern of relentless extraction.

For Many in Puerto Rico, "Energy Dominance" Is Just a New Name for US Colonialism

By Catalina M. de Onís - The Conversation, September 1, 2017

The Trump administration has made "achieving American energy dominance" a central policy goal. President Trump asserts that "energy dominance" requires expanding nuclear development, increasing coal and natural gas exports, building transnational pipelines and accessing offshore oil and gas deposits. These efforts, Trump contends, will maximize the nation's "boundless capacity" for energy production, including spreading US fossil fuels around the globe, to showcase its independence from foreign oil.

My research studies how expansionist efforts play out in the US unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico. For centuries, Spanish and US colonial governments and corporations have practiced what could be called "energy dominance" by harnessing human labor and fossil fuels to exploit local resources through mining, coffee and sugarcane development, and other industries. Puerto Rico's history makes clear that Trump's policy, which benefits corporations and their political allies to the detriment of local communities, promises more of the same.

Fueling Energy Colonialism

The United States seized control of Puerto Rico in 1898. Like other imperial powers, the United States justified exploiting other people and places by portraying them as backward and promising to modernize them.

Many US government officials, legal experts, researchers and artists assumed that colonized peoples were inferior. In their view, African and indigenous ancestries and prior colonization by Spain marked people who lived in the newly acquired "possessions" as primitive, childlike and weak.

In his 1899 book "Our Islands and Their People," writer and diplomat José de Olivares stated,

"Without our fostering benevolence, this island [Puerto Rico] would be as unhappy and prostrate as are some of the neighboring British, French, Dutch, and Danish islands."

During this same period, Supreme Court justices described US colonies as home to "uncivilized" and "savage" "alien races." Racist claims of US superiority and goodwill drove colonial policy and relationships of dependency.

Cap and Trade: Jerry Brown signs his bill (and calls opponents political terrorists)

By Dan Bacher - Red, Green, and Blue, July 28, 2017

“California is leading the world in dealing with a principal existential threat that humanity faces,” said Governor Brown at the signing ceremony. “We are a nation-state in a globalizing world and we’re having an impact and you’re here witnessing one of the key milestones in turning around this carbonized world into a decarbonized, sustainable future.”

Background: Cap and Trade: “Yes, this deal sucks, but we need to pass something. Anything.”

Brown signed the legislation on Treasure Island because it was the same location where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 32 (the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006) that authorized the state’s cap-and-trade program more than a decade ago.

Schwarzenegger also spoke at the signing ceremony, along with  Senate President pro Tempore Kevin De León, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and others.

Over 65 environmental justice, consumer and conservation groups strongly opposed the legislation that was based largely on a Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) wish list. Julia May, senior scientist at Communities for a Better Environment, summed up the many problems with AB 398:

“The Cap & Trade extension was written by the oil industry, is even worse than the current failed program, includes preemptions from local action, gives away so many free credits we will never meet climate goals, and allows oil refineries to expand indefinitely with no program for Just Transition to clean energy that is so desperately needed in environmental justice communities.”

Big Oil in the Rocky Mountain State: the Overwhelming Tawdriness of Government in Colorado

By Phillip Doe - CounterPunch, June 22, 2017

After five months of doing nothing of value, although spending millions in the furtherance thereof, the Colorado legislature closed up shop last month.  The people should demand a refund for nonperformance, but instead they will have to ante up more money to pay legislators and other top state and county officials.  The wages of nothingness are great.  In 2019 the legislature will award itself a 41 percent pay increase; the governor a 39 percent increase.

Pay increases for top-of-the-pyramid public servants had already been realized in Weld County, the epicenter for the fracking wars in Colorado.  There, the county commissioners received a 37 percent increase in pay to $120,000, plus retirement and health benefits.  Later, as antidote to the red-faced disease, the salary was scaled back to $105,000, only a blushing increase of 17 percent.

The average salary of teachers in Weld is $37,000.

The generosity of Weld County taxpayers lavished on their commissioners was somewhat muted by an IRS audit to determine if the cash allowance the commissioners receive for driving to work each day should be considered taxable income.  An estimated $500,000 has been paid out to commissioners in untaxed driving benefits over the years.  Recently, the big winner in the driving-the-old-jalopy-to-work sweepstakes was Barbara Kirkmeyer, having received $22,000 in driving dividends over the past two years.  She, once an aide to former Republican governor and Texas oilman Bill Owens, is the Dragon Lady of fracking in northern Colorado.  An early defender of fracking in neighborhoods, she has long claimed the state regs are adequate for public safety.  After all, she lectures knowingly, fracking is good for business and government budgets. 

As for the state legislature, it did manage to do one thing of note.  It mortgaged public buildings to raise almost two billion for road repairs.  The governor says it isn’t enough, but an increase in gasoline taxes or any other use fee is verboten among Republican legislators, and the Democrats continue to blame all government failures on the citizen enacted Taxpayers Bill of Rights, TABOR, which requires a vote of the people to enact a tax increase.  Oddly, the Dems claim that it is TABOR that has made them impotent, that it is a threat to representative government where elected officials should be the tax deciders, not the people legislating directly via the initiative process.  One of the leaders in the misguided and failed endeavor to overturn TABOR, Andy Kerr, is now running to replace U.S. Congressman Ed Perlmutter.  The flawlessly undistinguished Perlmutter, relentlessly climbing the greasy pole, now wants to replace the term limited Hickenlooper.  He has plenty of undistinguished company.

Of course, the mortgages on public buildings for road repairs will have to be paid back with interest, further inhibiting state budgets.  Still, the mortgage razzle dazzle was regarded by the Denver Post, the state’s flagship daily, as a grand compromise, worthy of nodding recognition.

Fight Back for Energy Independence Over Corporate Profits

By Lois Marie Gibbs - Common Dreams, May 27, 2017

‘Homeland Security – No more wars over oil!’ That’s what families in communities across Pennsylvania were promised a decade ago.

‘We’ll extract natural gas from the ground, using an unconventional process called hydrofracturing, to acquire enough natural gas that the U.S. will no longer be dependent on foreign oil!’

At least that’s what we were told. No longer would we need to send our young men and women overseas to fight oil wars.

Today America is there, with over 100 years of natural gas reserves. Moreover, if our country was to also invest in energy conservation and renewables, our nation could have 200 years of reserves today.

So what happened to that promise of ‘Homeland Security’ and ‘Energy Independence’? And why aren’t we celebrating?

How green is California? Agencies are deep in the pockets of Big Ag and Big Oil

By Dan Bacher - Red, Green & Blue, May 22, 2017

When I was at the March for Science in Sacramento a month ago, a friend asked to get me on video and talk about what is the crux of water issues in California, what is the overriding, central issue behind the different water battles. That’s one that includes the Delta Tunnels, the failure of the state and federal agencies to address environmentalists’ concerns with the safety of the Oroville Dam and spillways, the salmon and other fish collapses and the pollution of our drinking water by agribusiness, municipal and oil waste.

This is a presentation that I recently developed from my conversation with her.

The dire situation: Salmon and other species are collapsing

The Delta smelt, maligned as a “small minnow” by corporate agribusiness interests, is an indicator species that shows the health of the San Francisco-Bay Delta Estuary. Once the most abundant fish in Delta estuary, the Delta smelt population is so small that you can almost name them now. The most recent California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)  fall midwater survey shows that the Delta smelt is the second lowest in CA history, while the related longfin smelt population is the also second lowest.

The Delta smelt collapse is part of an overall ecosystem decline, including dramatic reductions in winter, spring and fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead populations, driven by water diversions by the federal and state water projects. From 1967 through 2015, populations of striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad declined by 93.7 percent to 99.7 percent (99.7, 98.3, 99.9, 97.7, 98.5 and 93.7 percent) respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Then on Tuesday, May 16, some alarming news was unveiled by California Trout and the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences in a press teleconference discussing a new report that indicates if present trends continue, the majority of California’s imperiled native salmon, steelhead and trout are likely to be extinct within 100 years.

The report forecasts that 74 percent of the state’s native salmon, steelhead and trout are likely be extinct in the next 100 years  — and 45 percent of these fish in 50 years — if the current trends continue. (See: California’s salmon and trout facing EXTINCTION.)

It details the status of 32 salmonid populations in California and identifies opportunities for stabilizing and even recovering these species.

The causes outlined for the dire forecast include  drought, climate change human-induced threats, including residential development, major dams, agriculture, fire, alien species, transport, logging, fish harvest, estuary alteration, hatcheries, mining, in stream mining, grazing, urbanization and recreation.

I would add record water exports in recent years –  and poor state and federal management of dams. Inexplicably, the report failed to list the biggest threat to Sacramento-San Joaquin River and Trinity-Klamath River salmon, steelhead and other species — Governor Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels.

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