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Big Oil Reality Check

By David Tong, et. al. - Oil Change International, September 2020

As oil and gas companies claim to be part of the solution of the climate crisis, the reality couldn’t be more different. Our new discussion paper analyzes the current climate commitments of eight of the largest integrated oil and fossil gas companies, and reveals that none come close to aligning their actions with the urgent 1.5°C global warming limit as outlined by the Paris Agreement.

This discussion paper measures oil and gas company climate plans against ten minimum criteria, focusing on the ambition, integrity, and ability necessary to implement a just transition and achieve a 1.5°C aligned managed decline of oil and fossil gas. Focusing on the oil majors, BP, Chevron, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Repsol, Shell, and Total, we find that only one company has committed to cutting oil and gas production over the next decade, and even that pledge (BP’s stated commitment to cut production by 40% by 2030) excludes around a third of the oil and gas it invests in extracting via its major share in oil giant Rosneft. Below is a summary table of these criteria included in the discussion paper.

Read the text (PDF).

The End of Oil Is Near: the pandemic may send the petroleum industry to the grave

By Antonia Juhasz - Sierra, August 24, 2020

This past spring, coastlines around the globe took on the feel of an enemy invasion as hundreds of massive oil tankers overwhelmed seaports from South Africa to Singapore. Locals and industry analysts alike used the word armada—typically applied to fleets of warships—to describe scenes such as when a group of tankers left Saudi Arabia en masse and another descended on China. One distressed news article proclaimed that a “floating hoard” of oil sat in tankers anchored across the North Sea, “everywhere from the UK to France and the Netherlands.” In April, the US Coast Guard shared an alarming video that showed dozens of tankers spread out for miles along California’s coast.

On May 12, Greenpeace activists sailed into San Francisco Bay to issue a challenge to the public. In front of the giant Amazon Falcon oil tanker—which had been docked in the bay for weeks, loaded up with Chevron oil—they unfurled a banner reading, “Oil Is Over! The Future Is Up to You.”

The oil industry has turned the oceans into aquatic parking lots—floating storage facilities holding, at their highest levels in early May, some 390 million barrels of crude oil and refined products like gasoline. Between March and May, the amount of oil “stored” at sea nearly tripled, and it has yet to abate in many parts of the world.

This tanker invasion is only one piece of a dangerous buildup in oil supply that is the result of an unprecedented global glut. The coronavirus pandemic has gutted demand, resulting in the current surplus, but it merely exacerbated a problem that’s been plaguing the oil industry for years: the incessant overproduction of a product that the world is desperately trying to wean itself from, with growing success.

Today, the global oil industry is in a tailspin. Demand has cratered, prices have collapsed, and profits are shrinking. The oil majors (giant global corporations including BP, Chevron, and Shell) are taking billions of dollars in losses while cutting tens of thousands of jobs. Smaller companies are declaring bankruptcy, and investors are looking elsewhere for returns. Significant changes to when, where, and how much oil will be produced, and by whom, are already underway. It is clear that the oil industry will not recover from COVID-19 and return to its former self. What form it ultimately takes, or whether it will even survive, is now very much an open question.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has joined other petroleum superpowers in efforts to maintain oil’s dominance. While government bailout programs and subsidies could provide the lifeline the industry needs to stay afloat, such policies will likely throw good money after bad. As Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Federal Reserve governor and former deputy secretary of the Treasury, has written, “Even in the short term, fossil fuels are a terrible investment. . . . It also forestalls the inevitable decline of an industry that can no longer sustain itself.”

In contrast to an agenda that doubles down on dirty fuels, a wealth of green recovery programs aim to keep fossil fuels in the ground as part of a just transition to a sustainable and equitable economy. If these policies prevail, the industry will rapidly shrink to a fraction of its former stature. Thus, as at no other time since the industry’s inception, the actions taken now by the public and by policymakers will determine oil’s fate.

The Greenpeace activists are right. Whether the pandemic marks the end of oil “is up to you.”

Culver City Takes Historic Steps to End Neighborhood Oil Drilling

By staff - Sierra Club, August 14, 2020

CULVER CITY, CA—Last night, Culver City councilmembers took the first necessary steps to phase out oil extraction in the city’s 78-acre portion of the Inglewood Oil Field. After a presentation on the amortization study commissioned by the Oil Subcommittee, and virtual public testimony, the council unanimously directed staff to develop a framework and timeline for the phase out of active wells. Diverse stakeholders gave testimony in favor of the motion from labor unions including United Steelworkers Local 675, California Nurses Association, and Jobs to Move America, environmental organizations from Sierra Club, NRDC, Food & Water Action, Center for Biological Diversity and renewable energy advocates including GRID Alternatives and the Clean Power Alliance in addition to many local residents and medical professionals.

Urban oil extraction and production have long exposed Los Angeles residents to toxic emissions and dangerous chemicals in their own neighborhoods. Oil production sites use and emit known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, like benzene and formaldehyde, fine and ultra-fine particulate matter, and hydrogen sulfide. All of these chemicals have proven records of toxicity and are known to cause health impacts ranging from nosebleeds to chronic headaches, increased risks of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and increased risk of cancer.

“Every day nurses across California treat children with asthma and we see firsthand the connection between environmental and public health,” said Tveen Kirkpatrick, R.N. wth California Nurses Association/ National Nurses United. “We are proud to stand with the communities closest to toxic operations in Culver City and call for a shutdown of the Inglewood Oil Field. California should look beyond fossils to a future where workers and communities don’t pay the price for the oil industry’s pollution with their bodies.”

Over one million people live within five miles of the massive Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oilfield in the nation, sprawled across Culver City and the historically African American neighborhood of Baldwin Hills. For decades, residents have called on local and state elected officials to strengthen health and safety protections from industrial oil operations near their homes, schools and parks. With Culver City now advancing plans to phase out existing oil wells, local environmental justice, labor and health advocates are urging councilmembers to seize this opportunity to model a Just Transition. They have sent multiple letters to Heather Baker, Assistant City Attorney, calling for the city to hold oil operators responsible for cleanup costs, and ensure that a properly trained and local unionized workforce is paid a living wage for the remediation of wells. 

Letter from USW Local 675 on Orphan Wells

By Philip Baker and David Campbell - United Steelworkers Local 675, August 5, 2020

We write to support an important economic recovery opportunity that will create jobs, provide tremendous health and environmental benefits to frontline communities, and advance a just transition away from fossil fuels: the accelerated remediation of oil and gas wells in California.

California law already requires that oil and gas operators fully fund the cost of oil and gas well remediation in California.

The job creation from this work is substantial. A recent national study estimated a total of 15.9 total jobs (direct, indirect, and induced) per million dollars spent.

Remediation of Oil and Gas Wells Must be Accelerated in Tandem with a Halt on Permitting New Wells and a Managed Phaseout of Oil and Gas Extraction.

Read the text (PDF).

There May Be No Choice but to Nationalize Oil and Gas—and Renewables, Too

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, August 2020

Once on the margin of the margins, calls for the nationalization of U.S. fossil fuel interests arebgrowing. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the basic argument was this: nationalization could expedite the phasing out fossil fuels in order to reach climate targets while ensuring a “just transition” for workers in coal, oil, and gas. Nationalization would also remove the toxic political influence of “Big Oil” and other large fossil fuel corporations. The legal architecture for nationalization exists—principally via “eminent domain”—and should be used.

But the case for nationalization has gotten stronger in recent months. The share values of large fossil fuel companies have tanked, so this is a good time for the federal government to buy. In April 2020, one source estimated that a 100 percent government buyout of the entire sector would cost $700 billion, and a 51 percent stake in each of the major companies would, of course, be considerably less. However, in May 2020 stock prices rose by a third or so based on expectations of a fairly rapid restoration of demand.

But fears of a fresh wave of Covid-19 outbreaks sent shares tumbling downward in June. Nationalizing oil and gas would be a radical step, but this alone would not be enough to deliver a comprehensive energy transition that can meet climate goals as well as the social objectives of the Green New Deal. Such a massive task will require full public ownership of refineries, investor-owned utilities (IOUs), and nuclear and renewable energy interests.

Progressives may feel it’s unnecessary to go that far; why not focus on the “bad guys” in fossil fuels and leave the “good guys” in wind, solar, and “clean tech” alone? But this is not an option. The neoliberal “energy for profit” model is facing a full-spectrum breakdown, and the energy revolution that’s required to reach climate targets poses a series of formidable economic and technical challenges that will require careful energy planning and be anchored in a “public goods” approach. If we want a low carbon energy system, full public ownership is absolutely essential.

Decommissioning California Refineries: Climate and Health Paths in an Oil State

By Greg Karras - Communities for a Better Environment, July 2020

Machines that burn oil are going away. We will burn much less oil, either to prevent the increasing accumulation of pollution impacts that could cause the collapse of human societies as we know them, or as a footnote to the collapse of our societies and economies on which the petroleum fuel chain now feeds. Which path we take matters.

Sustainable energy technologies that are proven, available now, and obviously more economic than societal collapse could replace oil and other fossil fuels. But critical oil infrastructure, permitted mainly in working class communities and communities of color, is still growing. Environmental, economic, and racial injustice weaken societal capacity to break free of this toxic path. Societal capacity to organize—political feasibility—has emerged as the primary barrier to solving our existential pollution crisis.

California has this problem. It hosts the largest oil refining center in western North America. It has the worst air pollution in the nation, and yet it has allowed its oil sector’s critical infrastructure to grow in low-income communities of color, where this pollution is disparately severe compared with the state average. It uses pollution trading—the exchange of money for permits to pollute—leaving communities largely on our own to fight refinery and oil terminal expansion projects.

Communities rose up to stop tar sands projects in many inspiring efforts that for a decade have held to a trickle the flood of cheaper, dirtier oil that refiners sought. But some projects slipped through. The petroleum fuel chain emits more carbon from extracting, refining, and burning fuels made from the oil refined in California than all other activities in the state combined, and as other emissions have begun to decline, its emissions have not.

In fact its emissions increased from 2013–2017 as refiners here increased production for exports that sold for more money than the entire oil sector spent on permits to emit under the state’s carbon trading scheme. They could do that because no refiner faced any limit on carbon emissions from its plant. They still can because politicians caved in to their demand to make carbon trading the only curb on those emissions. Since 2017, state law has prohibited state air officials from setting a carbon-cutting limit on any oil refining plant under this carbon trading scheme.

Governor Brown argued this law was the best “compromise” that was politically feasible. Yet state climate policy has ignored the need, first voiced by the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union decades ago, for a mandate that assures workers a just transition. Equally important to political feasibility, communities must predict how fast to transition their job and tax bases from oil to sustainable alternatives. But by letting any polluter delay emission cuts at any time, pollution trading makes it harder to make this very prediction.

Read the report (PDF).

Green Stimulus for Oil and Gas Workers: Considering a Major Federal Effort to Plug Orphaned and Abandoned Wells

By Daniel Raimi, Neelesh Nerurkar, and Jason Bordoff - Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy, School of International and Public Affairs, and Resources for the Future, July 2020

The global economic damages wrought by COVID-19 have dramatically magnified the suffering caused by the deadly virus. US lawmakers have already approved $3 trillion in aid to help offset the economic damage, and additional measures are under consideration. At the same time, the need to invest trillions in economic recovery has prompted calls to “build back better” by making the recovery a greener, less carbon-intensive one.

This paper, a joint effort between Resources for the Future and the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, examines the potential to boost US employment in the oil and gas workforce while also reducing pollution through a federal program to plug orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells. These wells can leak methane and other pollutants that contribute to climate change, poor air quality, and other health and environmental risks. This research included interviews with key regulatory and industry officials to present the most up-to-date information on this rapidly evolving issue.

While states and the federal government fund well plugging activities through bonding requirements, industry fees, and other sources, these funds have not historically been adequate to reduce the inventory of orphan unplugged wells. Many of these sites date back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when regulations including bonding requirements were weak or, in many cases, nonexistent. Estimates for the total number of orphaned and abandoned wells range from several hundred thousand to 3 million, depending on the definition of such wells needing attention. At the same time the oil and gas industry, which has seen employment drop to levels not seen since 2006, appears able to scale up to carry out this work. Labor and equipment are readily available due to the low oil price environment created by the collapse in demand from the coronavirus.

The paper finds:

  • A significant federal program to plug orphan wells could create tens of thousands of jobs, potentially as many as 120,000 if 500,000 wells were plugged. Addressing 500,000 wells would require state, tribal, and federal agencies to identify and prioritize hundreds of thousands of additional wells, most of which are unaccounted for in current inventories of orphaned wells. These inventories indicate that the largest number of orphaned wells are in Pennsylvania.
  • A widespread federal effort to plug orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells would reduce local air pollution, safety risks, and greenhouse gas emissions at a cost of roughly $67 to $170 per ton of CO2-equivalent, well within the range of other policy options.
  • A significant pool of labor from the oil and gas industry could be deployed toward and benefit from such a program. More than 76,000 direct industry jobs were lost from February to June of 2020, a number that is likely to rise in the months to come. The job losses have been especially acute in rural regions where domestic oil and gas production occurs and where economies are closely tied to industry fortunes, such as the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Bakken in North Dakota, and parts of California, Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states. In these regions, this downturn not only affects workers but also funding for schools, infrastructure, public safety, and more, as a prior collaboration between RFF and CGEP found.
  • The costs of plugging and restoring well sites vary widely, and the total outlay of a well plugging program to address the known inventory of 56,600 orphaned wells could plausibly range from $1.4 billion to $2.7 billion. Expanding the program to identify and plug 500,000 wells could plausibly cost between $12 and $24 billion. States have different technical requirements for plugging wells and restoring surface locations, and some wells pose greater risks to groundwater, are harder to access, or are deeper than average. All these factors affect plugging and restoration costs.
  • One potential challenge of a very large program (i.e., addressing hundreds of thousands of wells) is that state regulatory offices would likely need to scale up administrative capacity to oversee such programs.
  • While states and the federal government require oil and gas companies to post bonds or other forms of financial assurance to pay for well plugging in case firms go bankrupt before plugging wells, these bonds often do not cover the full costs. Federal funding could exacerbate this problem if states and companies see it as alleviating their responsibility to plan for future remediation costs adequately. To avoid this, a federal program could prioritize plugging wells abandoned decades ago that were not subject to modern regulatory frameworks.

Read the text (PDF).

It’s Time to Nationalize the Fossil Fuel Industry

Robert Pollin interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, June 26, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy provides a golden opportunity for creating a fairer, more just and sustainable world as it shatters long-held assumptions about the economic and political order. Its impact on the energy industry in particular can boost support for tackling the existential threat of global warming by raising the prospect of nationalizing and eventually dismantling fossil fuel producing companies, a position argued passionately by one of the world’s leading progressive economists, Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

C.J. Polychroniou: It has been argued by many that the coronavirus pandemic is a game changer for numerous industries, and could change the way we work and the way we use energy. We could also see the possible return of the social state and thus the end of austerity. First of all, are there any comparisons to be made between the current health and economic crises and what took place during the Great Depression?

Robert Pollin: There is one big similarity between the economic collapse today and the 1930s Great Depression. That is the severity of the downturns in both cases. The official U.S. unemployment rate coming from the Labor Department as of May 2020 was 13.3 percent. But a more accurate measure of the collapsing job market is the number of workers who have applied for unemployment insurance since the lockdown began in mid-March. That figure is 44 million people, equal to about 27 percent of everyone in the current U.S. labor market, employed or unemployed. By contrast, during the Great Recession of 2007-09, official unemployment peaked, and for one month only, at 10.0 percent.

Cracked: The Case for Green Jobs Over Pterochemicals in Pennsylvania

By staff - Food and Water Watch, September 2020

While the national economy struggled to recover from the Great Recession, wage and employment growth in Pennsylvania was anemic. This experience mirrored national trends of increasing inequality and a hollowing out of the middle class. Despite the state’s aggressive embrace of fracking as a driver of economic growth, fracking jobs remain scarce and temporary. As frackers suffocate in a glut of natural gas (including ethane) and as Pennsylvanians struggle with the environmental damage wrought by fracking and other dirty industries, Pennsylvania lawmakers are attempting to artificially sustain the boom by offering lucrative concessions to mega-corporations and dirty petrochemical producers.

Doubling down on toxic industries won’t fix the region’s economic woes, but will instead foreclose opportunities for long-term, sustainable growth through green energy manufacturing. Given the economic uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic, an aggressive commitment to public works investment in green energy is more important now than ever. Solar, wind and energy efficiency are necessary to avert catastrophic climate change. Wind and solar manufacturing would also employ more people than comparable investments in oil, gas, coal or plastics.

Read the text (Linked PDF).

Decline and Fall: The Size & Vulnerability of the Fossil Fuel System

By Kingsmill Bond, Ed Vaughan, and Harry Benham - Carbon Tracker, June 4, 2020

Renewable costs are below those of fossil fuels. Five years ago, fossil fuels were the cheapest baseload. The collapse in renewable costs means that for 85% of the world, renewable electricity is the cheapest source of new baseload. By the early 2020s it will be every major country. Because of the rise of cheap renewables, the fossil fuel system is ripe for disruption. This disruption will be have profound financial implications for investors as a quarter of equity markets and half of corporate bond markets are ‘carbon entangled’.

Those responsible for our pension schemes should sit up and take notice; but even greater concern should be felt by financial regulators, as they grapple with finding the right tools to manage the risks of a deflating ‘carbon bubble’.

The world faces two contrasting pathways. Either it can secure the ‘trillion dollar green gigafall’, the trillions that can be generated at low cost from the sun and the wind – particularly benefiting the poorest inhabitants of the world currently dependent upon high cost fossil fuel imports. Or it can stay locked into business as usual, tied into a declining industry that both threatens the global economy with the worst effects of a warming planet, and damages investors with losses, low returns and destabilised equity and credit markets.

In Carbon Tracker’s first report, some ten years ago, entitled ‘Unburnable Carbon – are the World’s Financial Markets Carrying a Carbon Bubble’ we highlighted that listed fossil fuel companies have the potential to develop enough reserves to take the world way beyond 3˚C. Our second report, ‘Unburnable Carbon – Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets’, noted that if we can’t burn what we have already found, why continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry’s expansion? Yet today, we know that some $1 trillion is spent annually on expanding supply and this report goes more into these numbers. Before we wind down the fossil fuel system, we need to stop expanding it.

Some argue that ‘fossil fuels will go away of their own accord’ as the result of the rapid progress made by cleaner technologies and the collapse in demand for fossil fuels driven by the terrible COVID-19 epidemic. Unfortunately, as this report makes clear, financial markets are still heavily tied in to the fossil fuel system.

Read the report (PDF).

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