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The End of Oil? Pandemic Adds to Fossil Fuel Glut, But COVID-19 Relief Money Flows to Oil Industry

Antonia Juhasz interviewed by Amy Goodman- Democracy Now, September 2, 2020

AMY GOODMAN: Longtime Massachusetts senator and Green New Deal champion Ed Markey won his primary against challenger Congressmember Joe Kennedy III Tuesday, marking a victory for progressives and the first time a Kennedy has lost an election in the state of Massachusetts. Senator Markey secured 54% of the vote in a primary race seen by many as a showdown between the Democratic establishment and its new and growing progressive wing. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed Kennedy, while Markey had the support of New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the youth-led Sunrise Movement. The Sunrise Movement tweeted in response to the victory, quote, “After winning elections across the country, you think we’re gonna stop now? They wish. We will protest outside the halls of Congress while our allies on the inside negotiate the Green New Deal,” they said.

This comes as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said he would not ban fracking during a speech in Pittsburgh. A group of 145 organizations, including Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace, have released a letter calling on Biden to ban fossil fuel interests from his campaign and administration, if he wins. The letter reads, quote, “To advance environmental justice, you must stand up to fossil fuel CEOs, stop the expansion of oil, gas and coal production, and rapidly transition us away from fossil fuels,” unquote.

This comes as the global oil industry is in crisis with falling demand and crashing prices exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this, fossil fuel companies continue to pump out an excess of oil, much of it stored on tankers in the ocean. In May, as 390 million barrels of oil and gas sat in storage on the world’s oceans, Greenpeace activists sailed out along the San Francisco Bay, unfurling a banner saying “Oil Is Over! The Future Is Up to You.”

GREENPEACE ACTIVIST: I’m here in San Francisco Bay, where floating oil storage tankers are now idling, storing oil that no one wants and where we have nowhere to put.

AMY GOODMAN: Despite this, Congress has poured billions of dollars of COVID relief funds into bailing out the fossil fuel industry.

We go now to Boulder, Colorado, where we’re joined by Antonia Juhasz, an oil and energy reporter, a Bertha fellow in investigative journalism. And her recent cover story for Sierra magazine is “The End of Oil Is Near,” along with another report, “Bailout: Billions of Dollars of Federal COVID-19 Relief Money Flow to the Oil Industry.” She’s the author of several books, most recently, Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill.

Straight Talk on the Future of Jobs in Pennsylvania

By staff - FracTracker and Breathe Project, September 2020

Straight Talk on the Future of Jobs in Pennsylvania (September 2020):

The Breathe Project and FracTracker Alliance have crafted the following messaging for refuting the conflated job numbers being touted by pro-fossil fuel organizations and political candidates regarding fracking and jobs in Pennsylvania that, in some cases, has inflated natural gas jobs in the state by 3500 percent.

Read the text (PDF).

‘Troubling Incrementalism’: Is the Canadian Pension Plan Fund Doing Enough to Advance the Transition to a Low-carbon Economy?

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).

The justice and equity implications of the clean energy transition

By Sanya Carley and David Konisky - Nature Energy, August 2020

The transition to lower-carbon sources of energy will inevitably produce and, in many cases, perpetuate pre-existing sets of winners and losers. The winners are those that will benefit from cleaner sources of energy, reduced emissions from the removal of fossil fuels, and the employment and innovation opportunities that accompany this transition. The losers are those that will bear the burdens, or lack access to the opportunities. Here we review the current state of understanding—based on a rapidly growing body of academic and policy literature—about the potential adverse consequences of the energy transition for specific communities and socio-economic groups on the frontlines of the transition. We review evidence about just transition policies and programmes, primarily from cases in the Global North, and draw conclusions about what insights are still needed to understand the justice and equity dimensions of the transition, and to ensure that no one is left behind.

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).

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