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fossil fuel capitalism

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).

CalPERS Continues to Invest in Coal

By Robert Dam and Vanessa Warheit - Fossil Free California, September 2020

This 14-page report shows that CalPERS continues to hold millions in coal producers that make the majority of their revenue from thermal coal. In fact, CalPERS even increased its investments in Exxaro, a company that qualified for divestment in 2017 but was retained by CalPERS because they said they were investing more in green energy. But Exxaro’s modest clean energy initiatives are dwarfed by its current coal operations in South Africa, and by its intent to seek permits for a six-fold expansion of its coal mining, which could be a tipping point for the climate.

In recognition of coal’s outsized contribution to human-caused climate change, in 2015 California passed a law – SB 185 – requiring CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from companies making 50% or more of their revenue from the mining of thermal coal.  A 50% share of revenue sets a very high bar that can be reached by only the small number of “pure-play” coal mining companies that remain in business.  Many investors, including BlackRock and the State of New York, define a “coal company” with a much lower threshold of 25% or even 10%.

If CalPERS coal holdings are analyzed more broadly, using the criteria of the Global Coal Exit List, it’s clear that CalPERS holds billions in coal – coal mining companies, coal-fired utilities, coal distribution and services, and large diversified companies with substantial coal operations. Instead of winding down its investments in coal, which was the intent of SB 185, CalPERS actually increased investments in coal by $1.5 billion dollars between 2018 and 2019, for a total of $6.5 billion throughout the whole coal value chain. 

CalPERS’ coal exclusion policy is weak compared to those of many other institutional investors. By failing to set a strong coal exclusion policy, CalPERS has already lost billions in absolute value on its coal investments, and the sector continues to decline. As New York State’s Tom DiNapoli said when he decided to divest 22 thermal coal companies, “After a thorough assessment, the fund has divested from 22 thermal coal mining companies that are not prepared to thrive, or even survive, in the low-carbon economy.”

Download (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.”

Solidarity School #1: Our Fight for A Just Recovery

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.

ReImagine Appalachia: a (Green) New Deal That Works for Us

By staff - ReImagine Appalachia, August 2020

Appalachians have a long history of hard work, resilience, and coming together to face enormous challenges. Our region is a place of ingenuity. A place where families and neighbors look out for one another.

Now is the time to put our ingenuity to use and imagine a 21st century economy that works for the people in the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia. An economy that is good for working people, communities, our health and the health of our neighbors. One that is grounded in the land and centered on creating wealth locally. One that relies on working people, already skilled in service, industry, trades and farming. One that offers hope to the next generation’s workers—regardless of the color of their skin, ethnicity or gender. And one that does our region’s part to meet the nation’s climate challenge, just as we met the call to provide coal energy to fuel a growing nation a century ago.

Right now, our nation is in crisis. We face the COVID epidemic, a deep economic downturn, extreme inequality, racism, police brutality, and the consequences of a changing climate such as severe storms and flooding. These crises demand from us real, lasting and structural change. It is not a matter of if, but when. When the nation rises to the occasion, people in Appalachia need to be at the table and helping to lead the charge. Together, we can build a vision for the Appalachia we want to live in.

Read the text (PDF).

Toxic Relationship: How refineries affect climate change and racial and economic injustice

By Jean Tepperman - East Bay Express - July 22, 2020

California should begin gradually reducing output from its oil refineries in order to avoid climate catastrophe and to make the transition to clean energy as equitable as possible. That's the conclusion of a major new report released July 6 by Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), endorsed by more than 40 environmental and social justice organizations.

While most people agree on the need to use less fossil fuel, many fear that requiring refineries to reduce production could lead to higher gasoline prices and a big economic hit for workers and communities that depend on refineries for income. Report-author Greg Karras responded, "If we start now, doing it gradually, it will give us the time to replace refinery-dependent economics." The report calls for cutting production 4 to 7 percent a year, starting in 2021.

California has set targets for cutting carbon emissions between now and 2050: the state's share of global cuts needed to keep temperature increases below catastrophic levels. Because the carbon that causes climate change builds up in the atmosphere, California has a carbon "budget"—the total amount it can emit from now until 2050. According to Decommissioning California Refineries, California will have to refine much less oil per year to avoid blowing through this carbon "budget" by about 2037.

"California is the biggest oil-refining center in Western North America," Karras said. "Oil refined here emits more carbon than all other activities in the state combined." Even if all other sources of carbon are reduced on schedule, Karras said, "we must refine much less oil if we hope to meet the state's carbon limit."

"We have to break free from our toxic relationship with oil before it takes us over a cliff," Karras said. "When you're in a car heading toward a cliff, it matters when you start putting on the brakes."

The sooner we start, the more likely we are to escape the worst impacts of climate change.

The issue is not just climate, said Andres Soto of CBE. He pointed out that refinery pollution is concentrated in communities like Richmond, centers of racial and economic injustice.

"Only 20 percent of Richmond is Euro-American," he said.

And the health consequences of having a refinery as a neighbor are severe.

Rodeo, another Contra Costa refinery town, "is in the 98th percentile for asthma," said resident Maureen Brennan, and it has high rates of skin disease, autoimmune disease and cancer—all linked to refinery-generated pollution.

Retired refinery worker Steve Garey, past president of a United Steelworkers local in Washington state, said starting now to plan for reduced refinery production could actually benefit refinery workers, since "the movement away from fossil fuels and toward renewables is going to accelerate. It's an economic reality. Renewables are cheaper than fossil fuel and getting cheaper all the time."

Recently when the pandemic cut demand for gasoline, Garey said, the Marathon refinery in Martinez shut down, leaving the workers and community stranded.

The current drop in oil use, Karras said, gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn away from the cliff and build a cleaner and more equitable recovery.

Labor Helps Obama Energy Secretary Push and Profit from 'Net Zero' Fossil Fuels

By Steve Horn - DeSmog, May 24, 2020

Progressive activists have called for a Green New Deal, a linking of the U.S. climate and labor movements to create an equitable and decarbonized economy and move away from fossil fuels to address the climate crisis. But major labor unions and President Barack Obama’s Energy Secretary have far different plans.

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the AFL-CIO and the Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) — a nonprofit founded and run by former Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — launched the Labor Energy Partnership. Unlike those calling for a Green New Deal, though, this alliance supports increased fracking for oil and gas, as well as other controversial technologies that critics say prop up fossil fuels. It's also an agenda matching a number of the former Energy Secretary's personal financial investments.

One of those technologies which prop up fossil fuels is “clean coal,” or carbon capture and storage (CCS) at coal-fired power plants. CCS is a long-heralded technological fix that promises — but has failed to-date — to pump carbon dioxide emitted from coal plants into the ground at a meaningful commercial scale. In addition, the partnership touts the scaling up of nuclear energy, under the banner of an “all of the above” energy policy, and calls for creation of a “roadmap for implementing carbon dioxide removal,” a form of geoengineering, “at scale.”

Our Labor Energy Partnership will offer realistic pathways to accelerate the energy transition by meeting and then exceeding our Paris commitments while creating high quality jobs across all energy technologies,” Moniz said in a press release announcing the joint effort of the AFL-CIO and EFI.

Kezir served as CFO of the Energy Department under Moniz. Kenderine, formerly the energy counselor to Moniz and director of the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis, served as the Vice President of Washington Operations of the Gas Technology Institute from 2001 to 2007. The Gas Technology Institute is the central research and development nonprofit for the natural gas industry.

While working as the gas group’s political voice in Washington, Kenderine used it to act as the “principal architect” in creating an offshoot nonprofit called the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA). She served as its first acting president.

RPSEA is a de facto public-private partnership, securing a provision for a 10-year, $1.5 billion federal funding stream for the natural gas industry and university researchers. This provision was buried within the Energy Policy Act of 2005 after intense lobbying by the Gas Technology Institute. That’s the same energy bill which also baked the “Halliburton Loophole” exemptions for the fracking industry into U.S. Environmental Protection Agency enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.

After her time heading up RPSEA, Kenderine departed to join Moniz at the MIT Energy Initiative, an outfit funded by the oil and gas industry. At the MIT Energy Initiative, Moniz, Kenderdine, and Kezir co-wrote the influential 2010 report “The Future of Natural Gas.” This report was instrumental in giving a scholarly boost to the fracking boom and rampant production and consumption of fracked gas during the early years under the Obama administration. “The Future of Natural Gas” received funding from the American Clean Skies Foundation, an oil and gas industry front group founded in 2007 by fracking pioneer Aubrey McClendon, as well as from Hess Corporation, Exelon, and the Gas Technology Institute.

EJM, for its part, has partnerships with entities tied to the fossil fuel industry. Those include McLarty Associates and the corporate law firm Dentons.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), an affiliated union of the AFL-CIO, also is participating in the Labor Energy Partnership. IBEW gave a nod to natural gas fracking and nuclear energy in a separate press release announcing the partnership.

As the vice-chair of the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee, I’m thrilled to be a part of this new effort to find solutions to one of the greatest challenges of our time,” said IBEW President Lonnie R. Stephenson in the release. “At the IBEW, we represent tens of thousands of members who depend on low-carbon natural gas and zero-carbon nuclear energy, and Secretary Moniz understands that climate solutions that don’t take into account the jobs and communities that depend on those fuel sources are unrealistic and shortsighted.”

The Labor Energy Partnership says in a press release that it is guided by four core principles. One of those principles is “an ‘all-of-the above’ energy source strategy” that's flexible and “addresses the crisis of stranded workers.” Another key tenet is “the preservation of existing jobs, wherever possible, and the creation of new ones that are equal to or better than those that are displaced.”

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).

Defending Tomorrow: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders

By staff - Global Witness, July 2020

For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against climate breakdown. Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work. 

The climate crisis is arguably the greatest global and existential threat we face. As it escalates, it serves to exacerbate many of the other serious problems in our world today – from economic inequality to racial injustice and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against the causes and impacts of climate breakdown. Time after time, they have challenged those companies operating recklessly, rampaging unhampered through forests, skies, wetlands, oceans and biodiversity hotspots.

Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play and the dangers they increasingly face, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work. 

Our annual report into the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2019 shows the highest number yet have been murdered in a single year. 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 – an average of more than four people a week.

Read the text (PDF).

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