Ending the Oil Age

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Ending the oil age

We are near the end of Big Oil – but we don’t want to all come to an end with the oil industry.

Jess Worth writes about the change to an oil-free future and how it is coming faster.


Leave the oil in the soil! Protesters against oil extraction all over the world marched together at the front of the 400,000 New York climate march. © Jenna Pope / Bold Nebraska

In September 2014, the $860 million Rockefeller Foundation said it will not invest money in fossil fuels. This was at the same time as the big marches for climate action all over the world. The World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association, and Stanford University made the same decision, This is important because the Rockefeller Foundation earned its money from oil.

The Rockefeller story is also the story of the rise and fall of the first ‘oil major’. John D Rockefeller started Standard Oil in 1870. It soon controlled the new US oil industry. It built a monopoly that people hated. So the US government broke it up into other companies like Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron. But Standard Oil made the Western world dependent on oil. When the US government broke up Standard Oil, Rockefeller made millions. One hundred years later, the Rockefeller Foundation is using those millions to say: we are at the beginning of the end of the oil age.

Oil rules

The age of oil has been an age of inequality, of great wealth, and terrible poverty. It has often brought millions to a few people and poverty to most others. Many countries with a lot of oil have problems with their economy, are authoritarian, have fewer human rights, great poverty, and corruption.

In the West where we are dependent on oil, it has negative effects on government policies at home and abroad. Today’s big oil companies have great power in their own countries. The CEO of Exxon can move national armies. Shell’s CEO can stop national policies. The costs to society of Big Oil’s interests in the world have been very great. US and UK taxpayers spent $806 billion and $15 billion to fight the 2003-11 Iraq war and keep control of its oil for Exxon-Mobil, BP, and Shell. Now Islamic State can control the oil and the West is involved again.

Oil and the world

But change is coming. The future of the Big Oil companies is not strong.

Many years of carbon emissions mean that Big Oil is no longer acting in the interests of the world. Oil extraction has always made problems. It has polluted drinking water, made cancer and respiratory disease, poisoned fish, destroyed forests. Now it is harming the climate.

Oil companies’ plans for the next twenty years will mean a six-degree global temperature rise and a world we cannot live in. To have a chance of keeping the rise to two degrees, we need to leave 80 per cent of known fossil-fuels in the ground. Business thinks oil is endless. But we have found all of the oil which is easy to extract and used most of it.

Now, most of the oil is in politically difficult places such as the Middle East and Nigeria, or in places that are much more expensive and difficult to extract – tar sands, oil shale, deep water, and the Arctic. The big oil companies hope their future will be in these places.

Financial experts Goldman Sachs have warned about the greater technical risks of new oil projects. So it costs more to extract oil and less oil is extracted. Companies are deciding not to continue with tar sands plans. In 2014 Statoil decided not to continue with its multi-billion dollar ‘Corner’ plans. Total and Suncor will not continue with its $11-billion Joslyn plans. Shell will not continue with its big Pierre River mine plans.

Oil company workers are now in greater danger. We have seen this in the court case around BP’s oil spill, the world’s worst oil spill, after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. The workers on the oil rig were working in terrible conditions before the explosion. BP almost became bankrupt and the shareholders lost millions. Shell has spent $5 billion trying – and failing – to drill in the Arctic. Total has said it won’t try. The US saw shale fracking as the answer to its energy problems. But shale fracking in the US has its problems. Shale oil wells only last for a few months, and the costs of drilling new oil wells means profits are low. And oil companies think there is not so much shale oil in the ground as they thought.

All this new oil is only OK if the price is above $100 a barrel. At the time of writing, it isn’t – and it isn’t certain that prices will rise and stay high enough. In future years renewable energy will start to compete with oil.

Making the end of oil faster

We cannot just wait for the end of oil. Big Oil is coming to an end but we don’t want to come to an end with it. There is still more than enough oil in the world to make temperatures rise too high.

The need for oil will rise until at least 2020 and oil companies are planning to more than meet the need. Investment plans now, on pipelines, tar-sands mines, and offshore fields, will mean a high-carbon world for years. These plans cannot keep temperatures below two degrees. The industry’s plans for tar sands extraction would mean temperatures will rise by more than two degrees. Big Oil has a business plan for the end of the world, and markets are finding the money without thinking.


Oil industry plans will mean climate disaster (source: nin.tl/supplyboom)

We need make the end of oil come faster for our climate and ecosystems, and for democracy, poverty, and justice.

It will be technically possible to meet the world’s energy needs. And to give the Majority World’s growing populations a fair share of the energy the rich world now keeps for itself. This is possible if we use renewable technology and save energy. Renewable energy is increasing every day and its prices are the same as fossil fuels in many parts of the world.

With new battery technology, we can have electric transport. China said it will have five million electric cars on the road by 2020 and there are so many e-cars in Norway that there are too many e-cars in its bus lanes. Wind- and solar-powered ships, organic farming, and airships all would make it possible to use less oil.

Hydrocarbons give us fuel and plastics and chemicals. If we stop burning them and cut our use of plastics by 50%, we can cut global oil use by 90 per cent.

What we need is for politicians to agree.

Carbon bubble

The hope that we can stop Big Oil also comes from investors. Carbon Tracker is a group of shareholder activists and financial specialists. It shocked the investment world in 2012 when it first talked about ‘carbon bubble’ that is building.


The photovoltaic panels in Barcelona give power and they are part of the city. Bjanka Kadic / robertharding.com

They say that investors are putting money into future oil projects, and other fossil fuels, that will not keep climate change to two degrees Celsius. They look at the rising costs of the oil industry and the decrease in profits, the greater risks and, the fewer reserves of oil. And they say that $1.1 trillion of oil investment over the next ten years will be wasted with governments taking more climate action and the competition from renewable energy.

Mark Campanale is Carbon Tracker’s founder and CEO. He is very excited by the possibilities of their work. ‘The International Energy Agency says that, by 2035, $21 trillion will be spent on oil and gas. This is crazy at a time when we know we’ve already financed enough fossil fuels to take us over two degrees. It’s completely crazy.’ Then he says, ‘But this is where the money is going to come from for the change to low-carbon.’

Investors are certainly listening to Carbon Tracker. But financial arguments will not be enough. Mark Campanale says that oil companies should give money back to their shareholders and not invest it in risky and expensive plans to extract fuel. This is starting in a small way. Conoco is smaller now, and prefers ‘high-value’ projects. BP and Shell both have their own different problems and they have been selling projects to give their shareholders more money this year.

Mark wants to see this change continue until the oil companies are smaller. But the problem is will they invest the money in a low-carbon economy and not in Monsanto or BAe Systems? Organizations like Share Action, in London, are working with pension funds and their members to ask them to change and invest in a climate-friendly future. But there are problems. We can’t expect a bad financial system which only wants big profits to change. How can it allow justice or power and influence to be more decentralized and weaker. In fact our system of capitalism grew with Big Oil. It is difficult to separate them.

In her new book This Changes Everything Naomi Klein writes that we have not done the things that are necessary to cut carbon emissions. This is because those things are against capitalism. The answers to the question of how to stop the oil industry, share power and wealth with justice must come from outside the financial system.

Leave the oil in the soil

People have been against oil companies since the beginning of the oil age. Stalin began his life as a politician fighting the oil companies of Azerbaijan. The Ogoni people kicked Shell out of Ogoniland in Nigeria in 1995, though Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others died, and the fight for justice continues today. But in recent years we have seen new anti-oil activists, with many groups looking for where Big Oil is weak.

One of these is the divestment movement. It uses the financial argument and the need to act very soon on climate change. Groups of students, churchgoers, and local residents have spoken to public institutions such as universities, churches, city councils, and states to say that the time has come to take their money away from fossil fuel industry.

It’s working. In 2014, 181 institutions around the world said they will divest more than $50 billion. The fight continues with the help of Desmond Tutu, UN climate chief Christina Figueres and, of course, the Rockefellers.

350.org is also behind the ‘Fossil Free’ movement, and one of its activists, Louise Hazan, told me about it. She says they want to show how bad the fossil fuel industry is so it loses control of the political system, and cannot stop progress on climate change. Big Oil has won public support by working with cultural, scientific, and educational institutions. The divestment campaign is one of many campaigns against this. In Britain, the Art Not Oil Coalition protests against BP and Shell’s financial support of national art and culture. The David A Koch Plaza was opened in New York outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The plaza is named after the oil billionaire, David A Koch. There were protests and arrests in New York. And Greenpeace fought against the toy company, Lego working with Shell and won.


The climate cost of 'unconventional' oil, new ways of extracting oil. (source:nin.tl/hansengraph)

Some protests are trying to physically stop Big Oil’s worst plans and are starting to win. The plan for the Keystone XL pipeline is to bring tar sands oil from Northern Alberta in Canada to Texas and then export it to new markets. The plan for the pipeline has been stopped for six years, thanks to a group of indigenous communities, landowners, activists, and environmental NGOs.The Keystone XL campaign has given new life to the US climate movement with direct action, big demonstrations, arrests, and celebrity support, and made it an election issue.

The actions of communities of a few hundred people living in the heart of Alberta’s tar sands could also stop the world’s largest industrial project. Both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Beaver Lake Cree have started legal protests that could srop all tar-sands projects.

The protest ‘leave the oil in the soil’ didn’t start in North America. It started in Latin America, where for years indigenous communities have protested against oil extraction in the Amazon. This began the plan to leave oil under Ecuador’s Yasuní national park with international financial support.

Another protest continues to stop oil drilling in the Arctic. Greenpeace has taken direct action to stop oil rigs drilling there. 30 of its activists were put in prison in Russia. They got online support from hundreds of thousands of activists. But years of legal protests by Alaskan Native groups and NGOs have also helped to stop Shell from drilling for oil in the Arctic.

Change or die

It is certain that we will see the end of Big Oil in the coming years. How and how quickly depends on many things. As the industry makes problems in every direction and trouble in the Middle East grows, the reasons to move away from oil are very clear.

We need to change in an organised and fair way, not with a big oil shock which could make the fuel-poor even poorer and make big economic and social problems. If today’s protests continue, this could happen through action from shareholders, people in general disagreeing with oil companies, protesters physically stopping oil projects, the rise in renewable energy, and public pressure on governments to do something about climate change.

This will make the big oil companies smaller. Some will disappear completely. Perhaps there will be enough political will for states to break them up, like Standard Oil. And it is very possible they will find that the economic problems are too great.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed.)