The future after Big Oil
The future after Big Oil
We cannot let the oil and gas industry stop the urgent climate action we need. Nick Dowson writes about ways to change.
Wall art in Venezuela about drilling. Oil has helped the economy in Venezuela.
JOHN VAN HASSELT/CORBIS via GETTY IMAGES
Things are not working.
Big Oil brings destruction everywhere it goes. Oil spills ruin ecosystems; air pollution ruins the air in cities. There are earthquakes after fracking and gas extraction. Plastics ruin the seas. Big Oil changes or corrupts democratic governments.
There are wars about hydrocarbons, and hydrocarbons help wars. The situation in Ukraine is not new but it is continuing the problem. It is the latest of many wars and coups that run back through Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and more, and back to the coal stations of the British Empire. Fossil fuels tie Europe to Putin’s government and make his oligarchs rich. In the same way, fossil fuels tie the US to Saudi Arabia and its murdering monarchy.
Things are not working. There will be a big drop in living standards for many people as energy prices go up and up around the world, because of the oil and gas markets. There are blackouts in some countries. But the big profits from Big Oil continue as it controls politicians. At the same time greenhouse gases fill the atmosphere, past Earth’s breaking point.
Stopping the future!
We can imagine for a moment a life in the future free of oil and gas. Going out into the streets without the noise of the car engines. Breathing fresh air. A world with fewer wars, with good green jobs, with all the renewable energy everyone needs. Stopping climate change’s worst effects. And easier to take action against dictators.
Something is stopping that future and it is the oil and gas industry. For many years it has left its waste in communities. It has taken away people’s jobs when it wanted to. For many years the oil and gas industry has known that they are destroying the planet.
It is clear that the climate crisis is here but Big Oil stops action. It sells more and more, drills more and more, invests more and more in fossil fuels, and spends money on public relations and politicians to stop a clean future. It does everything it can to hide the truth that fossil fuels are the biggest cause of climate change and that pumping and burning them must stop and stop soon.
Nearly 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels – and nearly all our CO2 emissions. The oil, gas, and coal now in our wells and mines is more than twice what we can burn to stop dangerous climate change. Planting trees or changing what we eat is useful but it will not help if we don’t leave fossil fuels in the ground.
But Big Oil continues to grow. Subsidies and private finance support it. Over the last five years Europe’s biggest banks have invested $406 billion in oil and gas companies. The International Monetary Fund says global subsidies for fossil fuels are about $1 trillion a year – and $6 trillion with the negative environmental effects.
The subsidies help Big Oil’s profits and we pay for them. BP, Shell, Chevron, and ExxonMobil have profits of $2 trillion over the last thirty years. UK-based BP and Shell said they made £40 billion ($53bn) in profits in February 2022. This was ony days after Ofgem increased energy bills by 54 per cent. This adds £15 billion ($20bn) to households’ energy bills and leaves millions more with energy poverty.
Tessa Khan is the director of Uplift. Uplift campaigns to end North Sea fossil fuels. Tessa says, ‘We need to be clear about the organizations causing the climate crisis and profiting from the climate crisis. In other words, the fossil fuel industry. They are making each of us feel that we’re responsible. That is too much for anyone to think about and takes away our power. But a small group of companies have stopped action on climate change: we can protest against them and win.’
Change? I don’t think so
Renewable technologies are so important to replace our fossil energies with something better. And renewable technologies are doing better and better. Onshore wind and solar are now easily the cheapest ways of generating electricity. Unfortunately, progress in some countries – often through the export of energy-intensive manufacturing to the Global South – hides a darker truth.
In 2020 wind and solar was just 10 per cent of global electricity generated, and only 1.6 per cent of total energy. But at the same time there has been much more use of all forms of energy, including oil, gas, and coal. Increasing sales of larger SUVs (Sports Utility Vehicles) are creating more pollution than electric vehicles are saving. Greenhouse gas emissions are at record highs and continuing to rise. ‘The difference between where we are and where we need to be is getting bigger. We are going in the wrong direction,’ said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency in 2021.
But these very high emissions are not connected to population growth but to technological and social systems. Energy researcher Simon Pirani has researched use of fossil fuels since the 1950s. He says economic growth is the main cause of increased use of fossil fuels. And only big crises stop the increase. And fossil fuel growth is connected to the growth of capitalism. A big change in technology and policy to decrease and stop production is necessary to cut fossil fuel use as fast as we need.
But the market is the same: produce more, sell more. More goods, more cars, more flights, more energy, more oil. Big Oil still profits from selling hydrocarbons; energy companies still profit from selling more electricity.
We make small changes to try and adapt networks to use cheap renewables, but we are not close to what we need. Also in a market system other increases in energy use will cut many of the savings from energy efficiency. We may drive fuel-efficient cars further; cheaper electricity can lead to other wasteful uses – like Bitcoin mining. This can cut most of the efficiency savings, or even lead to higher use. ‘Now there’s not a market for producing less or using less,’ says Sean Sweeney, a researcher with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.
At the same time, green capitalism brings new problems. Big renewable projects can become a new form of extract-ivism, with Global North companies repeating what we see with fossil fuels: building projects on indigenous land, making profits but not giving much back to communities. And if energy use increases, renewables may find resource limits, such as not enough rare earth metals.
And nuclear isn’t the answer. It is much more expensive than wind or solar – and adds to the risk of other planetary problems from nuclear waste, the possibility of reactor meltdown, or creating the ingredients for nuclear weapons. The UK is building Hinkley Point C, a nuclear reactor and it is likely to be the most expensive building in the world. Another nuclear reactor in Finland took 15 years to build – too long for the climate.
Wind and solar at Phan Rang, Ninh Thuan province, Vietnam.
QUANG NGOC NGUYEN/ALAMY
Making money from the climate
But increased production is not working for everyone: 770 million people don’t have electricity. Big Oil has had years to do the right thing – it can’t, and it won’t. And so, a just transition must mean, first of all, bringing private oil and gas companies into public ownership. No-one should profit from destroying the planet.
Public ownership is also important for planning the transition of workers and communities into new, green industries, and changing the oil and gas industry to renewables. It could end the corruption the industry uses to stop climate action.
Trying to clean up the coast after oil spilled from a tanker, in Mauritius.
The ending of fossil fuels
But public ownership will not be enough. In fact, national oil companies such as Norway’s Equinor and Russia’s Gazprom own a lot of the world’s oil and gas production.
Ending subsidies for hydrocarbons should be the first step. This must include making sure Big Oil pays for all its obligations, like pensions, clean-up costs, and increased support for ordinary people, particularly those with jobs depending on cheap fuel.
We need to set targets for reducing and then stopping production. Richer countries in the Global North must move fastest as their economies depend less on extraction. One study suggests a 2031 target. Some countries have already agreed to stop production: The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance started in November 2022 by Costa Rica and Denmark now has eight members. They agree to stop licenses for new extraction projects and setting a date to end drilling.
‘We need to start with a target like eight years, for example, and work back from that to what we have to do,’ says Grahame Buss, he is a spokesperson for new UK campaign group Just Stop Oil, and he was a scientist at Shell.
Ending oil production will also mean giving resources and technologies to poorer countries. The G77 represents most low and middle-income countries, and it has called for transfers each year of at least 1.5 per cent of GDP from richer nations – nearly $800 billion in 2020. Global South countries need this to build their own clean energy future, and the Global North has already burnt more than its share of hydrocarbons. Cutting spending on militaries – big polluters – is necessary to protect living standards.
This is a big job but it is also an opportunity to build a better energy system – one that works for all. This means making renewable energy for everyone, not for private profit – including the hundreds of millions now without electricity or clean cooking, and many more are forced to spend a lot of their income on essential needs. Renewable energy for everyone means no-one should make profits from energy. At the same time we need democratic orgaization with workers and communities back in control. Gabrielle Jeliazkov works with London-based campaign group Platform. She says that an organized workforce is a possible source of power and that just transition work needs climate and labour activists to work together. ‘Energy workers are a part of the communities that benefit or don’t benefit from the fossil fuel industry,’ she says. ‘We can continue to live with an exploitative energy system, or build one that is for people and not profit.’
Examples already exist. Uruguay has changed its electricity system to near 100 per cent renewable energy over a decade, and is organizing sytems for the 0.3 per cent of the population not connected to the grid. Led by state power company UTE, it has cut electricity costs and made wind power its biggest energy source.
And in Nicaragua, the Association for Rural Development Workers has been getting electricity for rural communities through small hydro projects. Community members help with the building, they make decisions democratically, and residents pay for maintenance depending on their income, rather than buying electricity.
Time to act
A world without fossil fuels is possible now. We know how important it is, we know it can work – and we know Big Oil will stop us from getting there.
Bans on lobbying and political donations can help cut off Big Oil’s corrupting influence. Supporting movement media and building political education is also important.
‘Before we introduce solutions, there is a lot of work for movements to convince people that we actually need to end the fossil fuel industry,’ says Archana Ramanujam, a host of the Future Beyond Shell podcast. ‘That means there is a role for movements, to stop the social licensing of fossil fuel companies. Campaigns for divestment and to ban fossil fuel advertising are great examples of this.’
Some have even called for another kind of action. Author John Lanchester suggested a campaign to take SUVs, the second largest cause of increased CO2 emissions in the last ten years off our streets. The group called Tyre Extinguishers have deflated the wheels of hundreds of SUVs in UK cities recently. This year we’ve seen workers in the UK and US refuse to unload Russian fossil fuels and push both countries towards banning Russian oil and gas. Fridays for Future youth activists had demonstrations in 130 cities after a call from Ukrainian activists to end hydrocarbon imports from Putin’s government. Building labour power and working together more can help fight Big Oil’s power.
Fast changes in the conversation are possible, as we see with the invasion of Ukraine, or by the success of networks like Extinction Rebellion or the youth climate strikers. With clearer demands we can go further. Better understanding of what needs to change is the first step.
ACTION AND INFO
fossilfueltreaty.org: Working for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty; lofotendeclaration.org: For a just phase-out led by wealthy fossil fuel producers
gastivists.org: Support for groups fighting fossil gas; platformlondon.org: Campaign group focused on oil and the arts; fridaysforfuture.org: Youth movement for climate action; foei.org: Friends of the Earth International; Greenpeace International; 350.org Climate campaign to build a global movement; juststopoil.org: A new XR-linked group organizing direct actions with some risk of arrest
futurebeyondshell.org: Podcast on how to end Big Oil; Transnational Institute's climate reading list: Reading on energy democracy, trade, climate justice, and food sovereignty; priceofoil.org: Oil Change International’s research on ending oil; Zero Carbon Britain’s plan for a quick change to 100% renewable energy; ejatlas.org: Atlas of the ways people are fighting for environmental justice; rapidtransition.org/stories: Examples of change from around the world
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)