The oil industry is enormous — something like 2-3 percent of global GDP. Individual firms like ExxonMobil earn tens of billions of dollars each quarter. Controlling climate change will mean drastic curtailment in the coming decades of the industry’s major products. There’s no way that industry will accept this lying down, and it’s a formidable opponent.
To be successful we will need a combination of strategies beyond from the virtue of our cause. There’s no doubt there will be major battles with industry. The question is only whether we can strengthen the forces on our side or reduce the stakes for the industry now and then. Here are some strategies of both types.
- Expand transparency. Most obviously, everything that undermines the political clout of oil companies is good. That means more investigations of how they exercise political influence and of their manipulation of public opinion, some of which the state of New York has already begun. Other activities, such as the efforts of activist shareholders, are also desirable.
- Adapt strategies from the coal realm. The decline of the coal industry isn’t just due to cheaper alternatives. It is also due to a concerted effort by regulators and environmental groups to address the environmental harms caused by the industry. We need tighter regulation of oil-company activities, including drilling, refining, transportation and storage. Federal, state and local efforts are all needed.
- Nurture new technologies. The cheaper we can make electric vehicles, biofuels, and other substitutes for oil, the more readily these will take hold. This will require much greater funding for research and development to improve the relevant technologies.
- Eliminate subsidies for oil. The oil and gas industry has long benefitted from implicit subsidies. It may be possible to fight these, including alliances with small-government and deficit-hawk conservatives. Oil and gas make enough money on their own without requiring government giveaways.
- Cultivate business alliances. Utilities have a strong interest in expanding the use of electric vehicles. So do the renewable energy companies that will meet much of the new power demand. Car manufacturers also seem to think EVs will be future money-makers. Anything that makes these industries stronger provides a counterweight to oil-industry influence.
- Recognize the interests of oil states. Alaska, the Gulf states and others including California derive large economic benefits from oil and gas, including tax revenues and jobs. We need to start thinking of how to cushion those losses and not wait until people are already losing jobs to design retraining and placement programs. It’s unrealistic to think we can make everyone a winner during the carbon transition, but we can at least try to keep as many stakeholders as possible from losing too badly.
- Support political reforms. Anything that would reduce the role of money in politics will soften the political clout of the oil industry. So will general ethics and transparency laws. The oil industry is the paradigm special interest. Anything that reduces special interest influence and empowers the general public also helps with climate change.
- Keep it in the ground. The oil industry gets access to the oil and gas on federal lands at below-market prices. This is another subsidy that should be axed. The government should eliminate industry access to public lands as much as possible, including the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and offshore waters.
- Encourage biofuels. Biofuels aren’t likely to be the answer to our need to decarbonize the transportation sector. But they could provide some much-needed help, especially if efforts to use cellulose and algae as feedstocks pan out. And selling more biofuels means selling less petroleum, shaving away at the industry’s financial heft.
- Expose oil’s international entanglements. Big Oil has always had links with repressive, corrupt regimes and autocrats who’ve meddled in international politics. Those won’t particularly endear them to the American public. We need to start investigating and publicizing those links. And speaking of geopolitical factors, we also need to start some serious investigations of the sovereign wealth funds of the oil powers. Those people are not necessarily on our side.
- Find common ground where possible. Despite the basic conflict between oil and climate stability, there are some areas where interests may coincide, such as decreasing methane leaks and reducing CO2 from existing industry operations. While they’re still in operation, it would be worth putting some real government money into carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).
- Subsidize the industry’s transition. Although in general I’m opposed to subsidizing the industry, it may be worthwhile to provide incentives for it to invest more heavily in fields outside its core business. This could help diminish, even if only a little, the industry’s incentive to fight the transformation of the U.S. energy system.
Transforming our energy system, especially transportation, is going involve major political struggles. Those should be front and central in devising our strategies, not an afterthought.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or their employees.