Don’t Blame the Suppliers, Unless They Are Big Oil

Bill Luyties, OWOE Founder and Technical Editor: Last year OWOE published a blog titled “Don’t Blame the Suppliers. It was intended to help focus the narrative related to climate change from attacks on the supply side of the contributors to climate change, i.e., the big oil companies, to the demand side, i.e., consumers who want big cars and to buy lots of everything. However, since that time I have come across several articles published by the BBC: one published in 2020 titled “How the oil industry made us doubt climate change” and another published earlier this year titled “The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change“. These articles document the efforts of the fossil fuel companies to engage in a public-relations campaign to sow doubt in the science of climate change by following the playbook of the tobacco industry from several decades earlier. Thus, I would like to update the title of that blog to “Don’t Blame the Suppliers, Unless They Are Big Oil”.

Figure 1 – Public disinformation campaigns – left: Big Oil 1990s; right: Big Tobacco 1980s (ETS = Environmental Tobacco Smoke, i.e., second-hand smoke)

The first of these articles takes us back 40 years when a scientist at Exxon created a computer model that showed the earth was warming from the burning of fossil fuels. Exxon chose to disregard their own science because of the risk it posed to their business and instead start a campaign to spread doubt about the dangers of climate change. It then goes into the link back to the tobacco industry campaign starting in the mid-1950s to confuse the public about the danger of smoking cigarettes. The second article addresses the efforts of an organization called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), started in 1989 by energy companies and fossil fuel dependent industries, to aggressively lobby US politicians and media to persuade the public that climate change was not a problem. This included finding and funding climate sceptics to give speeches or write op-eds and arranging media tours so they could appear on local TV and radio stations. It was all about deception and sowing doubt in an American public that would quickly become confused when supposed experts disagreed on the science (see Figure 1).

Much of this was happening while I worked for a Big Oil company. I spent 30 years as an engineer, engineering manager, and project manager working on the development of offshore platforms used to develop oil and gas fields around the world. I was never privy to high level corporate communication strategy, but I should have been knowledgeable and intelligent enough to sift through the disinformation. I remember discussing climate change issues with my wife and using arguments such as “we’re only talking small possible changes in earth’s temperature compared with the planet’s history”, “carbon dioxide levels were much higher in the atmosphere in the past”, “volcanoes and forest fires spew out much more greenhouse gasses in a year than automobiles”, and, of course, “oil and gas are critical to the world economies and any alternative forms of energy are less effective and much too expensive”.

Looking back now, although much these beliefs might have been correct, they truly missed the point – burning fossil fuels is increasing the earth’s temperature, and it doesn’t take very much of an increase to have a major impact on human life as we know it. So now I am looking back and recognizing that I had been deceived along with hundreds of millions of others. I remember stories about oil companies purchasing early electric vehicle technology and burying it. I guess I can accept that – it is a time-honored practice to protect one’s business by all means necessary. But to know something that will have a fundamental negative impact on the entire world, lead to sickness and death and likely wars over diminishing resources, and then to obfuscate the facts seems criminal. Just as the tobacco industry’s effort to promote smoking against all science has been determined to be criminal.

Will Big Oil ever be held truly accountable? Very unlikely. And the reality today is that we still need fossil fuels in the interim until renewable power can replace it across the globe. The OWOE recommendations from that previous blog to make a major push on the demand side of the equation still apply and summarized here in three broad strategies.

Strategy 1 – implement programs that truly reward low carbon energy: establish a carbon tax that truly captures the cost of greenhouse gas emissions; develop markets to trade these emissions with the aim of reducing and eventually eliminating them; clarify what big companies can claim as being green; curtail the current scam in carbon offsets; and, of course, continue to invest in renewable energy technology.

Strategy 2 – capture low-hanging fruit: focus on energy efficiency; and regulate industry to eliminate fugitive methane emissions as quickly as possible.

Strategy 3 – change behavior: stop the political bickering that is driven by individuals and organizations that choose to ignore the science of climate change for greed; rein in the utilities so that their financial objectives align with world needs; and create a public service campaign that helps all Americans understand the benefits of such plans.

But now I will add one more, surely to be very controversial, recommendation – implement a windfall profit tax on the oil companies. Global oil fields currently under production break even on average with oil prices between $18 and $28/barrel (as reported by Reuters) while projects currently under development will break-even with oil prices between $25 and $35/barrel. At today’s cost of over $90/barrel for Brent crude, such projects will be enormously profitable. Who knows what the future price of oil will be, but allow the oil companies a reasonable profit on their investments and then collect the remainder to pay for the tremendous costs to mitigate against global warming, a phenomenon that they helped create in search of past profits.

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