Surprise! Big Oil Says It Can Save the Climate

By James Fortin

Would you buy your fire insurance policy from an arsonist? Probably not, since you would not trust the villain in the first place, and the policy would be void from the start. So why, then, are we being asked to trust an industry that is burning down the Earth when its policies are discredited and worthless?

Many sources have documented the climate denial lies of Big Oil going back to the 1970’s. Fossil fuel companies from A to Z, together with their official mouthpieces such as the American Petroleum Institute, first denied that carbon pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for global warming. Pushed back by the emerging science, they then moved on to fabrications about the severity of carbon’s impact.

For a quick review see “Climate Carbon Net-Zero: Biden’s Fancy Footwork,” Feb.9, 2021, on this website.

The entire fossil fuel industry has either supported, actively participated in, or benefited from the propaganda onslaught of the Big Oil and Gas giants. It is a criminal cabal whose crimes do not stop with lies to the public and payoffs to its political surrogates, however. It is joined at the hip by the industry’s deeds.

A Collective Corporate Destruction of the Climate

In 1989 the single-hulled ship Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound, disgorging 11 million gallons of crude oil. At the time of the accident it was most extensive oil spill in U.S. history, severely damaging 200 miles of pristine Alaskan shorefront and killing untold millions of wildlife. A Coast Guard study concluded that the oil spill could have been reduced by up to 60 percent if a double-hulled ship had been involved in the accident. In its arrogance, however, a spokesman for Exxon said the ship would be repaired as a single-hull vessel, noting that a double hull retrofit would have ”doubled the time and cost of repair,” and therefore was ”not a viable alternative.” Not so astonishingly, Exxon’s Congressional benefactors took another 15 years to make the double-hull a requirement for oceanic oil transport, while many effects of the Alaskan environmental catastrophe remain to this day.

In 2010, British Petroleum took its turn to unleash its environmental wrecking ball, this time in the Gulf of Mexico. An explosion on its Deepwater Horizon well-drilling platform resulted in the deaths of eleven workers and the release of over 130 million gallons of crude oil. The months-long despoiling of the Gulf made it the largest-ever spill in the history of offshore oil drilling and among the worst environmental disasters in world history. A joint report from the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management cited short-cut after deadly short-cut by BP and its contractors as the fundamental reason for the oil blowout.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration there have been at least 44 major oil spills into U.S. waters since 1969, each consisting of over 420,000 gallons (10,000 barrels). The brashness of Big Oil to turn down remedies which could prevent disasters or to repeatedly ignore safety protocols condemns its status to an entity that is not only dishonest, but dangerous as well.

Capitalist Profits, Society’s Expense

The behavior of the U.S. oil and gas industry is part and parcel of the capitalist way of doing business – extract as much as you can from nature, maximize profit in the shortest time possible, and disregard damage to the natural commons. Perhaps the most appropriate symbol of this hit-and-run business demeanor is the lowly abandoned, cast iron and steel wellhead found throughout the U.S. – all 3.2 million of them.

No, that is not a misprint. The Environmental Protection Agency has cited the millions of wells abandoned over the course of more than a century of oil and gas production to be a major additional source of pollutants belching into the air and water. That is in addition to the 2017 Washington Post estimate of 900,000 active wells spread across 35 states that are major hazards as well.

Mya Frazier, writing in the September 2020 issue of Bloomberg Green, summarized: “Gas wells never really die … Over the years, the miles of steel piping and cement corrode, creating pathways for noxious gases to reach the surface. The most worrisome of these is methane, the main component of natural gas. If carbon dioxide is a bullet, methane is a bomb. Odorless and invisible, it captures 86 times more heat than CO2 over two decades and at least 25 times more over a century. Drilling has released this potent greenhouse gas, once sequestered in the deep pockets and grooves of the Earth, into the atmosphere, where it’s wreaking more havoc than humans can keep up with.”

The EPA estimates that the abandoned wellhead trophies of Big Oil and Gas emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018 and continue to do so. Each is an industry trophy because they got away with it. The underpinnings of this tragedy include undocumented, unplugged wells on property transferred between entities repeatedly, bankruptcies of well drilling culprits that receive “forgiveness” from the courts for not remedying the poisonous mess left behind, and overt legal protections provided by state legislatures to the oil and gas industry. The result has been a gargantuan environmental liability that has been transferred from the profit-makers to the public. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that cleaning up and plugging the “ghost well” abandonees of Big Oil and Gas will have a cost as high as $435 billion and will take decades to accomplish.

Also see “Capitalist Criminality of Fracked Gas” on this website for its health impact.

When the methane emitted by abandoned wells is combined with the methane released during active production, the environmental impact becomes staggering. Adam Vaughan, a decades-long environmental journalist reported in April 2020, on a shocking discovery made by satellite over the producing oil and gas wells of the Permian basin. This area of West Texas and eastern New Mexico, by itself, leaked almost enough methane to warm the atmosphere as does the amount of carbon dioxide released annually by all homes in the U.S. “The findings undermine the dominant narrative in the US that its energy sector has become much cleaner in recent years as it switched to burning natural gas instead of coal for power,” Vaughan concluded.
In its entirety the U.S. oil and gas industry is a psychopathic obstacle to human survival. Having gone far beyond its campaigns to promote doubt, discredit science, and obstruct those who would reign in its show, its deeds will have long lasting negative world impact. Crippling the atmosphere with its carbon emissions and moving the globe ever closer to climate catastrophe, the cabal also lacks remorse for operations that destroyed countless life and food chains in thousands of square miles of life-supporting seas. And on land, the industry’s greed to exploit fossil fuels has clearly demonstrated a pathetic indifference to saving anything that might limit its short-term profitability, abandoning its responsibility to even clean up after itself. The fossil fuelers have no shame because they are capitalism’s creatures that put profit before all else. A jury trial would have much to weigh. World judgment already finds the behavior a crime against humanity. By any measure we have an industry which cannot be trusted under any circumstance.

The Arsonists Have a Plan to Save Us.

Now the oil and gas industry, which possess not an ounce of integrity nor a single care for humanity, purports to have a solution to the climate conundrum they in large measure have created – at a profit, of course. It is called carbon capture and storage (CCS).

CCS is a simple concept. On a world scale where nature rules CCS is epitomized by massive forests that take in carbon dioxide from the air and store it safely in its limbs and trunks. In a world dominated by capitalism, when it is not actually destroying forests for profit, CCS is a projected schema where carbon is removed from the air mechanically, converted chemically, and then forced far underground where it is to be stored for centuries.

Big Oil and Gas does not assign great priority to the human and environmental impacts of its behavior. Its performance is tragic theater again being staged for us in the promotion of carbon capture and storage. In an April opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal Exxon-Mobil CEO Darren Woods put forth claims citing CCS as a “proven technology,” where carbon dioxide is captured in “the process of sequestering industrial emissions and safely storing them permanently underground,” in “safe geologic storage sites.” He goes on of course to say that his outfit, as “the world’s leader in CCS…is eager to play our part to advance this promising concept.” Of course he is.

Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, among the energy actors particularly, are pushing hard for CCS. On a small, expensive scale CCS today can capture carbonous poisons and store them (to be seen if safely). Exxon and Shell, plus others coming to the fore, see a market for their technology in heavy carbon-emitting industries such as steel and cement where localized CCS facilities can be installed. It will allow its customers to claim carbon net-zero, providing billions of dollars and a handy new ongoing source of income for Big Oil, while doing quite little for the overall climate misfortune at large.

There is no evidence at present that carbon storage on a mass scale can be safely accomplished. Dozens of European companies have ceased experimentation in the field because of this. Claims for such a future feat from the U.S oil and gas industry — when it cannot contain, right now, massive carbon discharges from its own ships, oil rigs, drilling sites and fracking operations – is a big one for the public to swallow. But Big Oil will persist in the claim, though, and even try at the world’s expense.

Carbon capture and storage does serve one purpose for sure. It provides political cover and allows the fossil fuel polluters to continue their deadly production with as little interference as possible. After all, who in the Congress they mightily influence and pay would even suggest cutting them off while their “sensible” and “innovative” market alternatives are being developed. Unfortunately for the rest us, as Friends of the Earth put it, “Fossil fuel CCS is a distraction from the growth of renewable energy, storage and energy efficiency that will be critical to rapidly reducing emissions over the next decade”… a “dangerous distraction.” While burning down the earth, they can profit even more. It’s an arsonist’s new gig.

The momentum toward a severely worsening climate is growing. Big Oil and Gas could care less and refuse to engage in the real solutions – stop the fracking, keep the oil in the ground, and do it with lightning speed. Just as the industry turns its back on immediate efforts, so do the two political parties that support their exploitation of the earth.

Ruling Class Mouthpieces Get Behind Big Oil and Gas.

It surely is more than a coincidence that both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times offered pieces on CCS on the very same day, perhaps a result of a “news” release issued by a party in the energy industry (likely Exxon). Support to carbon capture was given enthusiastic backing by the Journal as a market strategy to deal with climate change, even though societal application is decades away, if at all. On the other side of ruling class thinking, the Times was more guarded in its nonetheless subtle support for the technology, irrespective of the criminal behavior exhibited by the fossil fuelers over decades.

Neither side, however, addressed the need for immediate radical steps to halt the catastrophe on our doorstep. Capitalist officialdom through its conservative and liberal press are in complete agreement – don’t rock the boat, don’t take emergency steps, move slowly. Socialists, a majority of environmentalists, and tens of millions of Americans know better. Emergency measures are needed now to save the planet from untold levels of devastation. Ignore the arsonists. The climate cannot wait.

To that end socialists demand:

  • Declare a climate emergency to halt and reverse global warming!
  • Fire the corporate climate mis-managers! Nationalize the fossil fuel industries!
  • Empower a Climate Congress of scientists, working people, the oppressed and other organizations of the 99 percent to defend our interests!
  • For a mass mobilization of resources to convert the economy to a clean, renewable, and just instrument serving all!
  • End foreign military interventions
  • Abolish the $trillion war budget!
  • Redirect military funds to climate solutions and social needs!
  • Tax the rich to solve the climate problems they have created!

If you agree, join us! Join Socialist Action.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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