The Energy Companies are Still Oil Companies

The Exxon ad on CNN this morning talked about “using advanced technology to find new sources of oil.” The four-page Shell spread in the current issue of Wired – a high-tech, futurist magazine – proclaims “our scientists feel free to break rules that say providing energy could mean impacting our environment,” then goes on to discuss their technology for converting natural gas to liquid fuel. According to their website, Chevron invested $20 billion dollars in 2007 to develop new sources of oil and gas, compared to just $2.5 billion to develop alternative energy sources in the three year period of 2007-2009.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s insane that the energy companies are still trying to convince us that using more fossil fuels is a good idea?

I suppose I first need to convince you that I’m not insane either. I give you the International Panel on Climate Change 4th Assessment Report. Scientists and from over 100 countries got together to review the data, and they decided last summer that global warming is real, caused by humans, and will have major sucky consequences. I tend to believe their conclusions not only because of the enormous international agreement on this point, but because their entire review process is open, rigorous, and meticulously public. On the other hand, I feel that the oil companies have — how do I put this delicately? — the largest conflict of interest in human history, when it comes to climate change reporting.

I bet they’re going to tell us that cigarettes are good for us too. Marlboros go great with an SUV.

The oil may be more or less running out, but unfortunately there are still an awful lot of carbon-spewing fossil fuels left in the world. Estimating the exact amounts of natural gas and coal remaining are tricky, partially because the question is complex and partially because — surprise! — oil companies and governments are sitting on much of the required data, but an estimate based on US Energy Information Administration figures says that while there may be only 45 years of oil left, there are 72 years of natural gas and 252 years of coal still in the ground. And then there are the methyl hydrates, methane trapped in ice just under the sea floor, which may provide a few hundred more years of carbon emissions, if test drillings off of Japan validate the extraction technology.

Unfortunately, it’s fairly obvious that simply switching to new types of fossil fuels will be completely disastrous to the global climate. Yet it is clear, from current “energy” industry propaganda, that this is exactly what the oil companies intend to do.

Personally, I don’t get it. The oil is running out; massive new infrastructure and new technologies must be unavoidably developed in order to solve this problem. Why not do the right thing and use this as an opporunity to go sustainable? It might even be a winning move. The great thing about an unsustainable policy is that it can’t last forever — everyone has to go sustainable eventually, and someone is going to get there first.

Probably the reason is simple economics: these companies and governments already own the rights to huge reserves of natural gas (which normally comes with oil) and coal fields. There’s a lot of money to be made there. So I end up agreeing with my friend Sam’s conclusion: the energy companies are going to dig up and help us burn every last kilogram of fossil fuels and dump it all into the atmosphere while Fiji sinks, unless they are actually, decisively, perhaps physically stopped. My money says it’s going to take an all-out, international legislative assault to get them to do so. Requiring them to pay for carbon sequestration equivalent to every kilogram of fuel sold might also be an effective market-based solution.

Obviously, we can’t just instantly stop using fossil fuels. Equally obviously, we the worried but disenfranchised citizens of Earth are only too happy to buy, buy, and keep buying petroleum products. However, that can’t stop until we have alternatives. Judging by their PR campaigns, it seems painfully clear that the big Energy companies are actually just Oil companies, and that they are not going to give us any real options. Worse, the artificially low price of fossil fuel energy (no one is currently paying the externalities, remember) makes it difficult for the fledgling renewable energy sector to develop and compete.

But something has to be done, because I can’t see any reason for this industry to do the right thing all by itself. Put simply, the oil companies have never been your friends, and now they are less your friends than ever. To quote Wayne’s World, if they were an ice cream flavor, they’d be pralines and dick.

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