In all the books I’ve read about climate change this year so far, oil has, understandably, played a major role. It is one of the main fossil fuels we use to produce electricity, fuel our transport and make countless products that are then shipped all over the world (which requires more oil). According to the International Energy Agency, in 2015, world consumption of oil worked out at 93 million barrels per day, which means we used around 34 billion barrels of oil in 2015. This is a colossal figure.
The books, podcasts, tweets, YouTube videos and articles I’ve read and watched about climate change are all down on oil (obviously). Energy company CEOs are being branded as ‘climate criminals,’ and there are calls to consume less and travel less in order to make a tiny impact on our massive oil consumption. If I relied solely on my immediate Internet environment for news and opinions, I’d probably think oil was out of favour, or at least heading that way. The way that algorithms and directed advertising work mean that I am surrounded by content that support my pre-existing opinions, which means I’m often in a green, liberal echo chamber.
But your echo chamber often doesn’t represent reality. Or rather, it may not represent the majority. It’s easy for niche views to feel all encompassing when it feels like every other Twitter user agrees with you. Oil is the devil, the New York Times is offsetting its aviation-related carbon emissions and world is firmly going green.
Now, some of this is true. The NYT travel desk did recently announce that they would offset their emissions and we are, slowly, moving toward a cleaner planet. But that’s only part of the story. Reading Ken Silverstein’s The Secret World of Oil illuminated the underbelly of the oil industry, full of rich dictators and sneaky fixers and well-connected lobbyists, all of whom are not yet worried that oil is about to become passé. It was odd to read a recently published book about oil that didn’t mention climate change, and it is equally odd to read about environmental activist work that ignores how concentrated some of these conversations are to certain circles. None of the big oil barons or multi-millionaire fixers appeared remotely worried that the industry was heading toward an inevitable demise, though perhaps Silverstein just didn’t ask those questions. Given that Trump pulled out of the Paris Accord, and energy consumption is set to increase as our population continues to grow, coordinated attempts to reduce fossil fuels are not a foregone conclusion either. So, what’s going on? Does oil have a future or not?
For the next few decades, the answer appears to be yes, though demand is expected to fall toward the end of the 2030s. The issue of how the burning of billions of tons of hydrocarbons is warming the planet is gaining more and more traction, with even the CEO of Shell believing that climate change is real and caused by the burning of fossil fuels. But despite the specific beliefs and sensibilities of major oil CEOs, it still seems like the oil industry and the environmental movement are, for obvious reasons, at odds. And while many oil CEOs may believe in climate change, I’m not sure that a lack of belief is what keeps them looking for new reserves and making new business connections. No, what continues to make oil an attractive proposition for many is that there is the potential to make a fuckton of money. Silverstein’s book details the opulence of not only the owners of the oil reserves but many far less senior members of the industry who are still making bank. To put it mildly, oil is lucrative. And despite the fact that most oil executives have enough to money to live out the rest of their days in utter extravagance, it won’t be enough until every last dollar is squeezed out of those toxic barrels.
To compound the potential fears, there are still at least a trillion barrels of oil that could be extracted from proven reserves, to say nothing of any further reserves that might be found in the next decade or so. For people who want to keep making money from oil, there is plenty of oil left to sell and burn, and we’ll likely be underwater before we run out of treacherous fossil fuels. I have assume that most big oil CEOs are aware of climate change and its anthropogenic causes, and are merely choosing to do nothing in favour of making another million dollars and buying another Ferrari, which makes me feel like we’re really in trouble.
As with any matter of global climate change, geopolitics can’t be discounted, least of all when thinking about oil. A staggering proportion of proven oil reserves are located in developing countries, which are already asking to be compensated for leaving enormous quantities of oil in the ground, as I wrote about in my ‘climate creditors’ blog post. In 2006, Ecuador pushed for compensation for not drilling in Yasuní National Park, a pristine section of rainforest that is sitting on $7bn worth of crude oil. Given that Bolivia has barely contributed to emissions, it seems fair for Ecuador to be compensated for not taking those sweet petro dollars and leaving the oil in the ground, with any money given going (in theory) to support the country’s transition to clean energy. Despite years of protests from citizens and environmental groups, in 2016, the Ecuadorian government announced they had started drilling, as they were yet to see any indication they would be compensated for keeping the oil in the ground and the nation needs the money. It is a big ask from a developmental perspective to ask developing countries to keep that fuel in the ground, without any real compensation for the economic losses they face as result. Those of us in privileged nations cannot judge a country for wanting to provide its citizens with same standards of living we have to come see as not only standard, but humane. Of course, in many countries, the oil industry is rife with corruption and average citizens never see a cent of the profits from these billionaire business deals, but for many countries across the world their natural resources are a crucial piece of the national economy – provided they are mined and sold.
As is the case with all predictions, no one knows exactly what will happen to oil. The NYT article exploring this question ends with a quote from a hungry oil exec talking about the potential for evolution in the industry – it is a fairly lacklustre, non-committal ending to an otherwise a punchy piece. As the article itself says, speculating about the future of fuels has often proved ineffective, with former mainstream predictions about nuclear power and biofuels being plain wrong. While most of the articles I’ve read have been convinced that oil demand will peak in the next two decades, it’s clear that an end to the industry is not currently on the horizon as far as those in the know see it. I have no better answers, obviously, but I was struck by how disparate the world of oil seems from mainstream environmental thinking. To read a whole book about the oil industry and hear almost nothing about climate change was a shock, as the role of the oil industry is prominent in many impassioned activist speeches. But perhaps that lack of acknowledgement tells us something in its own way – it tells us that we might be in more trouble than we think.