Category Archives: Fossil fuels

Letter from Andrés Soto: Chagrined at Valero’s alcohol diversion

By Andrés Soto, April 27, 2020
Andrés Soto, Benicia CA

As we wound down the first shelter in place Earth Day/Week, I was prodded into chuckling at the Herald’s front page story of Valero diverting some of its ethanol production to the making of hand sanitizing liquids! This is like applying antibiotic ointment to a bleeding gun shot wound. Thanks Valero.

Valero and the other fossil fuel companies have been knowingly contributing to the destruction of our atmosphere and trying to exacerbate the problem by moving into refining extreme crudes such a tar sands and fracked crude. Thanks Valero.

It is now understood that those who have been suffering the greatest health burdens over time from the fossil fuel economy are – surprise, surprise – also the most vulnerable to infection from COVID 19! Benicia and other refinery towns are on the front line with children and seniors suffering disproportionately from asthma and other auto-immune diseases. Thanks Valero.

Of course, to protect their position to profit from poison they need political support. The 2018 Benicia election saw Valero and its deep pocket “boots on the ground” building trades union allies spend an obscene amount of money to personally destroy the reputation of Planning Commissioner Kari Birdseye and and pump up the pro-polluter candidates Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge to victory. Thanks Valero.

If Valero and its fellow oil cartel members really wanted to help Benicia and Earth it would join community members, workers and city representatives in the planning of a managed decommissioning of the refinery and reduce risks to COVID 19, massive wildfires and toxic pollution. Thanks Valero.

Andres Soto
Benicia CA

Coronavirus stimulus money will be wasted on fossil fuels

Low gas prices in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, on March 30. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Oil and gas companies were already facing structural problems before Covid-19 and are in long-term decline.

As countries across the world go into lockdown in response to Covid-19, economies are in free fall. Almost every sector is taking a hit, hemorrhaging jobs and value. And almost every sector will be shaped, for years to come, by the speed, amount, and nature of public assistance it receives. There is a finite amount of time, resources, and political will available to get economies going again; not every sector will get what it wants or needs.

In short, the decisions legislators make in response to the coronavirus crisis will have an enormous influence on what kind of economies emerge on the other side.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what an ideal recovery and stimulus package would look like. And last week I wrote about how shortsighted it is for Republicans (enabled by learned Democratic passivity) to reject aid for the struggling clean energy industry.

In this post, I want to take a look at why it is equally shortsighted for President Trump and congressional Republicans to remain so devoted to the fossil fuel industry.

The dominant narrative is still that fossil fuels are a pillar of the US economy, with giant companies like Exxon Mobil producing revenue and jobs that the US can’t afford to do without. Even among those eager to address climate change by moving past fossil fuels to clean energy — a class that includes a majority of Americans — there is a lingering mythology that US fossil fuels are, to use the familiar phrase, too big to fail.

President Trump, flanked by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, left, and Chevron CEO Mike Wirth, meets with energy sector CEOs at the White House on April 3.  Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

But the position of fossil fuels in the US economy is less secure than it might appear. In fact, the fossil fuel industry is facing substantial structural challenges that will be exacerbated by, but will not end with, the Covid-19 crisis. For years, the industry has been shedding value, taking on debt, losing favor among financial institutions and investors, and turning more and more to lobbying governments to survive.

It is, in short, a turkey. CNBC financial analyst Jim Cramer put it best, back in late January, before Covid-19 had even become a crisis in the US: “I’m done with fossil fuels. They’re done. They’re just done.”

“We’re in the death knell phase,” he said “The world has turned on [fossil fuels].”

Cramer’s take is not yet conventional wisdom, but he’s right. Evidence in support appears in a new report from the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) called “Pandemic Crisis, Systemic Decline.” Let’s walk through it.

Fossil fuels are furiously lobbying for, and receiving, largesse from the US government

The UK-based think tank InfluenceMap recently did an analysis that tracks corporate lobbying in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. It found that, across the globe, the oil and gas sector has been the most active in lobbying for interventions, seeking, as CIEL summarizes, “direct and indirect support, including bailouts, buyouts, regulatory rollbacks, exemption from measures designed to protect the health of workers and the public, non-enforcement of environmental laws, and criminalization of protest, among others.” In Canada, Australia, and the UK, the industry is arguing that it must be subsidized and deregulated in order to survive.

In the US alone, the industry is seeking access to a range of stimulus funds, relief from a variety of pollution regulations, and use of the strategic petroleum reserve to bolster prices. Journalist Amy Westervelt is tracking at least a dozen other lobbying efforts.

The petrochemical and plastics industry, which is in large part an extension of the oil and gas industry, is exploiting the crisis as well. It has lobbied the federal government to declare an official preference for single-use plastic bags and suggested that more fresh produce should be wrapped in plastic.

The virus has not slowed down the Trump administration’s attempts to assist the industry. It is gutting fuel economy standards, which, by its own estimation, will increase pollution and eliminate 13,500 jobs a year. The EPA has dramatically eased the enforcement of pollution regulations and moved forward with its “secret science” rule, which will make it more difficult to understand and address the health impacts of air pollution — and more difficult to study the coronavirus.

The petrochemical industry has lobbied the federal government to declare an official preference for single-use plastic bags.  Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump delivers a speech on energy sector jobs at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex in Monaca, Pennsylvania, on August 13, 2019.  Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

During a supply glut driven by historically low prices, the Interior Department is rushing to lease federal land for oil and gas development, despite an anemic response, rock-bottom prices, and calls from conservative and taxpayer groups to suspend leasing in the face of the coronavirus.

The administration seems determined to bail out struggling shale gas companies, despite that overleveraged, debt-ridden sector being long overdue for a shakeout. (For more on that, check out Amy Westervelt’s reporting at Drilled.)

Trump is negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Russia on oil supply cuts, and has the Department of Energy buying up billions of tons of oil for the strategic petroleum reserve, all to try to boost the price of oil to help struggling oil majors. A group of GOP senators is lobbying for fossil fuel companies, including coal companies, to be eligible for the small-business recovery fund.

Last week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the administration, in defiance of an enormous body of evidence and recommendations from EPA scientists and staff, will not tighten restrictions on soot pollution. And on Friday, Wheeler announced that the EPA will weaken standards on mercury and other toxic metals from fossil-fueled power plants, again in opposition to the scientific consensus, based on rigged cost-benefit analysis that deliberately excluded most benefits.

Across the board, the administration is doing everything it can to help fossil fuels. But it’s a mug’s game. The industry is faltering for reasons that well predate Covid-19.

Fossil fuels were already facing structural problems before the coronavirus

US coal is in terminal decline, for reasons I’ve written about many times before. No amount of stimulus money or weaker pollution regulations can save it.

But on the surface, things look different for oil and gas. Thanks to fracking, production has been booming for the past decade, vaulting the US ahead of Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the the world’s leading oil and gas producer.

And the same goes for petrochemicals and especially plastics, which have been forecast to be the main drivers of rising petroleum demand in coming years. The industry has issued rosy projections of plastics’ growth and invested $200 billion in new petrochemical and plastics infrastructure.

But dig below the surface and things don’t look so good.

First, fracking was a financial wreck long before Covid-19 hit. US fracking operations have been losing money for a decade, to the tune of around $280 billion. Overproduction has produced a supply glut, low prices, and an accumulating surplus in storage.

CIEL reports:

Since 2015, over 200 drillers have gone bankrupt, with 32 declaring bankruptcy in 2019. At the beginning of 2020, the industry continued to struggle as natural gas prices remained low due to sluggish demand growth. By the end of the first quarter, another seven drillers had declared bankruptcy, six additional drillers had their credit outlook downgraded, and several major banks had written down the expected value of many drillers’ reserves. A recent analysis from Rystad Energy indicated that, at prevailing oil and gas prices, almost all new fracking wells drilled would lose money.

Even as its prospects grow dimmer, the enormous debt the industry has taken on over the years is coming back to bite it. Some $40 billion will come due this year alone, and around $200 billion in the next four years. In the hours after this article was first published on April 20, oil futures for May fell to negative prices. Mind-boggling.

Second, both oil and gas prices were persistently low leading into 2019. Due to oversupply and mild winters in the US and Europe, there is a glut of both natural gas and oil, such that the entire world’s spare oil storage is in danger of being filled. Many big oil deals in “frontier countries” with as-yet-unexploited reserves, like Guyana, Argentina, and Mozambique, are falling through as low prices drag on.

Third, renewable energy and electric vehicles are threatening oil and gas’s dominance in both transportation, which represents 70 percent of global demand, and electricity. Natural gas’s status as a “bridge fuel” in the power sector is in increasing doubt; since 2014, orders for new gas turbines (to generate power) have fallen by half. As for transportation, a recent report from the international banking group BNP Paribas concluded that “the economics of oil for gasoline and diesel vehicles versus wind- and solar-powered EVs are now in relentless and irreversible decline.”

An electric car at a charging station in Bavaria, Germany, on March 26, 2020.  Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

Fourth, oil and gas majors are revealing their own weakness by writing down assets — effectively conceding that certain reserves cannot be profitably exploited. In 2019, Chevron wrote down $11 billion worth; Spanish oil company Repsol recently wrote down $5 billion worth. Exxon Mobil, after adding Canadian tar sands assets to its books in 2017, reversed course and wrote down 3.2 billion barrels last year.

Fifth, financial institutions — “institutional and retail investors, banks, insurers, and credit rating agencies” — are catching wind of fossil fuels’ weakness and beginning to back away. Many, like Wells Fargo, BlackRock, the European Investment Bank, and the World Bank Group, are restricting investments in carbon-intensive projects. As of March 2020, asset investors worth $12 trillion had declared that they would divest from fossil fuels.

As financial institutions divest, the ones still invested in carbon-intensive projects face increasing vulnerability to lawsuits charging them with ignoring material risks. “As the risks of investing in the oil and gas sector become ever more apparent,” CIEL writes, “more and more investors subject to fiduciary duties will likely choose to steer clear of these companies.”

Like these other dismal trends, the financial turn from fossil fuels was underway well before Covid-19. Over the past decade, companies in the sector have spent more on stock buybacks and dividends than they have brought in through revenue, leading to a greater and greater debt burden. Declining confidence in the sector has made it the worst-performing sector on the S&P Index.

The Dow Jones Index (black line) vs. the Dow Jones Oil & Gas Index (blue line), as of April 17, 2020.  S&P Dow Jones Indices

Finally, plastics, the great hope of the oil and gas sector, do not appear to be growing fast enough to justify the industry’s optimistic projections. Much of the US plastics industry is geared for export, but countries across the world (127 and counting) are adopting restrictions on single-use plastics. The most recent such restrictions were adopted by China, the world’s largest plastic producer and consumer. Plastics, like oil and gas, are suffering from the dual malady of overexpansion and underconsumption.

As an example that encompasses all these structural problems, CIEL cites Exxon Mobil. The company’s plan for growth involves growth in its petrochemical operations, which is now in doubt; fracking in the Permian Basin, which is now in doubt; and expanding oil production in Guyana, which is now (owing to political instability) in doubt.

All these doubts are converging as Moody’s recently revised the company’s outlook to negative. It fell out of the S&P’s top 10 for the first time, its stock hit its lowest price in a decade, the rapid rise of renewables and electric vehicles rendered billions (and perhaps soon trillions) of dollars of its assets worthless, and it is keeping shareholders happy with debt-financed dividends. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that over the past decade, Exxon Mobil has spent $64.5 billion more on payouts to stockholders than it earned in free cash flow. That can’t go on much longer.

Again: All of these structural trends predate Covid-19. But the global lockdown in response to the virus has accelerated all of them.

Oil and gas are caught in a historic downturn

Into this already dismal situation for fossil fuels came the virus and the subsequent lockdown. The vertiginous plunge in consumer demand has hit every sector of the economy, but oil and gas, already facing oversupply and persistent low prices, were particularly vulnerable.

“Oil, gas, and petrochemical stocks have been affected more rapidly and much more deeply than almost any other sector,” CIEL writes. “The oil and gas sector lost more than 45% of its total value from the beginning of January to early April 2020.”

The already declining stocks of Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Occidental Petroleum were sent tumbling even faster. In July 2014, Exxon stock hit a high of $107; as of early April 2020, it was at $42, its lowest level in decades.

Transportation represents 70 percent of petroleum consumption, but no one is moving. Rystad Energy estimates that as of March 2020, global traffic is down 40 percent. As lockdowns remain, that number will likely drop further.

Air travel has been the fastest-growing source of demand for transport fuels, but no one is flying. “In the final week of March 2020,” CIEL writes, “commercial air traffic was almost 63% lower than in 2019.”

Christina Animashaun/Vox

Public health officials warn that there could be periodic outbreaks for months or even years. Meanwhile, there are rapid advances being made everywhere in the infrastructure, technology, and practices of working remotely, from home. It’s entirely possible that auto and air travel won’t reach their pre-virus levels in the US for years, if ever.

Travel by ship is also taking a hit. Cruise ships, beset by a series of viral horror stories, have suspended operations and many analysts doubt they will ever fully recover.

Meanwhile, oversupply, exacerbated by the drop in demand, is taxing the nation’s storage capacity — the International Energy Agency says global capacity is about 85 percent full. “Nearly all observers have concluded that at projected levels of demand destruction,” CIEL writes, “the total global capacity for storing unneeded oil and gas will soon be exceeded.” At that point, many producers will be forced to simply shut down operations and write-downs will accelerate.

On top of all this has come a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, competing for the shrinking supply left over by the US supply glut. Global oil prices were at $69 per barrel in January 2020. The price of a barrel of Canadian tar sands oil appears headed into negative prices, as are Texas oil and natural gas in some parts of the US, for May futures (June prices are higher). The so-called OPEC+ group of oil-producing nations (OPEC + Russia) recently agreed to a 10 million barrel a day cut in production, but analysts agree that it is unlikely to be sufficient to stabilize prices.

Freight trains filled with oil in Krasnodar, Russia, on April 14. As supply exceeds demand and oil prices fall, oil producers find themselves confronted with storage challenges.  Igor Onuchin/TASS via Getty Images

When storage capacity runs out, producers are forced to pay people to take oil off their hands. (Raise your hand if you had “negative oil prices” on your 21st-century bingo card.) Even if storage doesn’t completely run out, it will be close to full, serving to suppress prices, for years. Petrochemicals and plastics don’t have it much better, with major investors delaying or dropping out of projects left and right.

“In the medium term,” CIEL writes, “the prospect of a full recovery for many of these revenue streams is, at best, uncertain, and, in many cases, unlikely.” Fossil fuels and petrochemicals could struggle for years.

And even if they eventually manage to achieve something like their pre-virus trajectory, that trajectory was sloping downward. As CIEL summarizes: “the pandemic exposes and exacerbates fundamental weaknesses throughout the sector that both predate the current crisis and will outlast it.”

Wasting stimulus money on fossil fuels makes no sense, so Trump will probably do it

Slowly but surely, the world is beginning to take global warming seriously, shifting attention and investment to materials and sources of energy that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions. As more and more jurisdictions, institutions, and investors turn away from fossil fuels, explicitly citing climate change, those left holding carbon-intensive assets will become targets of increasingly intense legal and civic activism holding them responsible for the damages.

CIEL concludes with recommendations to investors, frontier countries, and local communities: Take heed of fossil fuels’ long-term weakness when making decisions about the future. CIEL also argues that public officials “should not waste limited response and recovery resources on bailouts, debt relief, or similar supports for oil, gas, and petrochemical companies.”

Given the well-established inclinations of Trump and congressional Republicans, that recommendation is likely to fall on deaf ears, at least in the US. If Democrats do not muster the courage to stop them — and it does not seem they will — the GOP is likely to continue showering the fossil fuel industry with favors while dismissing aid to the clean energy industry as frivolous.

President Trump Signs Coronavirus Stimulus Bill In The Oval Office
President Trump signs the $2 trillion stimulus bill on March 27, 2020. Not a crew likely to turn their backs on fossil fuels.  Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images

At best, they can slow down the transition to clean energy a bit. They cannot stop it. Adding stimulus money to fossil fuels’ already subsidy-rich diet will allow a little more pollution and a little more damage to public health for a little longer, but it’s only a delay. Meanwhile, other countries will be establishing a commanding position in some of the biggest growth industries of the 21st century.

It would be a shame to emerge from this crisis still clinging to the past rather than facing, and preparing for, the future.


Update, April 20, 4 pm ET: After this article was first published, oil futures fell to negative prices.

Environmental Groups Oppose U.S. Army Corps Plan to Dredge the Bay for Bigger Oil Tankers

BayNature.org, by David Loeb, April 16, 2020
The Phillips 66 San Francisco Refinery in Rodeo. (Photo By Dreamyshade, Wikimedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Drive east along Interstate 80, past the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, and you can see that the Bay Area remains very much embedded in the fossil fuel economy. And if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has its way, we may well be doubling down on that relationship.

The Corps has a pending proposal, officially dubbed the “San Francisco Bay to Stockton, California Navigation Study,” to dredge a 13-mile stretch of the San Francisco Bay Estuary from San Pablo Bay (just north of Point San Pablo) through the Carquinez Strait to the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. This project would deepen the channel leading to four oil refineries along the shoreline by an average of three feet, allowing for the arrival of a larger class of oil tankers than can currently access these refineries. The Army Corps’ January 2020 Environment Impact Statement (EIS) for the project claims that the total volume of oil shipped will not necessarily increase as a result of the project, but rather claims that the dredging might even result in reduced ship traffic in the Bay by delivering the same amount of oil on fewer (but larger) ships.

A map of a proposed new San Francisco Bay dredge from the Army Corps of Engineers’ January 2020 environmental impact statement.

This argument has not persuaded Bay Area environmental groups, who last spring submitted comments on the Draft EIS opposing the dredging project. These groups, including San Francisco Baykeeper, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth, Communities for a Better Environment, and Ocean Conservation Research, are submitting similarly negative comments on the Final EIS, which they say is not much of an improvement over the 2019 draft version. The deadline for public comments has been extended, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, until Tuesday, April 21.

The concerns of these organizations fall in to three basic categories: direct impacts on the local aquatic environment from both the dredging itself and from the increased traffic; direct air quality impacts on local communities from the increase in refinery operations; and above all, concern that increasing the capacity for delivery and production of fossil fuels directly contradicts the state’s mandated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow the impact of climate change.

I. Impacts on Local Aquatic Environment

The Army Corps’ EIS contends that the Bay floor sediments to be disturbed by the dredging do not contain significant levels of toxic materials. But comments by the environmental organizations point out that the Corps appears to be relying on studies done over a decade ago or more, and they list a range of contaminants that could be re-suspended from the settled sediment that are not addressed by the Corps. The groups point out that this narrow body of water connecting the Bay with the Delta is heavily used by endangered fish species, including Delta smelt, longfin smelt, and Chinook salmon, among others, as well as by harbor seals and California sea lion, both protected marine mammal species.

The groups also point out that the EIS only addresses the impact of the dredging itself on the local aquatic environment. By asserting that the deepening of the channel will not, on its own, increase the level of shipping in the channel, the Corps disclaims any responsibility to address the impact of increased oil tanker traffic. However, as the environmental organizations point out, there is little chance that the refineries would not take advantage of this opportunity to increase their operations. In fact, as Ocean Conservation Research points out in its comments, the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo has recently been granted permission by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to double its refining capacity. So it would be naïve to ignore the probability of increased traffic in the Strait, with is attendant increase in disturbance of all kinds (noise, water pollution, possible spills, etc.) and the resulting impact on wildlife populations.

In addition, Ocean Conservation Research’s comment letter points out that in order to accommodate the larger ships of the Panamax class (so-called because they are the maximum size allowed through the Panama Canal), the Phillips refinery has proposed an enlargement and expansion of its wharf facility. Such a project would involve disturbance of sediments full of toxic heavy metals left behind by the Selby Slag, a company that operated a smelter there into the 1970s, extracting ore from waste metals. Because the wharf expansion is considered a separate project, the Corps is not legally required to address it in its EIS — but expansion of the wharf would not be economically viable without the deeper channel.

Additionally, according to Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh, “Baykeeper has concerns about how the project will impact salinity in the Delta. Deepening the shipping channel will push the fresh water/salt water mixing zone (known as the X2) further east, threatening drinking water supplies” for people in Contra Costa County and other Delta communities.

II. Impacts on Local Communities

Again, by asserting that the dredging project will not result in increased refining activity, and therefore only considering the impact of the actual dredging work, the Corps’ EIS does not find any impact on surrounding “environmental justice communities.” These communities, including Richmond, Vallejo, and Martinez, have been subjected to high levels of pollution from decades of industrial activity, and are demographically “majority minority” and low income. The failure of the EIS to contemplate increased levels of air pollution from increased refinery activities belies the refineries’ long record of “accidental” spills, flares, releases, etc. that have caused the area’s residents to periodically “shelter in place” long before the novel coronavirus.

III. The Big Picture

All of these local negative impacts are bad enough. But in their comments, the environmental groups assert that it is essential to step back and look at the much larger picture of what the dredging project implies for the region, the state, and the planet:

“The proposed channel alterations would remove constraints on expanding fossil fuel import and export volumes … The project will likely result in a significant increase in future volumes of crude oil and refined petroleum products shipped through the Bay … Here, the increased volume of oil and coal passing through the deepened channels will lead to greater refining and export activity. These in turn will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, both at the refineries and when the products are combusted. Stated differently, the dredging is ‘a mere step in furtherance of many other steps in the overall development’ of the area’s fossil fuel industry.”

The environmental groups believe that the ultimate plan of the oil companies is to have the Bay Area’s refineries serve as an outlet for oil extracted from the Alberta tar sands, one of the most carbon intensive fuel sources on the planet, given the energy that must be invested to extract it, liquefy it for transport, and ship it. Moreover, the transport of this oil from its source in northern Alberta to the Bay Area is highly problematic, both politically and environmentally. It involves expansion of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline over First Nation lands of the Salish people in Canada (a project that they are resisting both in the courts and on their land). Then the unrefined oil must be transported by tankers through the Salish Sea, threatening the already depleted Southern Resident population of killer whales. And finally, the tankers must pass through the Golden Gate, where recovering populations of humpback whales and gray whales are also facing increased threats from ship strikes in this busy shipping channel.

All of this leads to the final question of why U.S. taxpayers should fund (at an estimated initial cost of $57 million) a project whose main intended beneficiaries are privately owned oil refineries. Of course, direct taxpayer subsidies to the fossil fuel industry are nothing new, but in an era when we climate change requires us to be reducing our dependence on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, this project would appear to be moving us in the opposite direction.


About the Author

David Loeb
From 2001-2017, David Loeb served as editor and then publisher of Bay Nature magazine, and executive director of the nonprofit Bay Nature Institute. A Bay Area resident since 1973, David moved here after graduating from college in Boston. The decision was largely based on a week spent visiting friends in San Francisco the previous January, which had included a memorable day at Point Reyes National Seashore. In the late 1990s, after many years working for the Guatemala News and Information Bureau in Oakland, David had the opportunity to spend more time hiking and exploring the parks and open spaces of the Bay Area. Increasingly curious about what he was seeing, he began reading natural history books, attending naturalist-led hikes and natural history courses and lectures, and volunteering for several local conservation organizations.
This was rewarding, but he began to feel that the rich natural diversity of the Bay Area deserved a special venue and a dedicated voice for the whole region, to supplement the many publications devoted to one particular place or issue. That’s when the germ of Bay Nature magazine began to take shape. In February 1997, David contacted Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday Books and News from Native California, with the idea of a magazine focused on nature in the Bay Area, and was delighted with Malcolm’s enthusiastic response. Over the course of many discussions with Malcolm, publishing professionals, potential funders, and local conservation and advocacy groups, the magazine gradually took shape and was launched in January 2001. It is still going strong, with a wider base of support than ever.
Now retired, David contributes to his Bay Nature column “Field Reports.”

Under Cover of Pandemic, Fossil Fuel Interests Unleash Lobbying Frenzy

DeSmogBlog, by Dana Drugmand, April 2, 2020
Worker power washing drill pipe
A worker power washes drill pipe at Citadel Rig 6 in the Alpine High region of the Permian Basin, Reeves County, Texas. Credit: Justin Hamel © 2020

Thousands of Americans are dying, millions have filed for unemployment, and frontline health care workers are risking their lives as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the U.S. In the midst of this crisis, the fossil fuel industry, particularly the oil and gas sector, has been actively seeking both financial relief and deregulation or dismantling of environmental protection measures.

A new briefing by UK-based think tank InfluenceMap summarizes this fossil fuel lobbying during the time of the pandemic, pointing to specific examples of how fossil fuel interests around the world are using the cover of the coronavirus crisis to advance their agenda.

InfluenceMap, which tracks and measures corporate influence over climate policy, focused on recent corporate lobbying for both financial interventions and relating to climate or energy regulations. “The oil and gas sector appears to be the most active globally in the above two lobbying areas, demanding both financial support and deregulation in response to the COVID-19 crisis,” the report states.

In the U.S., the top oil and gas producer in the world, this activity has been particularly pronounced. While the oil and gas sector is struggling amid plummeting prices and demand, the struggle is due to factors far beyond the pandemic, and mostly of the industry’s own making.

Many shale companies had amassed large debts that allowed them to rapidly spend and expand production, for example. And the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil’s stock hit a 10-year low in late January, and a 15-year low by March 5, before the pandemic reached a crisis point in the U.S.

Nevertheless, the Trump administration and Republican lawmakers have looked to use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to shore up the petroleum producers. In mid-March, the President announced his intention to buy up crude oil to fill the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which Democrats and climate advocates slammed as a reckless bailout of Big Oil.

Republicans in Congress tried unsuccessfully to give away $3 billion in the recent economic stimulus package to fund that emergency oil stock-up, but the package still contains nearly $500 billion for broad corporate interests with little oversight that oil companies will likely look to access. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, sent a letter on April 1 to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin urging him to use the CARES Act stimulus funds to support oil and gas companies.

The rapidly declining coal industry, with many companies already bankrupt, has likewise turned to the government for financial assistance. The National Mining Association wrote to President Trump and Congress asking to suspend royalties and fees, including payments that support victims of black lung disease. Congress did not include the trade group’s requests in the stimulus package, but the group has said it will continue to make its demands.

Beyond seeking their own financial relief through the government’s coronavirus response, fossil fuel interests are using front groups to push back against attempts to include clean energy or climate-related measures in the economic relief bills.

U.S.-based think tanks linked to fossil fuel-based interests such as [the] Koch brothers have been active in opposing support for green energy programs in the U.S. federal government’s response to the crisis,” InfluenceMap said in a emailed statement. The InfluenceMap briefing cites a new project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) called Life:Powered, which promotes fossil fuels and was originally launched under the name “Fueling Freedom” in 2015 “to combat the Obama-era Clean Power Plan.”

A coalition of over two dozen right-wing, free market think tanks, led by TPPF and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, sent a letter to Congress on March 23 under the umbrella of the Life:Powered project urging lawmakers to reject any incentives or support for “unreliable ‘green’ energy” in the latest stimulus package. The letter includes several false claims about renewable energy and argues, “climate change is not an immediate threat to humanity.”

Some of these same conservative free market groups, members of the State Policy Network, have been buying ads on social media attacking efforts to use the COVID-19 economic relief efforts to also address climate change, which medical experts have said poses “unprecedented threats to public health and safety.”

Life:Powered Facebook ad about oil price war
A Facebook ad from Life:Powered and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, promoting a petition in favor of the U.S. oil industry.

Deregulation is another form of assistance the oil and gas industry has pursued. And whether by weakening existing climate policies like Obama-era clean car standards or waiving environmental compliance requirements, the Trump administration has granted much on the industry’s wish list.

One example cited in the InfluenceMap briefing is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent policy suspending civil enforcement of environmental rules and relaxing compliance requirements. The American Petroleum Institute sent a letter to President Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler specifically asking for relief from environmental compliance.

Outside the U.S., corporate interests including oil and gas have also used the pandemic to lobby for their agendas, which run counter to the Paris climate agreement and actions necessary to address climate change. Examples cited in the InfluenceMap briefing include:

  • The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) recently sent a letter to the president of the EU Commission asking for laxer timelines for complying with the EU vehicle climate regulations.
  • Oil and Gas UK produced a business outlook report that referenced the COVID-19 crisis, while arguing that protecting the UK oil and gas industry is essential in ensuring the sector can contribute to providing the UK with net-zero emissions solutions.”
  • The Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Chief Executive Andrew McConville referenced the need for measures to ensure economic recovery from COVID-19 pandemic while commenting in favor of a draft government commission report published on Australian resource sector regulation. APPEA stated support for a number of findings, including advice against bans on natural gas exploration. McConville argued the report constituted an ‘an important contribution as we consider vital recovery measures.’”
  • Several Canadian oil and gas companies and the Business Council of Alberta are calling on the Canadian federal government to postpone any regulatory changes or tax increases including a planned increase to the carbon tax. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has also been gunning for a $15 billion bailout package from the federal government.

Trump Meets With Oil CEOs

President Trump is scheduled to hold an in-person meeting Friday, April 3 with the heads of leading oil and gas companies to discuss their concerns, such as the Russia-Saudi Arabia oil price war and depressed demand as a result of the pandemic response.

According to Greenpeace USA, the executives expected to meet with Trump personally earned at least a combined $100 million in 2018 alone between salaries, bonuses, stock options, and other compensation.

Where the rest of the world sees a global health and economic crisis, fossil fuel CEOs see an opportunity to line their pockets,” Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director Janet Redman said in a statement. “We cannot let our government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic be driven by corporate executives looking to exploit a crisis for their own gain instead of supporting health care providers and working families. Nurses need masks. Hospitals need ventilators. Workers need paychecks. People need help all over this country. And what is Trump doing? He’s making sure oil executives have golden pandemic parachutes. It’s disgraceful.”

Main image: A worker power washes drill pipe at Citadel Rig 6 in the Alpine High region of the Permian Basin, Reeves County, Texas. Credit: Justin Hamel © 2020