Putin’s outrageous attack on Ukraine is an act of pure aggression that has left the global community in shock at its audacity and rampant brutality. As the Biden administration scrambles to respond with aid, sanctions, and finally, a ban on Russian oil imports, this tragedy has also underscored the need for the rapid construction of a framework for clean energy independence.
A Nation Held Captive By Oil
The delay in the administration’s decision to impose a ban on Russian oil is a testament to the intricate and knotty web that binds our nation’s political ties to the oil and gas industry. Big Oil’s grip on Washington D.C. is deep and sustained, with annual lobbying funds among the highest of any industry–over $115 million in 2021.
Campaign contributions have been generous and targeted to climate-denying lawmakers. Take ExxonMobil: Of the nearly $1 million the corporation contributed to congressional incumbent campaigns during the 2019-20 election cycle, 40% was funneled to 115 of the 150 climate science deniers still in office. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that professed climate supporter, Senator Joe Manchin–the runaway leader in Congress of Big Oil contributions (four times more than the number two recipient)–has been an eager industry champion, rejecting key climate policies, including a ban on new drilling.
The industry has been rewarded for its generosity with massive fossil fuel subsidies, which have only increased since 2015 (by 37%) despite the fact that climate experts, including the world’s leading energy forum, the International Energy Agency, have called for an immediate cessation of all new oil, gas, and coal projects.
Now with a ban on Russian oil in place, Biden has been silent on a clean energy transition, instead, choosing to promote the administration’s efforts to support new drilling. And as the world condemns one tyrant, the Biden administration mulls the possibility of tying imports to yet another. But shifting oil imports from one volatile dictatorship to another (Venezuela, comes to mind) doesn’t solve the problem of energy security, and ramping up production at home only amplifies greenhouse gas emissions.
Industry’s Cries for More, More, More
In a bizarre twist of the facts, the industry has used the war to justify more drilling to achieve “energy security.” The industry’s lobbying arm, American Petroleum Institute, has called for the Biden administration to release federal drilling permits, despite the fact that 9,000 permits currently sit unused. Amid production that is only projected to hit record highs this year and next, oil majors and their allies have also used the war to lobby for expanded drilling and exports of natural gas.
The notable omission of the word “clean” in industry rhetoric has compartmentalized national security and climate action, and–despite the dire state of the climate crisis–tossing aside any need for a clean energy transition in favor of increased exploration, drilling and production. ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance put it bluntly: “As an industry, we can’t lose sight of the returns.” The reality is that the focus of fossil fuel companies is not on protecting Americans but on protecting their bottom line while using the war as a springboard for expansion.
No one is expecting altruism from the oil and gas industry, but the exploitation of a brutal war to justify more production should be a wake-up call. As Collin Rees, of Oil Change International, summed it up: “This is the industry trying to take incredibly cynical advantage of a really tragic situation. It makes it all the more clear we need to break our dependence on fossil fuels around the world and that means more distributed renewables.”
Europe’s Move to Clean Energy Independence
We can learn from our European Union and British allies who recognize the strategic security benefits of a national clean energy infrastructure. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union recognized the value of clean energy as a buffer against Russian aggression and now plans to announce a major reduction in Russian methane gas, oil, and coal imports to insulate against energy and geopolitical insecurity.
The key with the European plan is that it recognizes the importance of a simultaneous approach to energy security that accelerates the expansion of renewable energy infrastructure while phasing out fossil fuels. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s statement sums it up: “We are doubling down on renewables. This will increase Europe’s strategic independence on energy.”
Is the EU plan doable? The International Energy Agency seems to think so, asserting that its 10-Point Plan “shows how the EU can cut gas imports from Russia within a year while supporting the transition to clean energy in a secure and affordable way.”
If the EU can, why not the U.S.? As the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, the U.S. should be scaling back on fossil fuel extraction and expansion and promoting a clean energy economy, particularly when private investment in clean energy assets is soaring.
Pumping Up Political Will
“We can’t let the fossil-fuel industry scare us into a domestic drilling free-for-all that is neither economically warranted nor environmentally sound,” House Natural Resources Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) wrote in a recent opinion piece. Representative Grijalva’s statement encapsulates the challenge we face. Lawmakers must possess the political will to extricate themselves from the calcified grip of the fossil fuel industry.
Until we transform the underlying infrastructure from gas-fired power and plastic production, we will still be hijacked by an industry that since its existence has buffeted regular people, destroyed homes and open spaces, and employs corruption and coercion as its business model.
Putin is a tyrant who must be toppled, but global dependence on oil will continue to sustain petro-states like Russia until nations refuse to prop up Big Oil.
To be clear, the clean energy transition won’t be swift, nor inexpensive at first, but a combination of regulatory measures, direct investment from the private sector, and enhanced clean energy subsidies can assist in phasing out our dependence on fossil fuels. Indeed, once stripped of the subsidies that prop up the industry, gas is more expensive than wind and solar.
One idea, proposed by Michael Wara, a Stanford University energy professor, envisions a short term increase in oil and natural gas production to combat Putin and limit gas prices, but only if Congress approves “a massive program to electrify the U.S. vehicle fleet.”
While Big Oil’s grip at the national level is strong, localities can and have exerted their power by banning drilling, phasing out gas in buildings, and ramping up climate litigation. Industry influence still exists–as manifested in the passage of preemption laws and the flow of funds into local races, but there is substantive progress.
Our representatives can also lead by emphasizing the need for “clean energy” in any energy independence framework. Soaring gas prices can strike fear in any politician, but a compelling narrative can be made that places the blame squarely on the volatility of the oil and gas industry.
As a nation, we can move forward together towards clean energy as we untether ourselves from the influence of “Putin’s price hikes” and those of other petro-despots. The public appears to be ready: Polls indicate that the public would support a ban on Russian oil. It’s time for bold leadership demonstrating that the path towards independence — while rocky at times — will result in a safe and healthy environment for people and the planet.
Increased Transparency to Increase Public Pressure
Added to climate-friendly policies should be greater oversight of the fossil fuel industry to protect consumers from misleading the public while obstructing climate action. For decades, the fossil fuel industry has waged a heavily-funded disinformation campaign that rivals (indeed, emulates) that of the tobacco industry. ExxonMobil, for instance, has given millions to obstructionist and climate denial groups, even after its pledge to stop.
A smattering of lawsuits is beginning to emerge that hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their role in climate change, but more regulatory oversight is needed to penalize the industry for any misleading and false claims.
Until the public has a clear picture of the industry’s complicity in accelerating climate change and enabling the tenuous relationships with petro-state dictatorships, business as usual will prevail. In short, what’s needed is government support in achieving a complete societal transformation in favor of clean energy.