Big Oil Is Under Mounting Pressure as Climate Action Gains Momentum

The world must quit fossil fuels imminently to avoid a catastrophic global temperature increase, a report urges.
By Anny Oberlink

Oil company executives testified before the House Oversight Committee last week on the industry’s role in climate change. The C.E.O.s had a message for the American public: Fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere soon. The House probe, modelled on the landmark 1994 Big Tobacco hearing where tobacco executives argued under oath that smoking was not addictive, follows decades of denials and stalling on climate action by oil companies.

Big Oil is under pressure. A report this year by the International Energy Agency, an organization that advises countries on energy policies, stated that the world needed to quit fossil fuels imminently to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and avoid a catastrophic global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The report lists steps for transitioning to renewable energy, including an annual $4 trillion investment and mass deployment of clean-energy technologies by 2030, halting sales of combustion engine cars by 2035, and phasing out coal and oil plants by 2040. The report states that achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 will “require nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system.”

Yet according to several Big Oil executives, oil and gas will continue to be part of the energy landscape because alternatives are inadequate.

“The word ‘inadequate’ is quite carefully selected,” said Dr. Brian C. Black, a distinguished professor of history and environment at Penn State’s Altoona campus. “The question is to look at why that situation exists – why the inadequacy exists, and how we as a society can make that better and improve that situation.”

Electric vehicles were first introduced in the early 1800s along with steam- and gas-powered vehicles. They grew in popularity in the 1900s because they emitted less exhaust and were quieter than gas-powered cars. But eventually, internal combustion technology won out.

Into the 1920s, many homes outside of cities lacked electricity, making electric vehicles impractical, and by the late 30s, they had mostly disappeared. As roads expanded, Americans were able to drive faster and farther in gas-powered vehicles.

“This juncture from about 1890 to 1915 is when our personal transportation method was really in play,” Dr. Black said. “You probably would have bet on the electric car as the most likely way we were going.” But a supply of petroleum from Texas and other places flooded the market, he said, “so much that it made it absolutely assumed that we would go toward petroleum-combustion engines.”

During the next several decades, domestic oil production boomed, with companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil (formerly Standard Oil) dominating the industry. “American society, in particular, really chose to emphasize petroleum,” Dr. Black said.

Oil production expanded overseas, too, increasing dependence on oil from abroad. But in 1973, the era of energy decadence came to a halt when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed oil exports, leading to a nationwide fuel shortage and shocking leaps in oil prices.

An image from RetroReport
1973 Long lines at gas pumps were a common sight during the energy crisis. (Photo: National Archives)

“The energy crisis is when the United States realized that they are no longer in control of global oil,” said Dr. Sarah Stanford-Mcintyre, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado. “There’s a big call by President Carter to make a switch to alternative fuel sources. It happens at the height of the environmental movement, after the first Earth Day, the creation of the E.P.A.”

President Carter made energy policy a priority, creating the Energy Department and signing the Energy Security Act, which gave incentives for geothermal and solar energy. The International Energy Agency and vehicle emission standards were also implemented. Solar panels were installed at the White House, and the president set an ambitious goal of 20 percent reliance on solar energy by 2000.

An image from RetroReport
1979 President Carter installed solar panels at the White House. President Reagan removed the panels in 1986, and President Obama reinstalled them in 2014. (Photo: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

The Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 promoted and funded green energy research and fueled regulatory changes that broke up energy monopolies. But as oil prices dropped in the 1980s, momentum for renewable energies stalled.

In the 1990s, cheap and plentiful natural gas was winning out against renewable energies, what The New York Times called the “foundering dream” of the 1970s. Awareness of the growing threat of global warming grew in the 2000s and products with renewable-energy technologies, like the Toyota Prius, gained popularity.

World leaders are now meeting in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss the international response to climate change. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report has predicted that worldwide oil demand will peak in 2025. The report cautions that the transition to renewable sources is far too slow. “The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” Fatih Birol, the executive director of the I.E.A., said in a statement.

Communities of color and low-income communities have historically suffered the most from energy burdens and pollution, and are more vulnerable to climate change. A transformation of the U.S.’s energy system could shift that burden. While the price of renewables has fallen over the years, solar panels and electric vehicles are still seen as status symbols of the wealthy. But new tax credits for solar, investments in electrifying bus fleets and new EV tax credits could pave the way to an energy transition.

“It’s coming really fast,” said Dr. Stanford-Mcintyre. “The technology is there. The social energy is there. There’s interest in terms of investors. You have big banks and big investment firms funneling money into renewables right now at rates that are really big scale and exciting to watch.”

While some countries remain off-track in reaching climate goals, Dr. Black said this moment in energy transition history was different. “I’m hopeful because we’re talking about it,” he said. “Today, we’re talking about energy in an innovative, complicated way that I think really promises great movements in the direction of sustainability.”

ANNY OBERLINK, an intern at Retro Report, is a degree candidate in documentary filmmaking at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

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