How Big Oil Now Talks about Climate Change

It’s real. It’s happening. It’s dangerous. BUT…

Fossil fuel companies are notorious for their efforts to reject, rebut, attack or undermine any conversation on the need for climate change action. Over the past decade or two, however, some companies have softened their opposition, and even acknowledged the realities of climate change, often in private meetings or publications with limited readership rather than in public forums. Some ventured, albeit not for long, into the renewable energy world. But now a lawsuit in California and a new analysis by Shell have opened a much wider door into a fundamental rethinking by at least some of the larger fossil fuel interests. It would appear that the strident, powerful voice of opposition has shifted, in not inconsiderable ways. BUT, there are caveats.

The lawsuit raises claims by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland that five major oil companies (Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips and BP) are liable to pay the cities’ costs of coping with sea level rise caused by global warming. The judge in the case required that the two sides of the case provide him with a climate science tutorial that would set forth the parties’ position on climate change and where they differed.

Chevron started the science for the defense by stating that, “From Chevron’s perspective, there is no debate about the science of climate change,” accepting the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the broad scientific consensus. While the cities no doubt were delighted with this admission, there was likely a shockwave sent through various non-parties who had submitted briefs denying the legitimacy of climate change science. The usual suspects had submitted such briefs, including Christopher Monckton, Willie Soon, and Richard Lindzen.






The opening statement by Chevron may have suggested more than it delivered. For the position of the oil companies is that they accept the trustworthiness of the science and the basic realities of climate change — it’s big, it’s bad (in large part because of burning fossil fuels) and it’s happening. BUT, they argue that there are many, large uncertainties about what we should do as a result. Just how big and bad will it get, and where will the impacts be felt? They raise lots of questions of how much we should invest and in what strategies or alternative energy resources or technologies. And perhaps, they implore, it would be best to wait on taking any drastic actions until we know more or until as yet unknown technological developments resolve many of these questions.

More controversially, some would say disingenuously, the companies argue that the climate impacts are caused not by the extraction or production of fossil fuels BUT by the use of fossil fuels by consumers. In other words, the oil companies only make the oil, and it is the consumers who burn it, producing the greenhouse gases (GHGs), and all that climate change damage. One suspects that the more rational, thoughtful members of the fossil fuel world do not believe any such specious argument and are just trying to delay climate action. If it is the consuming public’s fault for the GHGs, then any climate action requiring drastic curtailment of consumption of fossil fuels is less likely.

The argument comes out of the playbook of the tobacco industry, which argued that they made cigarettes but it was the smoking of the cigarettes by the consumers that caused the damage to smokers. Courts rejected the tobacco companies’ claim and laid blame at their feet. It is reasonable to expect similar results with the fossil fuel argument.

This is not to suggest we can relax against such arguments.   There are lots of supporters of the fossil fuel interests who are not rational nor thoughtful. Just for this Earth Day (2018), in an Editorial in the Texas Public Policy Foundation, one of the many organisations funded by the Koch Brothers, it was argued that we need to be mindful of the critical role that fossil fuels play in “making America great” (sounds like a familiar mantra). For example, it is argued that fossil fuels are indispensable because “gasoline in a car is used to transport an expectant mother to a hospital,” and that “many in developing countries can’t save premature babies because they don’t have access to the reliable electricity that fossil fuels provide to Americans.” See McNamee in sources.   Presumably, renewable energy powering the car and generators would kill babies? What can one say about such logic or belief systems.

Around the same time as the California lawsuit, Shell issued a “Sky Scenario,” its latest projection of the course of climate change. The Scenario included how the Paris Agreement can be achieved and the global average temperature rise limited to well below 2°C from pre-industrial levels. Importantly it relies on a vision of a zero carbon world by 2070. The fact that a Big Oil company is projecting, and supporting, actions that will hold to the 2°C temperature rise, or lower, and that relies on a zero carbon world to do that is a major step forward in the conversation about climate change.






Like the submission in the California lawsuit, however, the Scenario relies on lots of assumptions and actions required to achieve such a goal, and many of these require the continued use of fossil fuels for an extended period of time. For instance, the Sky Scenario requires the building of 10,000 carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities and allows continued emissions in the short term with necessarily radical reductions and eventually negative emissions in the long term (with CCS). If these components of the Shell vision fail to matrialise, then of course we would continue to rely on fossil fuels to a greater extent and longer period. There are many aspects to the Shell vision that raise questions about its viability, as detailed by David Roberts in his Vox post (March 2018).

Yet the Scenario is an attempt to show a way to achieve the Paris Agreement and remove the need for fossil fuels, from a Big Oil company. Much of what Shell argues is consistent with the findings of the UN IPCC.

BUT both Shell’s Sky Scenario and the submission by Chevron in the California lawsuit reveal the handwriting on the wall as to the future of the world’s energy resources: fossil fuels have a limited lifespan. Technology and costs will continue to accelerate the drive toward renewable energy resources.  The only question is how long that drive will take. The more enlightened fossil fuel interests are hoping and arguing for an extended time period. Every extra day of extraction and production creates substantial profits.








Meanwhile, other fossil fuel interests will continue to deny climate change and to vigorously fight it. The Koch Brothers come to mind. But it will be increasingly more difficult for the deniers, including the political supporters of the deniers, namely much of the Republican party, to push the argument against climate change when the major fossil fuel companies publically acknowledge the fundamental realities of climate change and are softening their opposition to climate action. Even ExxonMobil supports a carbon tax.


Dana Nuccitelli, “In court, Big Oil rejected climate denial,” The Guardian (23 March 2018).

David Roberts, “Shell’s vision of a zero carbon world by 2070, explained,” Vox (30 March 2018).

See David Roberts on “Climate change is simple” in the Podcast section of irish environment magazine (April 2018), where a leading commentator, formerly of Grist and now with Vox, in a TEDx presentation talks about the causes and effects of climate change in blunt, plain terms.

“Democratic senators scrutinize Koch brothers’ ‘infiltration’ of Trump team,” The Guardian (26 April 2018).

Bernard McNamee, “This Earth Day, let’s accept the critical role that fossil fuel plays in energy needs,” Texas Public Policy (17 April 2018).


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