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Big Oil Is Expanding Production. It’s Up to All of Us to Act to Stop Them.

As fossil fuel mega-corporations merge, grassroots activists are fighting back.

Several environment and community groups protested Xcel Energy's plan to build new natural gas plants and its membership in the American Gas Association in front of Colorado State Capitol building in Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, November 15, 2023.

Top scientists and many global leaders have agreed: to address the intensifying climate catastrophe, we must immediately address the supplyside of fossil fuels by retiring oil and gas production, quickly and drastically.

It’s alarming, then, that current trends are continuing in the other direction. The recent COP28 climate summit dashed immediate hopes of agreeing on a phaseout of fossil fuel production. The Global Carbon Project projects a 1.1 percent increase in global fossil carbon dioxide emissions for 2023.

At the same time, there are clear signs of shifts in the policy and public opinion battles against the fossil fuel industry. The urgent need to abandon fossil fuels is taking over mainstream climate discourse. The rising generation of younger people is evermore committed to addressing the climate crisis. Creative solutions, and the movements to drive them, are growing, especially at the local level.

Truthout spoke to several climate organizers and researchers about the current conjuncture and ways that, even as the current world of fossil fuel power clings to existence, a new world — beyond fossil fuels and centered in justice — is fighting to be born.

Industry Continues to Ramp Up Production

“We are hurtling towards disaster, eyes wide open,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in June. “The solution is clear: the world must phase out fossil fuels in a just and equitable way — moving to leave oil, coal and gas in the ground where they belong — and massively boosting renewable investment in a just transition.”

In a special report published in November, the International Energy Agency declared that the fossil fuel industry is facing “a moment of truth… over its engagement with clean energy transitions,” adding that the “uncomfortable truth” for the industry is that “successful clean energy transitions require much lower demand for oil and gas, which means scaling back oil and gas operations over time — not expanding them.”

But as the world cries out for a fossil fuel phaseout, numerous developments appear to suggest the opposite is occurring.

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are expected to rise by 1.1 percent in 2023. The U.S. is set to see record high oil and gas production in 2023. The United Nations recently declared that “even in the most optimistic scenario, the likelihood of limiting warming to 1.5°C is only 14 per cent,” and that instead the world is on track for a 2.5-2.9°C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels.

The recent COP28 talks in Dubai — flooded with oil industry lobbyists — ended with a pledge that contained language about “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems,” but failed to commit to a fossil fuel phaseout. Critics have highlighted numerous weaknesses in the COP28 deal that prolong the status quo.

Moreover, Big Oil is further concentrating production. On October 11, ExxonMobil announced a $59.5 billion acquisition of fracking giant Pioneer Natural Resources. It was the company’s biggest acquisition since 1999, when Exxon and Mobil merged. Almost two weeks later, Chevron announced a $53 billion acquisition of Hess Corporation.

ExxonMobil’s acquisition of Pioneer will bring a whopping 15 percent of the output of the Permian Basin, probably the world’s most productive oilfield, under the oil giant’s control. Astonishingly, Exxon CEO Darren Woods told reporters that ramping up Permian production would be “good from an environmental standpoint.”

Big Oil’s moves to further concentrate oil and gas production lay bare the industry’s continued greenwashing, and in light of the recent mergers, Shell is retreating from its focus on renewable energy. Asset management giant BlackRock, among the top shareholders of the fossil fuel industry, scaled back its votes on climate resolutions.

Shortcomings of Federal Legislation Under Biden

Maybe most alarming, even with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — President Joe Biden’s signature legislation that provides billions in subsidies for clean energy — oil and gas production in the U.S. looks set to rise, according to a new report by Oil Change International.

The report analyzes oil and gas production projections published by the Rhodium Group, an independent research provider. These projections “anticipate an overall rise in oil and gas production under the IRA,” says the report. Even as the IRA “supports a modest decline in United States oil and gas demand,” the report continues, it allows for “an increase in oil and gas production and a dramatic rise in oil and gas exports.” For example, while U.S. domestic petroleum demand should decline by 10 percent through 2035, production is expected to increase by 13 percent, with a 23 percent increase in exports.

“This analysis suggests that the United States is prolonging the era of fossil fuels,” the report concludes.

Lorne Stockman, research co-director at Oil Change International and a co-author of the report, told Truthout that the IRA, despite containing significant positive aspects, falls short in directly addressing the supply-side of fossil fuel production — in other words, the amount of fossil fuels being pumped out of the ground.

“The Inflation Reduction Act, despite being billed as a climate bill, fails to put fossil fuel production and exports in the U.S. into reverse, which is fundamentally the thing that needs to happen for us to get on the right path to 1.5 °C,” said Stockman.

Projected increases in oil and gas production will come in regions like the Gulf Coast, where the Biden administration is ramping up approval of new infrastructure and permits to facilitate liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports, all with dire consequences for frontline and fenceline communities in Texas and Louisiana.

LNG export plants “are a nightmare to live next to,” says Stockman. “They continue to see the Gulf Coast as a kind of sacrifice zone, in which there is no limit to the amount of fossil fuel infrastructure that can be placed there,” he says.

Moreover, the IRA contains subsidies for carbon capture technology, which companies like ExxonMobil are using to burnish a green image even as they ramp up oil and gas production — a “way for them to carry on doing what they do, making profits from oil and gas,” said Stockman.

“It’s just clear that this administration fails to recognize the fundamentals of what needs to happen to address climate change,” said Stockman.

Reshaping the Debate Around What Needs to Be Done

The report names clear steps that the Biden administration can take to reverse course, such as ending permitting on federal lands, ending the permitting of new LNG infrastructure and setting a timeline for phasing out oil and gas exports.

Moreover, Stockman sees hope in the growth of grassroots opposition to fossil fuel expansion, symbolized by groups like Rise St. James and others. “In the last five years, I’ve seen tremendous momentum in building a movement on the Gulf Coast,” he said. “We have really inspiring community leaders who are living in those communities” and who “are beginning to gain traction and build movements right in the heart of the industry, in places like Baton Rouge and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Port Arthur and Houston, Texas,” he said.

Others agree that the reach of the climate movement is growing and that the fossil fuel industry’s hegemony is showing cracks.

Johanna Bozuwa, executive director at the Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank, sees important narrative shifts against endless oil and gas production. For all the frustrations with the recent COP28 session, she says discussions are more openly addressing the impacts of continued oil and gas production. “Fossil fuels for the first time are actually on the table,” she said. “Historically, it has been such a demand-focused space, and it’s been extremely hard to talk about the elephant in the room.”

Bozuwa also sees significant successes by the climate movement in turning fossil fuel expansion into contested political ground. “The decisions that Biden has made on things like the Willow Project in Alaska have created a substantial amount of outrage,” she said, alienating the support of young people Biden’s needs for his reelection campaign.

And while the climate movement has suffered setbacks on projects like the Keystone Pipeline, Dakota Access Pipeline and Willow, it’s reshaped the debate around fossil fuels. “We are not always winning those fights, but we’re starting to win the narrative on some of those fights,” said Bozuwa.

Dieynabou Diallo, who heads the Climate Justice program for PowerSwitch Action, a national network of local organizing groups, told Truthout that the scale and commitment of youth organizing has been a clear sign of hope.

“Young people are just picking up on all of these inequities and injustices so quickly, and they feel compelled to actually be out in the streets and fight,” she said. Polling shows that climate is a major issue for young voters.

Both Diallo and Bozuwa also emphasized the importance of new networks between states and cities that are looking beyond fossil fuels, such as the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance and the C40 group of cities.

Vital Role of Local Struggles

While the recent mega-acquisitions by ExxonMobil and Chevron may reflect the industry’s continued dedication to fossil fuel production, Oil Change’s Stockman says the mergers may signal “a sign of a more precarious future for those companies,” with the turn toward industry consolidation over “traditionally more profitable” avenues for profits, like opening up new oil and gas fields, facing more long-term uncertainty.

Public ownership is a prerequisite to winding down fossil fuel production in a planned way that brings jobs and justice to working class communities during the energy transition, says Bozuwa. Building the political will and power to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and justly manage its decline is a necessary, if more ongoing and challenging, task, and one that involves the long-term building of alliances, especially with the labor movement.

In the meantime, the Climate and Community Project has also been promoting a growing collection of creative policy ideas.

One of its most well-known proposals, “Achieving Zero Emissions with More Mobility and Less Mining,” argues for a robust and decarbonized public transportation sector that will reduce car dependence and limit lithium mining, all of which would “ensure transit equity, protect ecosystems, respect Indigenous rights, and meet the demands of global justice.”

“We were able to push back on this concept of, We’re just going to do a one-to-one ICE-to-EV transition, and say, Actually, this is our opportunity to look at how we could do many things with our transition,” says Bozuwa.

“It was really about, ‘How do we multi-solve for the polycrisis,’” she told Truthout, a reference to the multiple, interlocked global crises that humanity is facing.

This kind of policy innovation — imagining how the government could remake and improve basic services while addressing multiple crises — is seen in other proposals. “A Green New Deal For K-12 Public Schools” proposes addressing multiple community and K-12 inequities through government spending to transform schools, while proposals around public power have gained ground in places like New York State.

“We need to be developing climate policy that people can touch, see and feel,” and that working class people will see impact in their lives in positive ways, said Bozuwa.

PowerSwitch’s Diallo works with numerous climate justice groups that are blazing creative solutions at the local level, such as the People’s Energy Platform in Philadelphia. Even with the global scale of the climate crisis and the multinational power of the fossil industry, local struggle has a vital role to play, she said.

In addition to challenging increased oil, gas and coal production at their commanding heights — at the levels of financing, permits, regulation, and so on — local efforts can also confront fossil fuel power at the point of expansion. Over the past year, for example, organizers and community members in Turkey and Germany have waged direct actions to try to prevent the expansion of coal mines.

“Everything starts at the local level,” said Diallo. “It’s the perfect scale to practice. We want to save our planet and reduce emissions, but we also want to reorganize and restructure our communities and our society, and you have to do that at the local scale.”