In a month plus a week, the world will pass — and likely ignore — a most curious anniversary. On that day two years ago, as the true scope of the COVID-19 pandemic was revealing itself and the infrastructure of “How Things Are” began to wobble and quake, the price of petroleum dialed down to zero. Less than zero, actually: If you had stores of petroleum, you were in the hole to the tune of about 40 bucks a barrel.
Why? Because thanks to COVID, everything had stopped or was in the process of stopping. Travel became practically nonexistent, and the planetary appetite for oil plummeted to almost nil (comparative to a normal day). The juggernaut that is oil production, like a full-steam oil tanker at sea, cannot stop on a dime; the inertia has to play out before forward motion is checked. So here were the world’s oil spigots pumping millions of gallons of petroleum into an already-flooded market, unable to halt… until that day, when every barrel of oil on Earth transformed into a bucket of iron pyrite, colloquially known as “Fool’s Gold.”
“If you had oil,” I wrote at the time, “you had to theoretically pay to get rid of it, instead of getting paid for delivering it. The price of a barrel of oil on Monday stood at -$37.63. Note the minus sign. Prior to yesterday, the lowest price a barrel of oil ever fetched on the market was $10 back in 1986. Note the absence of the minus sign. This is beyond unprecedented territory.”
It didn’t last, of course. Despite finding itself pantless on the world stage that day, petroleum remained the undisputed heavyweight champion of economic motivators. Amid irony-laden cries from the capitalists for a “Big Oil bailout,” the industry eventually eased down global production, enough oil was burned in the daily process of murdering the environment even in that slowed setting, and the glut resolved itself. Rust never sleeps.
It was quite completely surreal for a while there, all the more so because this went down on 4/20, the official holiday for celebrating marijuana in all its beneficent forms. You weren’t stoned — well, maybe you probably were — and that shit happened.
I went to gas up a couple of days later while capitalism and petroleum were still putting down this little economic insurrection, stuck the nozzle in the tank, and set the toggle on the handle to hands-free flow to spare myself from the cold. After a few chilly minutes, the toggle closed with a spirited KA-JONK and the pouring stopped, the universal signal for “full tank.”I looked at the price line on the pump’s readout; it said “$20.44.” That can’t be right, it’s usually twice that at least, I thought, and tried to keep filling the tank. The handle refused to let me continue pouring, KA-JONK, KA-JONK, acting as though the tank was already full. “Great, it’s broken,” I fumed, “all I need right now… wait.”
It wasn’t broken; the gas cost $1.59 a gallon. The tank really was full, and for only 20 bucks. I hadn’t paid that little for gas since high school, back before the first oil war jumped off in the Middle East.
Flash forward two years, to another trip I made to the gas station this past Wednesday. The news out of Ukraine, already horrific, was becoming increasingly dire by the hour: In the latest installment, the U.S. had cut off all its imports of Russian oil, and the Russians had responded by blowing up a maternity hospital filled with new mothers and their infants.
The price of gas, already rising, went berserk. I spent $50 on half a tank that day, grimly noting the likelihood that this would probably seem cheap in the coming weeks and months. All that was missing was an attendant by the pump to thank me for my custom before punching me in the face. Inflation, a political bugaboo before the Russian invasion, is set to be a long-term financial resident for millions, the roommate you hate for eating your groceries and leaving the lights on all the time.
I stood there listening to my car drink my paycheck in five-dollar swallows and pondered the power of petroleum, again. Now that it is nearly too late to fully confront it, a preponderance of learned scientific opinion — goosed along by Mordor fires and epochal droughts in the West, thousand-year floods every year in the Midwest, and coastal storms that threaten the existence of entire cities — has come to the conclusion that anthropogenic climate disruption is, in fact, a thing… a thing that was manageable and preventable at one time, but is now “baked into” our collective future to at least some deadly degree, and all due to the deliberate profit-bent interference of Big Oil, as I wrote back in 2015:
ExxonMobil, it seems, was fully aware of the existence and dangers of global climate change as early as 1981, a fact revealed by a number of recently-released internal memos. The company was looking to exploit a massive natural gas field in Indonesia, but their pet in-house scientist warned against it, because the field was 70 percent carbon dioxide, and drilling for the gas would release the CO2, which would be dangerous to the environment.
For the next 27 years, despite knowing better, ExxonMobil spent millions of dollars to promote “scientists” and think tanks who worked hammer and tongs to promulgate the idea that climate change was a myth. Climate-deniers like Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics made mad bank by spraying scientific falsehoods into the polluted wind, thanks to the largesse of a number of energy corporations, including ExxonMobil.
They knew. They lied. They paid others to lie. They deranged the conversation, perverted bedrock science into a muddle of greed-inspired opinion-based nonsense, and maybe, or probably, humanity might have missed its window to fix all this because of the long delay they created in the name of profit.
The tyranny of profit is tied to poison in the ground that is treasured for its quality of burning, and never mind the multifaceted doom that waits so patiently for us all: Armageddon once we’ve squeezed the last black drop from the sand and stone with no plan for what to do next, Armageddon when we can no longer breathe, Armageddon when the wretched petroleum elites in various nations go to war over their precious product, Armageddon when the planet can no longer grow sufficient food to feed its billions of human passengers, Armageddon in the end of potable water, Armageddon at every turn.
Russia’s gruesome war in Ukraine is not specifically about oil, but its impact has everything in the world to do with oil. Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, became a state run by profiteering oligarchs like, most recently, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Once the USSR collapsed, Big Oil pounced on the vast and virtually untapped oil resources, and Russia became a world petroleum power almost overnight.
Multiple European nations — particularly Germany — leaped at the chance to exploit this cheaper energy alternative as a means of escaping the clutches of Saudi Arabia’s expensive product. It is no accident that all those damaging sanctions levied against Russia after the invasion barely touch that nation’s energy sector. Sure, the U.S. has closed off its own imports of Siberian oil, which amounted to about 3 percent of our total usage. We here would notice it more if we’d cut off Venezuela.
There is good reason for this, which only makes the situation more bleak. If the U.S. and the world came down on Russia’s oil business with both feet, the economic shock in Europe would have potentially been enough to rattle, if not splinter, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance. At a minimum, hurling Europe into the expensive dark with a war on its eastern porch would have proven to be strategically discombobulating at a moment when solidarity and a united front were the only things keeping Putin from rolling his tanks into Moldova, and then Georgia, and then God only knows where else.
That was the thinking, anyway, and nothing since has transpired to gainsay it. There are no Russian forces in Moldova, and NATO hasn’t fired a shot, yet. The lights are still on in Germany. Five dollars a gallon at the pumps, however, is going to throw serious political weight on the North American continent, especially once the Republican Party figures out how to blame the looming economic earthquake on President Biden. It doesn’t have to make sense. It only has to make Fox News.
Meanwhile, for the most part, Russia’s oil business chugs on. There is a rising tide of angst over this, particularly in the U.S., but that angst carries all the nuance of a boilerplate Hollywood rom-com. Americans want to support Ukraine with more vigor — some even advocate no-fly zones that would have us shooting down the warplanes of a nuclear-armed adversary — but they also want the cheap gasoline that has been their seeming birthright since the introduction of the internal combustion engine and steering wheels.
Over it all hovers Big Oil, ever covetous of its profits and position in a world being steadily rendered into ashes and flood plains. Something has to give. But what?
A growing chorus of voices is looking hard at the catastrophe in Ukraine as an imperative motivator toward clean, renewable energy. At a minimum, having an effective renewable energy infrastructure would make the militaristic whimsy of autocrats like Putin far less impactful on the global economy. At maximum, doing so might just save all our lives. “This moment is a clarion call for the urgent need to transition to domestic clean energy so that we are never again complicit in fossil-fueled conflict,” Democratic Senator and Green New Deal sponsor Ed Markey told the Guardian.
As the title of the film about the early days of the oil industry warns, there will be blood. Capitalism will jealously defend its fantastic profits in this sector; indeed, its fight is already well underway. A second Guardian article explains:
Oil and gas companies are facing a potential bonanza from the Ukraine war, though few in the industry want to admit it, and many are using soaring prices and the fear of fuel shortages to cement their position with governments in ways that could have disastrous impacts on the climate crisis.
“There is a huge opportunity for oil and gas companies, though I’m sure it is not one they would have chosen,” said Robert Buckley, head of relationship development at Cornwall Insight, an energy analysis company. “They have the opportunity to reposition themselves [as crucial to policymakers]. There is going to be a very high price for oil for a very long time, and even the prospect of physical shortages.”
Oil prices have leapt dramatically, to more than $130 a barrel, sending petrol prices in the UK to more than 155p a litre, while gas prices have also surged. Luke Sussams, of Jefferies investment bank, said: “The high-price environment is likely to last a long time. Boris Johnson has said that alongside the accelerated deployment of renewables will be greater production from the North Sea. There is the potential for growth prospects and upside [for fossil fuel producers].”
It is bleakly amusing how often we are told the best solution to the problems caused by capitalism is more capitalism. In this instance, an oil shock caused by war is not taken up as a cause to question oil or war, but as a perfectly spiffy reason to produce more oil in the name of “energy security,” even as the climate along with various economies collapse around us, even as the war rages on.
Unsurprisingly, the political pressures surrounding this argument are extreme. President Biden has spent the last several days talking out of both sides of his mouth. Speaking to a global climate summit on Monday, Biden warned that “we only have a brief window before us” to avoid the worst of the looming environmental calamities. Days earlier, however, he was imploring the planet’s largest petroleum producers to crank up their production levels. The two concepts cannot exist in the same space at the same time, yet there they are.
It isn’t just the oil companies that are in this to win it. “Goldman Sachs, the giant New York investment bank, is cashing in on the war in Ukraine by selling Russian debt to U.S. hedge funds — and using a legal loophole in the Biden administration’s sanctions to do it,” reports the Guardian. “As the Western world scrambles to defend Ukraine by locking down Russian money, the company is acting as a broker between Moscow’s creditors and U.S. investors, pitching clients on the opportunity to take advantage of Russia’s war-crippled economy by buying its debt securities low now and selling them high later.”
This, among many other reasons, is why journalist Matt Taibbi famously described Goldman Sachs as a vampire squid “wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Taibbi wrote that 12 years ago; it has aged well with time.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has become a catalyst for capitalist profiteering in its grossest form. Could it also be the spark that motivates people to rise up against the petroleum hegemony and demand that our leadership find a better way, if only to avoid getting financially disemboweled at the gas pump and the grocery store? Enlightened self-interest can be a powerful motivator when grasped with both hands.
Consider the U.S. jobs market amid the passage of the COVID pandemic. While the disease itself has been a lethal catastrophe, it gave millions of workers pause about the quality of their jobs and their own fulfillment with those jobs. After lockdown or quarantine, many of those millions chose not to return to the grind of their old gigs, choosing instead to seek out a happier and more fulfilling path.
There has been an eruption of successful union organizing for the same reasons, and many employers have been forced to cough up higher wages, better benefits and more reasonable work hours in response. Despite decades of dire capitalist warnings, these improvements in the lives of workers did not cause the Earth to crash into the sun.
We are all going to endure significant economic suffering in the months to come because Russia invaded Ukraine and disrupted the latticework of global petroleum profiteering. When we emerge on the other side, and even as we cope with the present moment, ideas like the Green New Deal as well as other, more muscular climate plans must be brought to bear. We can do it if we choose to; this has been the truth of us since before the moon landings. We can, and we must.
“Until we transform the underlying infrastructure from gas-fired power and plastic production,” writes Sara Goddard for Green That Life, “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.”
Let’s make every day like 4/20/20, when the price of oil was nearly zero because almost nobody wanted it. Like that, but without the pandemic terrors and deep financial insecurities, of course. You weren’t stoned — or maybe you were — and that shit happened. Let’s make it happen again for more than a day.