Oil export ban hypocrisy

If you were wondering how seriously world leaders took the obligations they imposed on themselves in Paris over the weekend, the early returns would indicate: not very. 

Barely 48 hours after all the back-patting at the climate conference had ended, word leaked out in Washington that the administration and Congress were preparing to lift the 40-year ban on oil exports, a major gift to the oil industry. How do we know it’s a major gift to the oil industry? In October, the spokesman for Exxon said on the front page of the New York Times, “the sooner this happens the better for us.” And so a city soaked with oil money snapped into action. 

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There should be a word for this kind of simultaneous hypocrisy. One study shows that the effect of lifting the export ban is the carbon equivalent of the annual emissions of 108 million new cars, or 135 coal-fired power plants. So doing it the week after the solemn and pious talk about saving the planet is not like some parent who smoked dope in the ‘70s warning their daughter about drugs—it’s like a parent who is currently high warning their daughter about drugs. You might as well hold the launch party for your vegetarian cookbook at a steakhouse.

Lifting the export ban is bad policy in a dozen other ways: it makes a mockery of our repeated paeans to ‘energy independence,’ and it will cost union jobs at refineries, and it will cover yet more of our nation with oil rigs, and it will increase the danger from oil trains rolling through poor neighborhoods. But what makes the plan to lift the ban especially galling is that the administration and congressional Democrats insist they’re getting a reasonable deal because the Republicans will concede tax breaks for solar and wind producers in return. But the logic of the Paris accords—with their theoretical commitment to a world that will warm just 1.5 or two degrees—means that we don’t get to keep making this kind of tradeoff. Yes, we have to promote clean energy. (And the polling data shows we can do that if we make a stand—even Republicans, by large margins, love solar energy). But we also have to stop the expansion of fossil fuel. If you just say ‘we’re going to do both’ then there’s no way to make the climate math work.

And math, ultimately, is the foe here. 

At the Paris talks, according to several people I talked to, a senior administration official told environmentalists they’d simply ‘have to swallow’ the lifting of the oil export ban in return for the Paris agreement, as if the new accord was merely a sop to one special interest, to be quickly balanced by a favor to another group. This is the triumph of political reality over reality reality—it falls into the DC trap of thinking spin is real. Physics doesn’t care about spin—it cares about carbon.

So this tawdry episode should teach those who care about the climate three things.

One, electing fewer people with financial ties to the oil industry would help.

Two, we have to watch the world’s capitals like hawks. When we actually mount a full-scale battle, as over the Keystone pipeline for example, we can prevail. But left to their own devices, even our good politicians will quickly cave to the relentless pressure of the fossil fuel industry.

And three, we have to clip the wings of Exxon and its ilk. They were able to exert this enormous power even in the midst of what may turn out to be the greatest corporate scandal of all time. The New York attorney general has now subpoenaed documents in a probe that follows revelations they knew all about climate change 30 years ago and then erected the architecture of denial and deceit. If their executives can still work this lobbying magic when by rights they should be too ashamed to even show their faces—well, perhaps it’s time for the movement to worry a little less about the feckless politicians and a little more about the guys pulling their strings. 

There’s something to be said for clarity. In the hottest year ever recorded on our planet, it’s useful to know that those who spoke fine words in Paris will need constant, unrelenting pressure to actually do the right thing. 

McKibben is co-founder of 350.org.