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Is Big Oil feeling the heat?

Three-quarters of countries will miss Paris Climate targets

For an industry that has been dominant for almost 100 years, Big Oil sure isn’t acting the part lately.

Maybe it’s because Exxon has fallen out of the top 10 companies of the S&P 500 for the first time since its inception, or the numerous lawsuits looking to hold them account for decades of deception. Or maybe it’s just the fact that clean technologies have reached the point where Americans are realizing they don’t have to trade away their health, the environment or their children’s future anymore.

Whatever the reason, Big Oil is coming out swinging against every technology that could displace them. 

The collateral damage among farm communities, a crucial voting bloc for the president, is becoming more acute all the time — but if we lose the global race for clean energy, all of America will feel the pain.

Of course, Big Oil’s fight against the clean energy future is nothing particularly new. As detailed in the amazing podcast series “Drilled,” oil companies were among the first (almost 50 years ago) to identify the coming danger of global warming from unchecked burning of fossil fuels. 

Instead of using their considerable power and money to win the clean energy race, they decided to do everything they could to delay the transition to clean energy — a decision that has landed them in court in New York on charges of fraud for their decades of deceit.

This probably seemed like a pretty good decision in 2007, as oil prices soared above their historic averages, finally peaking over $100 a barrel in 2008. But the high prices at the pump, coupled with military entanglements in the Middle East and increasingly obvious unfolding disaster in climate change, forced Congress to finally get serious about transitioning away from oil.

The energy bill passed in late 2007, as proudly exclaimed by President Bush, was specifically designed to break the hold Big Oil had on our economy and begin to head off our headlong rush toward catastrophic climate change. 

The bill attacked oil dependency with two key policies:

1. A historic increase of fuel economy standards

2. A new system to develop climate-friendly renewable fuels (with the first ever carbon standard) through the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Congress followed with associated tax credits for electric vehicles (EVs) and alternative fuels production the next year, and funded the $25 billion loan program included in the 2007 law to upgrade U.S. auto manufacturing to make fuel-efficient cars and EVs. 

In 2009 we got ARRA grants to get us back in the battery manufacturing game, expanded EV purchase incentives, and had historic agreement to harmonize California’s fuel efficiency standards with newly minted EPA carbon emissions standards for vehicles. This included a mandate to sell zero emissions vehicles; 10 other states have now signed onto. 

Maybe it was the government-funded advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking that kept Big Oil pushback out of the limelight for a while, or maybe it was fear that consumers and voters weren’t buying, but by 2012, as the technologies of vehicle efficiency, renewable fuels and electric vehicles started to show real promise, they stepped up their attacks. 

Big Oil sued to stop EPA from fulfilling the promise of the RFS and tried to force the Obama administration to ratchet back the biofuels targets. 

They funded junk science “studies” to show biofuels were actually no better than gasoline (as long as you assumed farmers and biorefineries burned a lot of fossil fuels to produce biofuels), that EVs are worse for the environment than gasoline cars (as long as you assume you run the factory and power the EV only with coal power), and that higher blends of biofuels in gasoline could be harmful to engines.

Unfortunately for this study, the Department of Energy had already spent millions on a scientifically rigorous study that found “no statistically significant difference” between straight gasoline and E15 on performance and reliability. 

Sadly, not every study in this blizzard of nonsense could get this kind of attention, so progress was uneven, despite Obama’s desire. But progress continued, particularly in driving down the costs of alternative technologies like biofuels and EV batteries

In 2016 Big Oil received the gift of the century in a Donald Trump presidency. Despite promises in Iowa to grow the renewable fuels industry and to promote clean air, he immediately set out to do exactly the opposite. 

He put fossil fuel boosters Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency with a mission to kill every potential antagonist to Big Oil’s supremacy and undo Big Oil’s past defeats against fuel economy standards, California’s Low Carbon Fuels Standard (a key biofuels incentive), and California’s climate legislation (including the vehicle zero emission vehicle mandate). 

The Trump administration set about trying to crush the biofuels industry by waiving the mandate as never before, kill federal research and consumer purchase incentives for EVs, gut the federal fuel economy standards and even revoke California’s long-held authority to exceed federal air quality standards. 

So, will Big Oil succeed in turning the clock back to the good old days when we didn’t see any way out of our oil addiction? Almost certainly not. The alternatives have come too far. 

The carbon neutral transportation sector that the Department of Energy foresaw a decade ago is entirely possible without the need for any new breakthrough, just the steady march of progress. What they might be able to do, if we let their Trump enablers succeed, is drive that progress overseas, taking the jobs and technology know-how with it. The question voters will face in the coming year is clear: Should the clean energy revolution be made in the USA or not?

Mike Carr is executive director of New Energy America. He previously served as principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and as senior counsel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Tags Andrew Wheeler Big Oil Donald Trump oil oil industry Scott Pruitt

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