Here’s a question for you — Who is doing more to confront and address the historic challenge of climate change: activists who lead protests on the National Mall, or a company that finds, produces and markets fossil-fuel derived energy?
This week, one of America’s most well-known oil and natural gas companies made a strong case for the latter, highlighting its decades of scientific research in climate science. The company – ExxonMobil – also issued a press release pushing back on “deliberately misleading” characterizations of its research partnerships with governments and academic institutions, which have spanned nearly four decades and continue today.
Over the past few weeks, editorials from the Los Angeles Times to the Dallas Morning News – and other opinion pieces, such as those printed by the New York Times – have highlighted what they apparently see as the conspiracy of the century: That same oil and natural gas company made a significant investment of time and resources to study climate change, but also declined to support policy measures like the Kyoto Protocol that sought to place restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions. And, making matters even worse, that same company had the audacity to continue producing and fulfilling consumers’ demand for the same energy sources that account for over 50 percent of global energy consumption.
Right on cue, perennial critics of the energy industry, such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the openly-socialist candidate for president, have piled on. Sanders said the company “knew its product was causing harm to the public,” and has gone so far as to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to harass and intimidate the company for its difference of opinion. Other Democratic members of Congress have made similar requests.
For the moment, we’ll set aside the discussion about how identifying a bogeyman – be it the Koch Brothers or just “corporations” in general – is far easier than admitting that national energy taxes or global carbon limits are just not popular with American voters (remember, the U.S. Senate rejected Kyoto, 95 to zero). Blaming others for one’s own mistakes or miscalculations is so common that there’s a phrase for it: politics as usual.
Instead, let’s focus on a far more fundamental flaw with this latest reboot of the anti-energy crowd’s broader campaign: confusing rhetoric with results. In reality, the oil and natural gas industry has done far more to address climate change than those who have attempted to demonize that same industry in the name of climate advocacy.
First of all, the company that these critics are attacking has hardly stood on the sidelines when it comes to investing in renewable energy technologies. Writing in the New York Times, Naomi Oreskes claimed that Exxon, instead of producing oil and natural gas, “could have begun to shift its business model, investing in renewables and biofuels.”
Perhaps Ms. Oreskes and others missed the fact that the company invested $1 million into an advanced biofuels program at Iowa State University, or the additional $1 million they gave to Michigan State researchers for the same thing. The company has an entire “advanced biofuels” page on its website, highlighting its investments and its work with the aforementioned universities, as well as Northwestern and the Colorado School of Mines.
Other investments include the company’s co-sponsorship of a $9.3 million clean energy research program at Stanford University, and the mammoth $25 million it gave to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Energy Initiative, which was aimed at “improving and expanding renewable energy sources.”
So while the Los Angeles Times and others have accused the company of somehow preventing people from “taking action” on climate change, its tens of millions of dollars in investments demonstrate the exact opposite.
However, the real story of addressing climate change in recent years has not been about renewables, but the rise in significance of a low carbon fuel that these same critics have steadfastly opposed.
Over the past decade, natural gas has played an increasingly large role in meeting Americans’ energy needs, primarily by generating electricity. The domestic boom in oil and natural gas production has slashed natural gas prices, prompting shifts from more carbon intensive fuels toward natural gas, which emits roughly half the carbon dioxide as coal when used for electricity. As a result, carbon emissions in the United States have been trending downward in recent years.
In fact, the carbon savings from natural gas are much larger than what has come from the expansion of renewables like wind and solar.
The following chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) makes this abundantly clear.
According to the EIA, since 2005, natural gas has prevented more than one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted from the nation’s power plants. By comparison, the increased use of non-carbon energy sources – including wind and solar, so favored by anti-fracking campaigners and many other environmental groups – has prevented the emission of just over 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
This is not some statistical trick, nor is it a deeply buried secret collecting dust. What these newspaper editorial boards and environmental activists have overlooked is that even the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change credited the fracking boom and U.S. natural gas for reducing emissions linked to climate change.
As the IPCC concluded last year:
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal-drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply and allowed for a more extensive switching of power and heat production from coal to gas (IEA, 2012b); this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (emphasis added)
In 2013, The Breakthrough Institute (BTI) – an environmental group founded by individuals whom Time Magazine recognized as “heroes of the environment” – observed how natural gas has actually been reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the United States for several decades. Indeed, according to BTI, natural gas has prevented 17 times more carbon dioxide emissions than wind, solar, and geothermal combined.
In 2012, the International Energy Agency observed that, thanks to increased natural gas use, the United States was leading the world in carbon dioxide emissions reductions:
“CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 Mt, or 1.7%, primarily due to ongoing switching from coal to natural gas in power generation and an exceptionally mild winter, which reduced the demand for space heating. US emissions have now fallen by 430 Mt (7.7%) since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions.” (emphasis added)
Unlike the wild accusations and theatrical rhetoric from opinion page editors, these are not merely thoughts on paper. These are facts, borne out by real world experience, and confirmed by the world’s leading climate organization and government research.
What’s even more ironic is that the company at which so much of this heated rhetoric is directed is not merely a bystander in America’s shift to natural gas. ExxonMobil is the largest producer of natural gas in the United States.
Meanwhile, major environmental organizations – including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace, among others – with combined budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars have spent untold sums rejecting scientific findings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and countless peer-reviewed studies. They have refused to acknowledge that the IPCC they cite in their “climate advocacy” is the same organization that credits natural gas with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They publicly advocate against climate friendly fuels like natural gas, and even celebrate when the development of those fuels are banned. They call fracking and natural gas a “false solution,” denying what experts from around the world have determined.
Why don’t we see newspaper editorials lambasting environmental groups for denying science? Where are the passionate appeals to emotion about how these same groups have not only rejected mainstream science, but have actively campaigned against the fuel that has done more than anything else to actually reduce America’s carbon footprint? Why have the same critics not demanded a full-scale, federal investigation into how these groups have blocked progress on this global threat by supporting restrictions on natural gas development?
Vilifying corporations may help sell newspapers and drive website traffic, and blindly attacking Big Oil is probably easier than daring to observe that Big Green is spending big green on decidedly anti-green initiatives. But no one should be fooled into believing that this latest episode of climate advocacy is actually about climate change.