Never ones to let a good crisis go to waste, the fossil fuel industry and their allies have taken to the airwaves over the last few days to try and use the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an excuse for greater oil and gas development.
It’s the classic shock doctrine that we’ve come to expect from big oil, and unless our politicians are wise enough to see through it, it’s a strategy that will continue to undermine our ability to take action on climate change over the decade to come.
The fossil fuel industry’s attempt to exploit this particular crisis is all the more galling because of their central role in causing it. Putin’s ability to wage war in Ukraine and threaten the stability of Europe comes exclusively from his control over Russian oil and gas production. Forty per cent of Russia’s federal budget comes from oil and gas, which make up 60% of the country’s exports. This October, Russia was making more than $500m a day from fossil fuels, money that goes directly into funding Putin’s war machine.
No one in the oil and gas industry denies this. What they’d like us to conveniently forget is how they helped Putin get to this point.
Russia never could have become such an oil and gas superpower without the help of western oil companies like ExxonMobil and BP, which owns a 20% share of Rosneft, Russia’s state owned oil company. Back in 2014, when Rosneft’s oil and gas production was largely flat, ExxonMobil partnered with Rosneft to help them modernize operations and expand production in the Arctic. The partnership went so well that Putin awarded former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors Russia bestows on foreigners.
Exxon has returned the favor, joining with other US oil giants and their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, to repeatedly lobby against Russian sanctions, including in 2018 when Congress tried to prevent future Russian meddling in US elections, and today, as Congress attempts to impose stricter sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Sanctions should be as targeted as possible to limit potential harm to the competitiveness of US companies,” an American Petroleum Institute spokesperson said recently. The companies he’s talking about aren’t your Main Street mom-and-pop’s: they’re the richest oil corporations on the planet.
As big oil tries to defend their investments in Russia, they’re simultaneously making the case that greater production at home will help combat Putin’s influence on the global stage. It’s like a drug dealer trying to convince authorities that the best way to take out a rival isn’t to crack down on drugs, but allow him to increase production. The net effect will be the same: more addicts, in this case to climate destroying fossil fuels.
While US LNG exports may help Europe in the short term, increasing US production will only deepen Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels and continue to prop up a global cartel in which Putin is a major player. The only viable long term solution is for Europe – and the rest of the world – to move as quickly as possible to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels with energy efficiency and renewables, as some forward-looking European politicians have been calling for.
If the Biden administration wants to help, it should launch a new green Marshall plan to help build renewable energy in Europe and around the world. Expanding the production of clean energy technologies, rather than fossil fuels, would help combat the influence of big oil and petro states, as well as address the growing climate emergency.
As we’ve already learned with the Covid-19 pandemic, this decade won’t afford us the gift of getting to tackle one crisis at a time. Instead of letting big oil use each new shock to knock us off course, we need to stay clear eyed on how we can create peace, stability, and protect our planet for generations to come: ending our addiction to fossil fuels.