Opinion: At least US oil firms’ appetite to continue wrecking the planet is out in the open

US oil lobby’s lawsuit looks bad now. Posterity is likely to judge it even more harshly

Opinion: At least US oil firms’ appetite to continue wrecking the planet is out in the open
California AG Rob Bonta has upped the stakes in his legal fight against the API and Big Oil

EV inFocus is not rabidly anti-Big Oil. It recognises that it will take time to remake the global economy to stop burning liquid and gas fossil fuels.

It has time for oil producers such as TotalEnergies, Repsol, OMV, Equinor and (at least for now) BP that are using at least some of their profits from sales of CO2-emitting products to try to reposition themselves for the net-zero world. It is comfortable with coal-fired power plants being decommissioned and replaced with gas-fired generation that is only at this stage CCS-ready — and fully comfortable with continuing use of gas if and when CCS is a proven and economic technology at scale.

And the idea of a refinery of the future where oil is remade into plastics that will never be burned even once they can be recycled no longer it finds positively fascinating.

But, as a two-decade observer of and even participant in, the oil and gas industry, this author has absolutely zero time for oil firms that attempt to slow down the energy transition and scaremonger about the impact of moving to a net-zero world. We must be realistic that some economic trade-offs will be required. But these pale into insignificance compared to the economic and societal costs of continuing to emit CO2 from combusting oil and gas.

Read the room

Unfortunately, there are two major groups of oil firms that just have not got the memo that what is worse than destroying the planet is openly shouting about one’s continuing appetite, indeed right, to destroy. One is the national oil companies (NOCs) of the world, most prominently in the Middle East but also elsewhere.

The other are US producers, as well as Shell, which has followed a similar path to its US counterparts since the promotion of Wael Sawan to CEO at the start of last year. Even to European oil executives, their US peers’ total inability to read the room outside of their right-leaning US bubble is a source of frustration. It was little surprise when France's TotalEnergies walked out on its API membership back in 2021.

I had the opportunity to hear Vicky Hollub, CEO of Occidental — one of the so-called ‘super-indie’ US producers whose scale is not quite that of an oil major — at a London oil conference a few years ago. She was claiming on stage that injection of CO2 extracted via direct air capture, which will ultimately hoover up far more taxpayers’ money than it ever will CO2, for enhanced recovery from oil wells was somehow “carbon negative”.

Her sophistry here was that there is less CO2 in each additional molecule of oil pushed out of the reservoir than in the CO2 atom that was displacing it. My fellow Europeans, even though most were also in the oil industry, were left shaking their heads that a senior executive could make so crass a pseudo-scientific argument in public, not least as the venue was virtually under siege from climate activists.

The decision of lobby group the American Petroleum Institute (API) to launch a lawsuit against new tailpipe emission rules that US regulator the Environmental Protection Agency issued in March is another embarrassing decision for the wider global oil and gas industry. It joins Republican attorneys general from 25 states who took similar legal action in April.

It is pretty much accepted as a given that oil producers around the world are involved in throwing huge amounts of lobbying cash at efforts to retards the progress of EVs, which are currently the only low-carbon technology making a material impact on demand for their product, even if it is only at c.0.5pc of a 100mn bl/d demand for oil.

Purely transactional

But to be so publicly identifiable with efforts to derail EV adoption is a terrible look. Nor does the API help itself with being so transparently dishonest in its language around the EV issue.

Earlier this month, API vice-president of downstream policy Will Hupman criticised the final corporate average fuel economy (Cafe) standards for model year 2027-2032 passenger cars and light-duty trucks released by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the grounds that they “restrict Americans’ freedom to decide what vehicle fits their needs and budget”.

No-one outside of US right-wing conspiracy theorists buys totally into the idea that Cafe production quotas are an attack on American notions of liberty, and a slick lawyer-turned-Washington-lobbyist like Hupman is unlikely to be one of those lunatics. He and his organisation should instead be honest that they do not like EVs because they are a threat to US oil companies’ bottom lines, not because they are champions of the common motorist’s God-given right to pump greenhouse gases and other nasties into the atmosphere.

It may be no coincidence that the API is filing suit just days after California attorney general Rob Bonta lodged an amended complaint in his lawsuit against the API and ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP — four of the world’s oil major and another superindie — to include additional examples of what he says are recent false advertising and greenwashing.

Last September, Bonta filed allegations that the defendants “engaged in a decades-long campaign of deception regarding the reality of climate change and the connection between combustion of fossil fuels and climate change, resulting in climate change-related harms in California”. The complaint further alleges that the companies “have known since at least the 1960s that the burning of fossil fuels would warm the planet and change our climate, and yet those companies denied and sowed artificial doubt about climate science in their public statements and marketing”.

“This much is clear — Big Oil continues to mislead us with their lies and mistruths, and we will not stand for that,” says Bonta. “Their ongoing egregious misconduct is damning. We will continue to vigorously prosecute this matter and ensure that Big Oil pays to abate the harm they have caused, and we will recover ill-gotten gains that will benefit Californians.”
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EV inFocus is not largely enamoured with the US’ voracious appetite for litigation, and lawsuits that appear tit-for-tat or largely politically motivated are unbecoming of all involved. But, that said, if the US oil industry is not content with trying to extend the climate damage it is doing in the background, but actually brings it into open court, it is difficult to argue that it will change its ways unless it is legally obliged to do so and faces material financial pain for refusing to pivot away from fossil fuels.

In these matters, posterity can only find one of the API or Attorney General Bonta on the right side of history. We would not be betting on the former.

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