BY CORINNA COOK
Dec. 2, 2020 — Fossil fuel industries in the United States have a large influence on the country, and the country depends heavily on them for energy production. They make trillions of dollars per year. And they spend millions on lobbying, aiming to influence politicians to act in their favor, every year. They contribute millions of dollars to state and national campaigns and receive billions in subsidies, which is government assistance in the form of grants, loans or tax reductions.
These financial ties make it difficult for clean energy companies to find their footing in the current system.
Back in 2016, news broke that ExxonMobil had been doing climate research since 1957. According to the Center for International Law, Exxon’s predecessor Humble Oil had been conducting research on the impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels and what that might mean for the planet.
“If we’d done something about this 20 years ago, you could kind of have an incremental approach to it, but we’ve left it so late now we’re at the kind of cliff edge,” said Oliver Milman, an environmental reporter for the Guardian, in a video. “We need emergency measures to essentially transform our lives overnight.”
Carbon dioxide is one of the most abundant greenhouse gases. These are gases in the atmosphere that hold onto heat, which warms the atmosphere and the oceans, causing changes to weather patterns. And as they get warmer, more gases are produced, creating a positive feedback loop that is difficult to stop. Other common greenhouse gases are methane and nitrous oxide.
The changing climate can lead to flooding, larger storms, heatwaves and other potentially deadly events.
Instead of using this information to come forward about potential dangers of climate change, the fossil fuel companies organized against regulations.
In the past, the United States depended on oil from the Middle East. But that became a national security issue. With that and the growth in fracking, things changed, and the U.S. now depends more on domestic oil and gas. In 2019, domestic oil accounted for 94% of our consumption and only 3% was from net imports. This is the lowest the U.S. imports have been since 1954.
And even now the fossil fuel industries have a large impact on policy and government decisions. Previous president Donald Trump appointed Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, as the secretary of state and Andrew Wheeler, previous lobbyist for coal producer Murray Energy, as the EPA administrator.
In a letter addressed to Majority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, signed by 13 members of Congress, the issue of these special interests’ influence over politics was brought to light. Beyond lobbyists and people associated with fossil fuel companies, the letter discussed the same issue with people associated with major banks or financial firms.
“No administration, Democratic or Republican, can credibly tell the American people it intends to reduce the influence of corporate money in politics if it continues the outdated tradition of putting corporate lobbyists and officers in charge of federal decision-making,” stated the concerned members of Congress.
According to Open Secrets, a nonprofit research group, gas, oil and coal companies all spend more money on lobbying in support of republican candidates. And while lobbying funds have declined in recent years, their influence remains strong.
Overall, the total campaign contributions by energy companies have declined in recent years. In 2020, oil and gas industries spent $48.5 million on Republicans and only $9.6 million on Democrats. The top two recipients are Donald Trump and Joe Biden, respectively. During the 2016 election, the top two were Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, with Hillary Clinton third.
Coal companies contributed $2.7 million to Republicans and $102,100 to Democrats. The top recipients were Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. And in 2016, the top two were Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
“The severe power imbalance in Washington that favors well- funded corporate interests has been well documented, as has the public’s unhappiness with it,” according to the letter.
Many of the fossil fuel giants have renewable energy projects. Exxon is working on carbon capture and storage systems and researching biofuels. According to Exxon’s research highlights, they’ve spent $300 million on research into biofuels over the last decade, which is about $30 million per year. And according to their financial highlights, they had over $14 billion in net income in 2019. That’s 0.20% of their annual income spent on researching renewable solutions in 2019.
Policies are in place that attempt to cap the amount of greenhouse gas emissions both locally and statewide. The most prevalent is called cap and trade. This system gives companies a limit to their greenhouse gas emissions, depending on the type of program implemented, it could target energy producers (the fossil fuel companies or the transporters) or the companies that burn them. If one does not reach its limit, they can sell it to another company that wants to produce more than the allowed amount.
There are other methods of changing how the fossil fuel industry operates to reduce carbon, like carbon capture, which is a method of taking carbon dioxide from emissions and storing it, which, according to MIT, generally meaning injecting it deep underground. Myles Allen, a climate scientist and an investigator for the project climatepredition.net, is an advocate for carbon capture.
“Global warming won’t wait for the fossil fuel industry to die,” said Allen during a TED Talk. “And just calling for it to die is letting it off the hook from solving its own problem.”
During the TED Talk, Allen claims that the industry knows how to stop global warming, but they’re waiting for someone else to pay for it.
During the 2020 presidential election, fracking in Pennsylvania was a huge topic of discussion. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence argued that Biden and Harris opposed it and have plans to ban it entirely. While Biden wants to ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, he has not directly opposed fracking in general.
“I do rule out banning fracking … What I will do with fracking over time is make sure that we can capture the emissions from the fracking,” said Biden during the final presidential debate of 2020. “I will transition from the oil industry … because the oil industry pollutes significantly,” he said. “I would stop giving them federal subsidies.”
Fossil fuels can be pinpointed as a cause of many health issues across the country ranging from asthma to cancer. According to research conducted in Appalachia by Michael Hendryx, an expert in epidemiology and biostatistics, runoff from mountaintop removal for coal can cause respiratory issues and higher cancer rates. Pollution from burning the fuels are a few of the ways this poisoning can happen.
“We found that people who live where mountaintop removal takes place have significantly higher levels of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and chronic lung disease,” said Hendryx during a TEDMED Talk. “Death rates from cancer are significantly elevated, especially for lung cancer.” Hendryx also mentioned higher risks of birth defects. Controlled for other risks, the difference in mortality equals about 1,200 deaths in areas with mountaintop removal.
On top of the human health issues, greenhouse gases can wreak havoc on the climate and natural world. According to USGS, Oklahoma now has fairly frequent induced earthquakes due to fracking. Other states across the U.S. are seeing an increase in induced earthquakes due to wastewater disposal from oil wells and fracking, on top of the dangers of leaks from oil pipelines and barges.
On a local scale, Western Washington has some drama surrounding the fossil fuel industry as well. The oil refinery at Cherry Point is one of the top issues. Since 2016, there has been a moratorium on crude oil shipments through Cherry Point. On August 13, 2020 the Whatcom County Planning Commission held a public hearing and voted on their final recommendations. Since then, the Whatcom County Council and Committee of the Whole have held 13 meetings to discuss proposed Cherry Point amendments with discussions of an interim moratorium which is slated for another public hearing on May 18, 2020.
This isn’t to say that renewable energy is flawless. In fact, they do have problems. Dams block important salmon routes and keep sediment from flowing downriver, solar is only effective with certain levels of UV light. And some count nuclear as a form of clean energy, but the waste becomes an issue.
Dams are an important form of energy, especially in Washington. In 2018, 69% of the state’s electricity generation came from hydroelectric, mostly from dams. These dams impede the sediment that flows downstream and negatively impacts the health of estuaries downstream. A few of the dams in Washington also block some of the most pristine salmon hatching grounds.
Solar power and wind can be intermittent. Wind turbines add to noise pollution and can injure wildlife, like birds and bats. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that turbines kill between 140,000 and 500,000 birds annually in the United States. Compared to the estimated 1-4 billion bird deaths by domestic cats, this number is relatively low.
Nuclear, while producing clean and reliable energy, does result in a waste that is difficult to dispose of safely. A permanent method of disposal does not exist yet. And the risk of meltdowns causes legitimate worries.
The U.S. Energy Information Association expects renewable energy consumption will continue to increase. And according to the United Nations there is only a decade left before climate change is irreversible.