It is not novel or particularly creative to compare Big Oil to Big Tobacco. Over the years, dozens (if not hundreds) of think pieces have been published to this effect, chronicling the myriad similarities between the two controversy-plagued industries and pointing to Big Tobacco’s past to predict Big Oil’s future. While the comparison may be running the risk of growing trite, the sectors’ trajectories continue to share plenty of similarities, similarities that it is hard to ignore. There are, however, major differences between the two and it is those differences that it is important not to lose sight of. So first, let’s look at the similarities. Much like Big Tobacco lied for years about the health impacts of cigarettes, even though the sector’s execs were well aware of their product’s connection with cancer and other non-communicable diseases, Big Oil has been implicated in covering up the sector’s own knowledge of fossil fuels’ contribution to climate change. And much like Big Tobacco, Big Oil has been plagued by lawsuits over its impact on the public’s well-being, ad companies are boycotting a product that threatens its consumers, and they were both called in front of the United States Congress to answer for alleged negligence.
Last year, a Dutch court ordered oil supermajor Shell to slash its emissions by nearly half within the decade. “The ruling marks the first time a court has mandated such a policy on a major energy company and, crucially, establishes Shell's responsibility for the environmental damage caused by its products and a failure to adequately plan to reduce its emissions,” Politico reported last May following the trial in an article titled, you guessed it, “Big Oil is the next Big Tobacco.”
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Now, just this week, Forbes released yet another analysis of Big Oil’s greenwashing playbook through the lens of Big Tobacco’s rise and fall. This time, the subject matter is ExxonMobil’s new pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in its operations – yes, its oil and gas operations – by 2050. How will this be possible? “It would be like Philip Morris International promising that none of its workers will smoke while manufacturing cigarettes,” writes Forbes.
It seems safe to say that oil execs are likely not exactly eager to curb oil and gas production or lean into the green energy transition while a barrel of oil is trading at $90, and $100 barrels could be on the horizon. And the oil industry doesn’t really need to placate Western governments and consumers when there is plenty of demand in Asia to more than make up for any Tesla-driven losses.
Just like Big Tobacco pivoted to unregulated markets in the developing world, continuing to get nearly half of its sales from China alone in 2016, Big Oil is looking for new markets. “Much like Big Tobacco, Big Oil has lost the scientific and public opinion battle in the West, and not for a lack of investment in disinformation and lobbying,” Forbes writes. Instead, the sector is plotting out an “orderly energy transition” in which oil is phased out in wealthy countries while the rest of the world has a chance to complete its own fossil-fuelled economic development.
This is where the comparison falls apart, and it is where critics need to engage with a more nuanced view of the fossil fuel industry. Cigarettes never powered the world, cigarettes were not directly correlated to economic growth, and they did not provide energy security. This is not a dastardly plan hatched behind the scenes in sinister, eco-hating board rooms. This is a plan that developing nations have lobbied for as the only fair and ethical option. It is a grave injustice, many leaders of developing nations argue, to punish countries that are only just beginning to develop their own economies. Africa, which accounts for just 2-3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, depends on cheap, abundant sources of fuel to have a chance of staying competitive and adaptive as it is one of the regions that has been hardest hit by climate change. It’s a brutal catch-22.
Unfortunately, as Forbes points out, “That orderly transition will not achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050. Not by a long shot.” In the end, Big Oil is nothing like Big Tobacco. No one needs cigarettes to survive and provide better opportunities for the next generation. Oil is still needed to achieve the very energy transition that will ultimately bring about its decline. It’s a major problem, and one that won’t be solved through abolition but through cooperation, transparency, and accountability on the part of wealthy countries and oil companies.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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