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Call the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Net-Zero Bluff

Nothing in the history of the oil and gas industry suggests we should take its word for it on climate.

Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods walks with several other people.
Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Darren Woods arrives for a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in 2018.

This week marked a kind of coming out party for the Biden-era fossil fuel industry. At CERAWeek, the industry’s annual energy conference, its top brass talked about how eagerly they’re participating in an energy transition that will allegedly happen at some point, eventually. The American Petroleum Institute—the trade lobby for the oil and gas industry—expressed its openness to some kind of carbon pricing, which some of its members have backed for years. ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said his company is “supportive” of net-zero goals. The several members of the Biden administration who joined repeatedly voiced their commitment to capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), as well as an openness to working with industry toward that goal.

The notion that governments could actually do this while keeping fossil fuel companies happy, mind you, is at best wildly optimistic. Without a currently unimaginable quantity of negative emissions—through methods like reforestation or direct air capture—modeling from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that meeting 1.5 degree goals would require global oil use to decline by 87 percent by 2050, relative to 2010 levels, and 37 percent by 2030. Gas should decline by 25 percent by 2030 and 74 percent through 2050, coinciding with a total 32 percent decline in energy demand overall, along the same timeline. Going by the rhetoric on display at CERAWeek, the world’s biggest polluters have a relatively simple strategy to pursue profits while aligning themselves with a 1.5 degree target: magic.

Members of the administration didn’t go out of their way to be friendly to oil and gas executives. But they did avoid topics of conflict, for the most part talking about the investment opportunities of scaling up clean energy. Asked how she planned to work with industry, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm pivoted to the work ahead with automakers and utility companies—not major oil and gas producers. International climate envoy John Kerry—who in recent months has mentioned how much he’s been talking to the oil executives for his new climate post—warned that they could either embrace the transition toward a low-carbon world or be left “sitting there with a lot of stranded assets. You’re gonna wind up on the wrong side of this battle.”

What this week made clear is that U.S.-based producers, finally confronted with an administration that seems at least semi-serious about climate change, are now adopting the line European producers like BP and Shell have been using for some time: Our core products will be needed for decades to come. We have the expertise to shepherd this transition, and we will continue to be essential to meeting the world’s energy demand and scaling up more clean energy—on our terms.

This isn’t the old denialism oil companies funded decades ago. But it looks a lot like it. Instead of casting doubt on whether the climate is changing, this new messaging strategy casts doubt on the obvious answer to what should be done about it: i.e., rapidly scaling down production. “Until we know the path and what is going to be required and what the solutions are, it’s hard to know,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods told investors in a climate-conscious call this week. “What we can do is commit to figure that out, and once we find the answers, you would see us begin to commit and actually be on the path toward net-zero.” Everyone, it seems, wants to get to “net-zero.” What exactly that means for companies that have only ever revolved around producing oil and gas is anyone’s guess. For now, it’s one part creative accounting and many parts a P.R. strategy of waving around shiny objects like biofuels, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage.

So why not call their bluff? If the administration is really committed to 1.5 degrees Celsius, ask fossil fuel companies to submit concrete plans for reaching net-zero to federal regulators. Put experts to work determining whether they’re realistic. Bring the companies under public ownership if not, and make them decarbonize while keeping every worker on the payroll. Mandate that they capture and store carbon permanently—rather than pouring it back into oil production in what’s known as “enhanced oil recovery”—and invest meaningful portions of their budgets in making the technology work. There is no world in which the United States works earnestly toward capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius that keeps the fossil fuel industry happy. And nothing in their history suggests we should take fossil fuel companies at their word when they say they care about the environment or good-faith public engagement.

Backlash to serious climate policy is inevitable. But the fossil fuel industry isn’t the behemoth it was even a decade ago, when it sabotaged attempts to pass climate policy under Obama. Oil and gas executives are on the defensive, if only judged by the fact that they spent their time at a major industry conference talking about all the ways they’re going to paint themselves green. Firms that used to rule the world are finding themselves increasingly isolated among the Fortune 500. And while hardly climate champions, investor-owned utilities and the automobile sector have plenty to gain from an administration that has its sights set firmly on a low-carbon future. Building up utility-scale wind and solar generation and transmission infrastructure means more business for power providers and more union work. Government procurement orders for electric school buses and mail trucks will drive business toward the automakers and make them more competitive in international markets growing steadily greener. Wall Street is salivating over pouring all the cash sloshing around the economy into clean energy—a stark shift from its dive into the shale revolution after the last financial crisis.

It’s also not so obvious that a Republican Party engulfed as it is by climate denial and conspiracy theories will follow oil and gas executives into a brave new era of greenwashing. The Trump administration offered a preview for how the interests of culture-war extractivism—to “drill, baby, drill”—diverge from the industry it was ostensibly trying to help, which has been desperate for higher fuel prices. There are more divisions than ever to exploit within carbon coalitions. Screw the friendly conferences. Time’s running out to divide and conquer.