Fight or switch? How the low-carbon transition is disrupting fossil fuel politics
Posted by admin on 22nd November 2019

As the Trump administration works to weaken regulations on fossil fuel production and use, a larger struggle is playing out across multiple industries. Until recently, oil companies and their defenders generally reacted to calls for regulating carbon emissions by spreading doubt and promoting climate denialism. However, I believe this approach is becoming less effective as climate change effects worsen and public demands for action intensify worldwide.

As a scholar who focuses on the politics of energy and the environment, I see growing anxiety among corporate elites. Some fossil fuel defenders are embracing a new strategy that I call climate defiance. With a transition to a low-carbon economy looming, they are accelerating investments in fossil fuel extraction while pressuring governments to delay climate action.

Climate defiance is leading to some surprising clashes between the Trump Administration, bent on extreme deregulation and extraction, and many other companies who recognize that the fossil fuel economy is unsustainable, even if they have not embarked upon a green transition. Climate change is sparking this self-reflection, which is writing a new chapter in global warming politics.

Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Rifle, in western Colorado, March 29, 2013.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Car wars

One high-profile example is the Trump administration’s effort to weaken corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards negotiated by the Obama administration, which were projected to reduce U.S. oil consumption by an estimated two million barrels per day. Early in the Trump presidency, both an auto industry consortium and fossil fuel producers lobbied hard for the Trump administration to weaken the emissions standards.

But when it became clear that the Trump administration planned to go further than simply weakening the standards, and to freeze them altogether in 2020, some automakers balked. California and more than a dozen other states insisted on the right to keep higher standards, and four major automakers – Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW – joined them.

Those companies, who represent about 30% of the U.S. market, have now agreed to adhere to stricter emissions standards similar to the Obama plan, citing the need for more regulatory certainty. In retaliation, the Justice Department recently opened an antitrust investigation into the pact.

Meanwhile, Toyota, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are siding with the Trump administration. Their decision surprised many industry watchers, particularly given Toyota’s leadership in designing low-emissions vehicles.

California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, center, with Gov. Gavin Newsom, left, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The state is suing the Trump administration for revoking California’s authority to set its own vehicle emissions standards.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Methane capture

Another divisive issue is the Trump administration’s plan to ease regulations curbing methane emissions from natural gas production. Energy companies tout natural gas as a cleaner fossil fuel because it generates fewer carbon dioxide emissions than coal or oil.

However, methane – the main component of natural gas – is a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. According to some studies, methane leaks from natural gas extraction and production, known as fugitive emissions, may make natural gas extracted from shale rock a more carbon-intensive energy source than coal.

Several major oil companies, including BP and Royal Dutch Shell, oppose Trump’s plan to further deregulate methane. Why? They have invested heavily in natural gas as a way to extend their fossil fuel business, and methane leaks pose a serious threat to the notion that natural gas should play a prominent role in a green transition, especially as renewable energy costs continue to decline.

In contrast, the American Petroleum Institute and smaller oil and gas companies support the rollback, claiming that methane control is too expensive.