Comment: What game are oil majors playing on climate change?

It seems like a surprising, even commendable thing, that European oil giants have said they want to help draft global carbon pricing policy. The group comprises of BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Statoil, Eni and the BG Group.

They announced this move in the FT in the same week as OPEC meets in Vienna to discuss increasing output and amid continuing speculation about the low, volatile oil price.

It is the first time that oil majors have banded together and come out so strongly in support of the international climate negotiations – which makes them appear concerned and rational, acknowledging that climate change is a situation worth acting on.

It’s not the first time that oil companies have circled around and sought to influence world climate politics, however.

Ahead of the crucial Kyoto climate talks in 1997, global energy giants, including Shell, funded in the Global Climate Coalition. On the surface the GCC said it was convened to ensure that the burden of global warming – which it accepted was happening – was shared equitably around the world.

But in reality, the GCC was a front-group running campaigns to sow seeds of uncertainty about climate science and against a global deal to reduce emissions in the run-up to the Kyoto Protocol, perhaps weakening it. Shell left GCC in 1998.

Once again, at least some of the oil majors are grouping together. They are stronger that way against attacks as  Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanne recently pointed out. “Now they realize if you are not at the table, you are lunch, and want back in,” Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center told Unearthed.

This time around, though, the European oil companies, including Shell and BP, have wised up to climate change – or they have better strategists and spin doctors. Probably both.

Again, though, what on the face of it looks like an offer of assistance to the UNFCCC to reduce emissions looks a little different when you peel back the layers.

What Shell and their peers (excluding Exxon and Chevron, who oppose action on climate change) are really talking about with the proposal of a global carbon pricing mechanism is a plan to kick coal to the kerb in order to open more space for gas as a baseload fuel for generating electricity.

This is because coal is cheap (see above), but a carbon price on top would render gas relatively cheaper, in theory. (Unless you have an essentially dysfunctional system like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.)

From an emissions point of view, that’s not a terrible idea – coal has roughly double the emissions of gas. As Shell’s CFO Simon Henry recently pointed out: “Coal is the issue in terms of carbon bubble” – and it’s “simple arithmetic” that coal should be banished over other fossil fuels.

The oil giants’ strategy in all this is to become gas giants, which at least appears compatible with a reduction in climate emissions –  though they’d also like oil to have a long tail, please, allowing drilling for unconventional oil and gas, notably in the Arctic.

If you take a long-term view, though, 50% of gas reserves need to be kept in the ground, resulting in a decline in gas generation if we want to stay within 2 degrees of global warming – beyond which we can expect mega-droughts, rising sea levels and acidifying oceans. In the medium term gas will be used as backup rather than baseload and won’t be on that much.

So the needs of the oil-cum-gas companies and the needs of limiting climate change look set to part ways in the future.

In fact, while the so-called progressive European oil majors are talking about how they can contribute on global emissions reductions, they are also planning a world where we don’t stay within the internationally-agreed 2 degree of global warming threshold.

Oil majors are assuming energy demand will continue to significantly increase into the future – and that we won’t limit global warming to 2 degrees.

They’re taking a gamble on the future demand for oil, claims E3G chairman Tom Burke, who says that if low income countries are hit by climate change over the next 20 years they could find it difficult to develop at a pace that generates increasing demand – and also that electric vehicles are on the up and up and so this could drive demand for oil down.

Shell’s energy scenarios, which assume weak climate policies, and would result in around 6 degrees of warming, according to a Carbon Tracker analysis. Besides this, Shell plans to drill in the Arctic, which scientists have ruled out on climate grounds if we want to stay within 2 degrees.

All this might seems a bit hypocritical in light of their recent statements about their “contributions to make to creating and implementing a workable approach to carbon pricing”.

But it’s worse than that. By pushing an agenda that climate politics analysts say is impossible to achieve, the oil giants could give a sting of paralysis to the climate talks, which are already proving extremely slow in providing an adequate response to the climate crisis.

John Ashton, former climate envoy, wrote in an open letter recently that a global carbon price policy “serves as a brake on ambition not a stimulus, especially when accompanied by an aversion, also evident in your speech [referring to Shell’s CEO Ben Van Beurden], to hard caps on emissions.” Plus he said it would only drive change at the margins.

A global carbon price would be impossible to achieve, according to one analyst – making the proposal look quite a lot like brinkmanship. The social cost of such a mechanism would be too high, they added.

It looks like the energy giants may not be satisfied with only killing off King Coal, but could also be aiming to see off – or at least stall – this December’s important round of climate talks to protect their own profit margins well into the future.

Read more: