Coronavirus won't save the planet

HEATED asked several experts to weigh in on the potential climate impacts of the oil industry's recent unprecedented downturn.

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A demonstrator protests oil exploration and drilling for fossil fuels at a Fire Drill Friday event in Washington, D.C., this past December. Photo by John Lamparski/Getty Images.

There’s an emerging narrative that the novel coronavirus is good for the environment—and perhaps the climate, too. We don’t go anywhere or do anything anymore, which means we don’t use as much fossil fuels. Pollution is therefore decreasing. The air is clean in Southern California. For the first time in decades, people in northern India can see the Himalayas.

The oil industry’s recent crash is sure to add to this idea. This year will likely be “the worst year in the history of oil markets,” the International Energy Agency’s executive director Faith Birol said on Wednesday, due to sharp decreases in demand driven by COVID-19. Indeed, oil demand is actually projected to drop for the first time in more than a decade. The price of oil is at a historic low. Toilet paper and beer are hotter commodities.

Oil companies—especially small ones—can’t survive like this forever. They need oil to sell at a higher price. To achieve this, they’ve agreed to stop producing so much oil. Did you hear me, climate people? I said oil companies have agreed to stop producing so much oil. Earlier this week, oil-producing nations including the U.S., Russia, and Saudia Arabia agreed to a 10 percent cut in oil production—the largest production cut ever negotiated.

My first reaction to this was, “oh now you can cut oil production?” I mean, y’all… this is what climate scientists have been saying oil companies must do to prevent catastrophic climate change for decades. A study published last year by the non-profit Carbon Tracker said “the world’s largest oil and gas companies need to slash their production by more than a third by 2040 to meet global climate targets.” The threat of losing millions of lives apparently wasn’t enough to start this process. Millions of dollars though…

It’s tempting to think, then, that coronavirus might just be a climate-concerned person’s dream; that the pandemic forced us to begin the process of ramping down carbon emissions; and that it kick-started humanity on a path toward a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable world.

But this is actually not what that is, according to a bunch of experts on oil markets and climate change who I spoke to yesterday. Yes, this is the worst it’s ever been for the oil industry. But that’s like saying it’s the worst it’s ever been for white people. Technically true. Still not that bad.

Looking at COVID-19 as a climate savior is also just a bad way to think about what’s going on. We don’t want millions of people jobless and depressed to be the way we decarbonize the economy. In fact, we need the process to be exactly the opposite.

We are indeed buying some time to stave off catastrophe — but not that much

I was able to talk to four experts on emissions and oil markets yesterday about the recent COVID-related oil industry dust-up:

  • Dan Klein, an energy analyst and head of scenario planning at S&P Global Platts;

  • Gabriel Filippelli, director of the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University;

  • Deborah Gordon, senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute; and

  • Steven Feit, an attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law.

Both Klein and Feit have helped conduct analyses for their respective organizations that predict how the oil industry might be affected by COVID-19. Klein’s indicate at least a short-term dip in carbon emissions that, technically, would buy humanity a little more time to solve the climate crisis.

The question is how much. And the answer is, not nearly enough, especially if we don’t also use this time to enact climate policies that target the supply side while demand is down. Otherwise, demand will eventually pick up again, and the fossil fuel industry will do whatever they can to meet it.

Klein’s analysis for S&P Global, which hasn’t yet been released publicly, looked at the potential long-term energy impacts of coronavirus in the transportation space—marine, airline, commuting/road transport, and on-road freight—due to behavior change. 

If people’s behavior change sustains after the pandemic—that is, if there’s a continued reduction in commuting, and an assumption that people don’t do as much brick and mortar shopping—Klein said over three million barrels per day of oil demand are at risk by 2040. Put another way, that’s 15 percent of crude oil consumption in the United States. The exact amount of carbon emitted per barrel of oil varies wildly (we’ll get to that later), but at minimum, that’s a reduction of about 950,000 metric tons of CO2 per day. So, like taking 200,000 cars off the road for a year every day.

“That is not nothing,” Klein says. But it’s a drop in the barrel (ayo!), he cautioned, “compared to what you really need to achieve a 2 degree or 1.5 degree drop.” In addition, his analysis is based on assumption that we sustain certain behavioral changes we’re doing now, because we realize that working from home, not going on so many business trips, and doing more things online actually is cost-efficient and helps the environment. That’s a bold assumption, and one we can’t rely on, given the power of the fossil fuel industry and politicians who benefit from them to drive policy and social norms.

The good news, climate-wise, is that a temporary drop in fossil fuel growth “gives technology a chance to ramp up,” Klein said. “If the installation of renewables doesn’t decline, they’ll take more share from fossil fuels. If that happens, it allows that trajectory to continue.”

The bad news is that COVID-19 is also hampering the growth of renewables, too. So there would probably have to be some policy initiative to aid in that transition. “Are policymakers going to be willing to spend the money to do that when social order is at risk?” Klein asked. I didn’t answer.

The oil industry is not looking toward a transition

The oil industry as a whole is not looking for a transition to renewable fuels. They’re looking to make money doing the same thing they’ve always done, which is produce, refine, and burn more fossil fuels.

“They’re already looking for bailouts,” said Steven Feit at CIEL. “Whether it’s in terms of loosening regulations or enforcement; pushing through permitting and in-person public participation not possible; or looking to get the actual literal bailout funds. They’re already on top of it.” And as Drilled News has documented with their Climate & COVID policy tracker, they’re mostly getting what they want so far.

Feit and CIEL don’t believe this will work out for the oil industry in the end. In a report published this morning, the organization argues the industry is “an unfillable sinkhole for recovery funds.” It reads:

The oil, gas, and petrochemical industry is now exploiting the catastrophic global pandemic to aggressively push its preexisting corporate agenda … The underlying risks facing the industry, however, remain unchanged. The imminent systemic decline of the oil and gas sector should serve as a stark warning to public officials and private investors alike as they consider allocating limited and vital resources to these companies.

The Watson Institute’s Deborah Gordon, however, sees it a bit differently. “Oil is an extreme durable market,” she said. COVID isn’t going to kill it—and that’s primarily because of the inconvenient fact that we all use a lot of things that come from oil.

A temporary reduction in demand is a smokescreen to real climate action

Humanity as a whole may demand less oil right now, resulting in visibly cleaner skies and fresher air. But humanity as a whole still demands a lot of oil, and will continue to demand until the products we use from it start being produced another way.

Therefore, Gordon says, “It’s going to take action from the supply side to transform the climate. “And sadly, I don’t think what we’re seeing from COVID is oil nations like Saudi Arabia or, frankly, the United States, thinking outside the box when it comes to creating an industry that’s more flexible.”

Changes in demand are simply not that powerful, Gordon argues, particularly when they target only one part of the barrel of oil. Right now, for example, we are demanding far less transportation fuel. But only a small part of every barrel of oil contains transportation fuel; the rest gets made into products for lubricant oils, plastics, asphalt, residential heating fuel, and more. If oil companies can’t find a market for the transportation fuel part of the barrel, they’ll just price it lower or store it. “As long as the physical product is there, which it is, you can always price it to sell,” Gordon said. “There’s nothing to stop it from going.”

In other words: “If we’re not gonna use the barrel, we have to not use the whole barrel,” she said.

It’s partly because of this that the cleaner air we see might not translate to significant climate impacts. “It’s not necessarily the case that using less oil results in less greenhouse gas emissions—especially short-term emissions like methane,” Gordon said. “NOAA just put out its current Manua Loa readings on CO2 and methane, and CO2 is up and Methane is up.” That’s because there’s more venting and flaring of methane going on at natural gas fields and refineries, she said. “If you have to turn down your field, or turn off your gas, you have to do more venting into the atmosphere,” she said.

“What does it take to turn this Titanic?”

The declines in both physical air pollution and carbon emissions from COVID-19-related economic drops are sure to be only temporary, Gordon said, so long as there is no action to transform the supply side of the oil industry during this time. If we want cleaner air and a livable climate in the long term, we need systemic shifts to clean electricity, renewable fuels, and non-petroleum-based plastics—all at the same time.

What the pandemic is doing, however, is showing people how drastic and beneficial the effects can be when we stop burning so much fossil fuels. Gabriel Filippelli at Indiana University saw that with his own eyes—at least through a computer screen.

Last month, Filippelli was talking to Pakistani government officials at an online conference about COVID-19 and air quality, trying to convince them to use cleaner fuels. He had done the same thing at the same conference last year—albeit in person—with little to show for it. “The pushback was that we can’t afford to, we’re in deep debt,” he said. “They didn’t see a road forward.”

This year, however, Filippelli said he felt a change in tone. Pakistani officials were gobsmacked that they could see the Himalayas for the first time. “They didn’t realize what they’d been missing, because they’d never had clean air,” he said. “It was pretty profound, and the conversation was enlightening. It was clear they were realizing, I think we do have a choice.”

Filippelli’s hope is the pandemic’s visual affect on the environment makes this choice clear to everyone. “I don’t know if the environment will once again lose out to short-term economic interests, as it tends to every single time,” he said. “But if I’ve ever seen an example where you can draw a line between environmental destruction and the need to act on climate change, this is the one.”

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HOT ACTION: Enter a short story contest about the future

Welcome to Hot Action, a once-in-a-while section of the newsletter where readers suggest actions individuals can take to help solve the climate crisis, or help themselves feel better while the world falls apart, or whatever.

Today’s suggestion is an opportunity from Arizona State University to flex a creative muscle while in isolation—and potentially win a little money (or get a book) doing it. They’re seeking “diverse perspectives” for a storytelling contest:

How do you envision the future? ASU’s Narrative Storytelling Initiative, in collaboration with the Global Futures Laboratory, the Environmental Humanities Initiative and the Institute for Humanities Research, is holding a story and essay contest to capture your idea of what the future holds, given the environmental and societal changes underway. These pieces should draw on your concrete knowledge of the present to create a realistic picture of the future. Resulting work will be aimed for publication. …

The author of the winning story will receive a $300 prize, second place will win $200, and third place will win $100. Up to 10 other finalists selected for publication will receive a signed copy of Environment by Rolf Halden. The winning story and finalists will be included in a collection published by the Narrative Storytelling Initiative at Arizona State University.

More information about the contest is HERE, and the application form is HERE. You have to create an ASU login to do it, which is a little annoying, but hey—life is a little annoying, ya know?

Suggestions for a future issue of Hot Action? Email

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