Tue May 28, 2024
May 28, 2024

Oil Magnate Claims Consumers Cannot Do Without Fossil Fuels — A Socialist Reply

By Cooper Bard, Workers’ Voice

On March 18, at the CERAWeek conference in Houston, oil company CEO Amin Nasser (president of Saudi ARAMCO) claimed that a transition away from fossil fuels was a fantasy. He cited numerous statistics attesting to the lack of penetration of renewables into the global economy despite extensive global investment.

The underlying argument that Nasser presented—to an audience of energy industry magnates and their allies—is that the world’s “8 billion energy consumers” cannot dispense with fossil fuels. He implied, therefore, that people cannot live without the fossil fuel industry:
 “We should abandon the fantasy of phasing out oil and gas, and instead invest in them adequately, reflecting realistic demand assumptions.” Because renewables have “failed,” he indicated, people should pursue reductions in emissions instead.

As we will see, Nasser’s arguments actually provide motives for rejecting the capitalist system of production. This must be our conclusion if we accept the key fact that Nasser seems to forget—that continued fossil fuel use will drive climate disruption to the point of climate collapse, and in turn, the collapse of civilization. The only reduction that meets the needs of a livable planet for 8 billion people is a rapid phasing out of fossil fuel production.

The “realistic assumptions” of a capitalist

To make sense of Nasser’s declarations, we will have to cut through some relatively sophisticated sophistry! His “realistic demand assumptions” include the fact that “consumers” in the global South have the most rapidly growing demand for energy but receive the least investment in renewables. Nasser notes this as an argument to continue fossil fuel expansion:
 “There is significant demand growth potential in developing countries, where oil consumption currently ranges from less than 1 to just below 2 barrels per person per year. This compares with 9 barrels for the EU and 22 barrels for the U.S. It is an important reason why some are predicting growth through 2045. … Yet despite representing over 85% of the world’s population, they currently receive less than 5% of the investments targeting renewable energy” (emphasis added).

Because the global South will have growing energy needs, which are not being met today, the only solution that is acceptable to the oil magnates is to lock the peoples of underdeveloped and neo-colonial countries into systems that demand fossil fuels now, so oil profits can flow later. Nasser does note the extraordinary consumption of fossil fuels by the EU and the United States, testifying to the fact that it is emissions from the heavily industrialized and imperialist countries that are the principal drivers of emissions globally. In fact, most of the world’s emissions come from the super-wealthy elite of the global North; the world’s richest 1% are responsible for more emissions than the poorest 66%.

Why are investments in renewables so low in the global South? It’s because meaningful investment of any kind is so low, and what does take place is of a capitalist and often highly exploitative character. Let’s take a look at Africa for an example. The United States, through AFRICOM, extends it military operations into Africa, with at least 60 bases and outposts on the continent. By this means, the U.S. is able to bolster its economic investments (mining, oil drilling, etc.) and arms sales in the region while corralling compliant governments into its political sphere. China expends billions of dollars on economic investment in Africa, but only as a means to ensure continued profitability of its home corporations, chaining Africa in billions of dollars of debt. France and Britain act similarly to the two other imperialist powers.

In essence, imperialist investment in Africa (and indeed the whole global South) rests on a foundation of exploitation and dominance, treating the African land and people merely as resources to be extracted. Any beneficial development of the continent could only happen on a socialist basis.

This whole question of both imperialism and environmentalism connects to the issue of growing global inequality. A working-class policy refuses to assume that investment in renewables has failed, or is bound to fail, since it acknowledges the meager extent of all investment for people’s welfare. It’s important that we consider development not in the short term of the next quarter, or what’s profitable from technology, but based on what humanity actually needs. The global South needs less imperialism, less capitalism, and less debt. The global environment needs less luxury private jets.

Conflating green capitalism with renewable technology

About renewable investment, Nasser stated: 
“Despite the world investing more than $9.5 trillion on energy transition over the past two decades, alternatives have been unable to displace hydrocarbons at scale. Today, wind and solar combined supply under 4% of world energy. Meanwhile, the total penetration of EVs is less than 3%. Three to 4% is not nothing, and we welcome the progress in both renewables and EVs. But 3% to 4% is not everything either. By contrast, the share of hydrocarbons in the global energy mix has barely fallen in the 21st century, from 83% to 80%.”

The reason why the transition has not happened at scale is because the energy sector is organized to make profits for the capitalist class, rather than being nationalized under workers’ control and re-organized for the public benefit. The crux of climate disruption rests on the class nature of the system, and who controls it.

The fact that energy production and distribution are dominated by private sector oil and gas companies, which exert an extreme weight in the economy and on government policy, is a fact that Nasser is conveniently blind to. Governments have not pursued a planned emergency transition because such a transition, however necessary to the survival and prosperity of the world, would be anathema to the prospects of the energy capitalists. Whether one prefers to call us 8 billion “consumers” or 8 billion “people” might be an indication of which side of this contradiction one falls on.

In the meantime, so-called “green capitalism” is a farce. EVs are touted as a green technology, but the results are hardly outstanding. For one thing, almost the entire energy grid that EVs need for charging still operates on fossil fuels. Second, the production of EV batteries is itself directly environmentally harmful, and they cannot be recycled.

Moreover, as Nasser says correctly: “The third reality is that many alternatives in play are simply unaffordable for the majority of people around the world.” Tesla is a perfect example—starting at $40,000 for the basic model and priced upward to over $200,000. AI fanatic and blue-bird butcher Musk made billions from his EV project. The marketing and sale of EVs to the wealthier segment of the global North does nothing to make renewables “affordable” for most of the world’s population and only helps Musk become insanely rich.

From EVs to oil rigs, from YouTube to Netflix, from AI to asbestos, under capitalism no technology is ever rolled out for the benefit of the masses. Its purpose is to make a minority very wealthy, with the potential social consequences for the millions down the line being utterly inconsequential for the capitalists and their calculations. Additionally, making a structural transition to renewables is impossible when private utility companies prefer natural gas because it is more profitable.

Similar constraints on energy transition are put in place by the continued dominance of preexisting infrastructure. Making renewables work (and we objectively must make them work) requires the duel challenge of refurbishing and transforming existing infrastructure while also developing new alternatives. This is exactly the case with EVs, which are inherently expensive and wasteful as a societal choice. It is a choice we are forced into because of the prevalence of government-subsidized roads and automobile manufacturers, while improvements to mass public transportation are starved of funds.

The real solutions to climate catastrophe are hidden behind the illusions of the market. The choices being made by private companies in a capitalist framework are in the service of their own bottom line and not with the objective, material needs of the whole of society. Trying to reduce this conversation purely to a technical one is misleading. The problem of climate disruption is a social problem, and like many other problems generated by capitalism, it has revolutionary solutions. The answer is not to increase production of fossil fuels. We must nationalize the energy sector under workers’ control. This would be a key step toward undertaking a thorough social transformation and accomplishing an emergency transition that can save our species and life as a whole. The actual “fantasy” that Nasser spoke of is the idea that humanity will continue under capitalism; that fantasy is bound to disappear.

First published: https://workersvoiceus.org/2024/03/28/oil-magnate-claims-consumers-cannot-do-without-fossil-fuels-a-socialist-reply/

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