With Houston just barely beginning the recovery process from Harvey’s toxic “thousand year” flood and Irma, the largest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, having just left devastation in its wake in Florida and throughout the Caribbean, we need to start having a conversation about something that could take decades to accomplish but probably should’ve been started decades ago: nationalizing the U.S. oil industry along with our other carbon polluting fossil fuel businesses. However, unlike cases in other countries from Iran to Venezuela, the point of nationalizing the U.S. oil industry is quite the opposite of its historical goal abroad. Rather than removing fossil fuel exploitation from the private sector so all can share in the profits reaped from the natural resources we all “own,” we need to nationalize our fossil fuel industries with the eventual goal of shutting them down entirely.
For the readership of Progressive Army, I hardly need to review the errors, excesses, and crimes of Big Oil, so I’ll keep this portion short. We all know that the burning of carbon-based fuels has created climate change which is causing the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice in record levels and the consequent sea level rise that threatens not only coastal communities around the world but even the existence of island nations like Kiribati. We all know that sixteen of the seventeen hottest years on record have happened since 2001, with 2016 being the hottest of them all. We all know (or should know by now) that Exxon Mobil knew about climate change and hid the truth from us. We all know that more powerful storms, floods, fires, and droughts are in store for us and we must tackle this problem. The big question is how do we tackle it?
The #KeepItInTheGround movement has exactly the right idea. If you could snap your fingers tomorrow, you would transform the Earth into a world where we need no fossil fuels and we have the ability to do exactly that – keep them in the ground. But that is a fantasy. We need more than the Paris Climate Accord which is a praiseworthy effort but falls way too short of the mark to truly combat climate change. Among progressives at home and seemingly everyone overseas, moving to an entirely green energy economy is commonly talked about with goals like 50% renewable energy by 2030 in California or halting the building of new pipelines entirely exciting those who care about the issue and giving us hope. Hope is a great motivator but hope alone doesn’t write laws or execute fanciful notions, as the previous administration demonstrated for us. So let’s face it. None of these alone and all of these together are not going to put an end to the largest problem standing in our way – fossil fuels are profitable.
As long as the profit motive keeps powering the fossil fuel industries, the titans of Big Oil are not getting out of the way for the good of anyone – not you, not me, not marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and certainly not for the good of humanity itself. To make themselves as profitable as possible, Big Oil has used its sway over our politics to take massive subsidies despite their even more massive profit margins. And with the amount of money that pours in from Big Oil to our elected politicians, one can argue that the opposite of nationalization has already occurred. One party is so bought off that it’s willing, en masse, to deny the science of climate change. The other party is bought off just enough that while it might talk green, it pursued an “all of the above” energy policy that didn’t threaten the fossil fuel industry and even helped it expand one of its dirtiest practices, hydraulic fracturing. Our elected representatives are supposed to represent all of us, not an industry that is harming us. Big Oil has privatized our government. It’s high time to turn that around.
Other countries, cities, and regions have shown that it is possible to take larger steps in the right direction despite the power of the industries that might stand in their way. Denmark has just sold its last oil company and will use the profits from the sale to invest in green energy. Britain has banned the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. Catalonia has passed a law to reduce carbon emissions by 100% by 2050. In fact, climate change laws have increased around the world by a factor of twenty over the last twenty years. These are all the kind of big ideas we need to truly combat climate change. Unfortunately, they’re also all only small steps in the right direction. But as the Tao De Ching teaches us, even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
While all these steps begin a journey of a million miles for life on Earth as we know it, we need bold decisive policies at home to do our part in combatting climate change. Whether it’s New York State’s ban on fracking or Obama’s now defunct coal reductions, they’re all small steps and they all count. But they are dwarfed by the sheer size of the competition. In 2015, America’s top six oil companies had revenues exceeding $730 billion. We all know the golden rule – whoever has the gold makes the rules. So we can talk all we want about a hundred percent renewable energy at some point in America’s future, but it’s not going to happen as long as these companies exist and continue to reap massive profits. The small steps being made around the world threaten their revenue, but only at the margins. They don’t threaten their very existence. And their very existence is the problem.
So the federal government needs to acquire, by any means necessary, America’s largest fossil fuel companies and go through a process that leads to, one day, shutting them down entirely. The first step will be to take control of the companies. I’m open to all kinds of possibilities from buying them outright (a few trillion dollars to save the Earth seems like a bargain to me) to simply having the feds walk in, kick everyone out and just take over the companies in a reverse form of eminent domain. For the safety and security of the planet, it has to be done. Even if we could agree on a price at which to buy these companies to transfer them from the private sector to the public sector, it doesn’t mean they would sell. That probably means we need to build the political will to pass legislation allowing the government to nationalize the industries, which will take years. Once these companies are under the control of a powerful federal authority, a ten or twenty-year plan to go from current extraction levels to minimal extraction will have to be put in place. And while it might be nice to dream of zero extraction, one also has to dream up renewable jet fuel and renewable forms of every petroleum product in use today before you can get to zero extraction. Yet another thing to be hopeful about.
Obviously, nationalizing oil is politically impossible today. At any point, no matter how bad the climate crisis gets, this won’t be easy. It will be met online with tweets of “Communism!” and “Fascism!,” even if the two are diametrically opposed. Serious thinkers will also make strong arguments against nationalization. Just look at how people on the right reacted to the temporary nationalization of financial institutions after the 2008 crash to keep them alive. Those same people are perfectly happy with Rex Tillerson running the State Department as an extension of Exxon Mobil, but the thought of the process working the other way around and the government running Exxon Mobil will have them screaming their fool heads off. At the same time, anyone who thinks we’re going to get to a 100% green economy while private interests run oil, coal and natural gas is kidding themselves. Add to that the excesses of the Trump administration’s goals of killing the EPA and opening up public lands and offshore territory to drilling and one realizes that we’ve done far worse than cancel the Paris agreement, we’ve swung the pendulum in the opposite direction in favor of fossil fuels even further than most imagined before Inauguration Day.
Progressives should be talking right now about swinging that pendulum back and swinging it back as far as possible. This idea isn’t new and it isn’t mine alone. These companies are destroying the planet and, in our up-is-down system, they have the same rights as people. Well, someone actively killing off people (as the droughts and storms of climate change are) would be thrown in prison and stopped forever. It’s time we start tackling how we let these companies pay the penalties a person would pay and end their pathological attacks on the people of planet Earth.