Dec 18 2009
Iraq recently held an international auction to run its oil fields, awarding contracts to companies like Royal Dutch Shell, and Russia’s Lukoil. As representatives of nearly two hundred nations, and over a hundred thousand climate justice activists wrap up the final day of a 2 week meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark on global warming, the auction winners in Iraq have promised to more than quadruple Iraq’s oil output. There are currently 80 known oil fields in Iraq, but the promise of oil exploration and its potential yields have oil companies salivating. In her book The Tyranny of Oil, author Antonia Juhasz says that these companies “talk big about alternative energy, but their money does not follow their message… the companies are using their massive profits to scour the globe in search of every available drop of oil.”
GUEST: Antonia Juhasz is is leading expert on the oil industry, international trade and finance policy. She is also the director of Global Exchange’s Chevron Program in San Fransisco, and lead author and editor of “The True Cost of Chevron: An Alternative Annual Report.” Her earlier book includes The Bush Agenda.
SK: Thank you so much for joining us. We’ve had you on the phone many times and you’ve culminated your tour here in L.A. just on the last day of the Climate Talks in Copenhagen. Now, one of the players in the Climate Talks that is ubiquitous but invisible, kind of like the air that we’re breathing or the carbon dioxide we’re trying to regulate, are the oil companies. What role have the oil companies played in the Copenhagen talks?
AJ: Lobbying, lobbying, lobbying, lobbying. The big change between the Bush administration and the Obama administration is that in the Bush administration the oil industry was literally in the room because the oil industry was the Bush administration. This time they’re not in the room. Where they are is putting the biggest number of dollars that they have ever put towards lobbying the Congress, towards lobbying the administration, towards lobbying the delegates on the table and they now have more money than they ever had. So, in the Bush administration they had a little less money a little bit less power but they were in the door. Now, because of the Bush administration, they have more money and more power than they’ve ever had and they’re applying it through heavy, heavy, heavy dollars.
SK: And, in fact, the Center for Public Integrity just this week released this incredible report on this very issue – the lobbying that oil companies and other companies – are engaged in here in the United States because it’s really, at this point, in the hands of Congress. The Climate Bill that’s moving through Congress will, in the end,
determine, no matter what Obama says, will in the end determine whether we and how we regulate our emissions here.
AJ: Well, there’s two pieces to that: President Obama could have gone to Copenhagen and led and told the Congress where he wanted them to go. Instead, he went and followed the Congress. So, 2007 was the highest lobbying year in the U.S. oil industry’s history. It spent more money than it ever spent before in 2007. It increased its lobbying expenditures by 65% in 2008 and it looks like 2009 is going to be on par. And I’ve read through those lobbying reports. One of the key focuses of all of that lobbying is to stymie meaningful climate legislation, domestically and internationally so that we don’t put restrictions on the industry. And essentially, that lobbying weight has thus far proven successful on the Congress. Now, what we’re seeing though, in Copenhagen, is of course this beautiful, magnificent display of civil society resistance which has taken effect within the negotiations and if that energy can be brought back, that organizing, that committed energy towards meaningful climate change in civil society can be brought back to the United States and applied to Congress, that’s our potential counterweight. But right now, the money of the industry is leading the day.
SK: You bring up a very important point about civil society in Copenhagen. In the early part of the Conference, even before the Conference began – you could even say the first action of Copenhagen happened in California in San Ramon, the headquarters of Chevron – tell us why activists locked arms literally and blockaded the Chevron headquarters here in California.
AJ: Yes, Chevron is our state’s largest corporation, the fifth largest corporation on the planet, the fourth largest oil company on the planet. On the first day of negotiations, 100 activists surrounded Chevron’s world headquarters in San Ramon, blockaded the entrances and exits – it was a Monday – so they shut down the business on that day. And they protested under a banner that read, “Our climate is not your business.” And, the point was to highlight this powerful force that the industry was having and to use the words of Terry Tamonin [sp?], who was the Secretary of the Environment for the State of California until he resigned in disgust – he said it’s impossible to be a regulator behind the petroleum-powered smokescreen, basically highlighting the power of the oil industry and his inability in the State of California to regulate them. Well, what the activists were doing was essentially attempting to blow away the smokescreen, to expose the industry, its intent, its lobbying efforts, to put a big spotlight on it so that we could expose what the real agenda is that’s driving the negative path of the negotiations, to try and open up the doorway to a positive path.
SK: So, in a way, California activists were acting in solidarity with those activists in Copenhagen by bringing the point home here that Chevron, this California-based company, was playing its dirty part in lobbying against real reform to curb greenhouse gas emissions?
AJ: Well, it’s very similar – the power of the organizing that’s happening in Copenhagen is remarkably similar to the strategies that were used against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and what worked there in the streets of Seattle is what’s working in the streets of Copenhagen and that’s providing the civil society support essentially to the developing world to say to the developed countries, look, you don’t even have the support of your own people and then that message is even more powerful if you can point to the streets of the country in question so, back to the United States, and say you don’t even have the support there. We, therefore, have the capacity to take a stand and know that when we take a stand and walk out, that demand is actually being mirrored in your own home country and when you go home, which is the key moment, that pressure will continue to be placed.
SK: Let’s talk about Iraq, which plays a very large role in your book. Just given what has happened in Iraq over the last several years, the occupation is now ending, people assume that with the occupation wrapping up that our involvement in Iraq will also wrap up but plenty of American and other foreign companies as I mentioned are keeping their toehold in Iraq and what’s remarkable is that in a country that had its biggest resource nationalized, that resource is now being opened up and going to be plundered. We’ve talked to you about this before – what do you foresee is going to happen in this scenario with a privatized oil industry in Iraq compared to the nationalized oil industry both in terms of oil exploration, oil usage and also Iraq’s own sovereignty issues?
AJ: A lot has changed. I think it’s been two weeks since we were on the air talking about Iraq and when we last talked was before the latest round of oil negotiations took place. A lot has changed and what has changed reveals actually a lot about the power of organizing and the power of resistance because what happened in the latest round of oil auctions in Iraq is that essentially U.S. companies played a very, very minor role. So, we’ve had two rounds of negotiations. The result of them is that Exxon/Mobil has received the first contract for a U.S. oil company to produce oil in Iraq…
SK: …the largest corporation in the world….
AJ: …the largest corporation in the world. Occidental, our own local L.A. Occidental got another contract, ironically. No other U.S. company got a contract and in the second round of negotiations they didn’t even particularly participate. The reason why that happened – and the negotiations aren’t over so put a condition on it, however, we’re not expected to see any new negotiations until after the elections in Iraq, which is likely to be in March – what this says to me, that the U.S. companies first of all didn’t put their foot too far in the water and didn’t get picked up in a big way, from the oil company perspective, is that I believe that they believe that the tide has turned for them in Iraq. They no longer have a U. S. administration that is committed to leaving soldiers in place. The fact that they are not engaging in the negotiations tells me that they believe that the new administration is not going to leave U.S. troops in Iraq, that the U.S. troops are going to go home, that the government in Iraq is just simply not their supporter and that the mood in Iraq is so vehemently against the occupation, so vehemently against the presence of foreign oil companies that where they thought they could buy off the Iraqi government, buy off the Iraqi parliament, they haven’t. And, in particular, their pursuit, what they have been holding out for is an oil law in Iraq that would make all of these contracts much more legal – you would completely transform the Iraqi oil infrastructure. They’ve spent almost seven years trying to get this agenda put into place. It’s been stopped and the only reason why it’s been stopped is because Iraqis learned of it, they organized against it – the Iraqi oil workers unions, women’s groups, human rights groups, regular citizens – they put pressure on their parliament. The parliament and the, even now, the El Malicki government have come to see that their fate is tied to their public, not U.S. oil corporations and not the occupation and they are resisting the agenda of the oil industry.
SK: What you’re describing is simply democracy.
SK: Just literally the Iraqi people exercising their democratic rights. And, particularly, power has resided it seems on this issue in the parliament.
SK: Elections are going to be taking place for that body next year. Antonia, let’s talk about big oil’s future. In your book, your last chapter, chapter eight – Big Oil’s Big Plans for the Future; Wars for Oil. Now, it seems as though from what you’ve said with Iraq being considered this enormous untapped source of oil, if oil companies are kind of seeing the writing on the wall given the increasing awareness internationally about the environmental impact of fossil fuel emissions, that big oil might start to wane, might start to at least change their business plan and at least start looking at or investing in new and alternative forms of energy. What do you think?
AJ: Well, not at all.
SK: Not at all.
AJ: I have combed through the tax returns of the oil industry to try and answer this question. It just seems logical, right. If oil’s going to run out, we all know it’s going to run out, if you want to be an energy company, just seems logical that you would invest in other forms of energy. They’re not. At the very best, BP invested – a very generous estimate on my part – of 4%. 4% of its total exploratory and capital budget, a mere 4% on a very broad category of alternative energy. And that was the best company and that was its best year. Most of them invest 3,2, 1, zero for a significant period of time for Exxon/Mobil. It invests now less than a ½ of a percentage point. They’re not investing in alternative energy, they don’t intend to. And the reason why they don’t intend to is that they believe that they will be able to pursue every last drop of oil, that we’ll let them dig through rocks in Colorado and sift through tar and barrel under the ocean and fight wars in Africa and do what we need to do to get oil and that the oil that they have will continue to be worth so much money that it is comparatively makes much more sense to be slogging through oil.
SK: Because the scarcer it gets the more the price will be driven up, the bigger their potential profits.
AJ: And their capacity for price manipulation, which is really what they have been doing – putting oil up to $150 per barrel. And so they’re deeply committed to remaining an oil industry and basically if you look at this question also of peak oil, the real “x” factor in peak oil is how far we will allow the oil industry to go to get the oil that’s left. There probably is a significant amount of oil left in the United States – or in the world and the United States – if you have absolutely no concern for any other factor.
SK: So, it’s a matter of allowing or not allowing exploration and finding that extra oil. If we leave all the current oil that hasn’t been found in the ground, then we probably have peaked in terms of what’s available, right?
AJ: I don’t know and I’m not sure that anybody does know the answer to that question and I actually think that we get lost in a sort of game of did it happen, will it happen, how long until it happens that we don’t know the answer to.
SK: But it will happen someday.
AJ: It’ll happen someday but the most important answer to that is really, with all the information that we know, we know for certain that we need to get away from this resource now. It doesn’t matter when it’s going to run out. The earth doesn’t have the capacity, our political system doesn’t have the capacity, our public health doesn’t have the capacity. So, I just went on a tour of the refineries in Wilmington yesterday, in Houston, Texas the days before that and the refineries up near where I live in Richmond, meeting with local communities who are actually dealing on the ground with the horrific health consequences this very second of the refineries that operate down the road from where we’re sitting in this radio station. And those consequences are already too steep and our inability to regulate this industry is already too great. We don’t have the choice to keep utilizing this resource and our most powerful mode of resistance really to the oil industry is to move away from its product and the best way to do that – I spent a lot of time working on Chevron and Chevron has these amazing human energy ads where it’s generally very attractive young women of color looking into the camera and saying I will drive my car less, I will unplug my refrigerator. And the whole idea of the ad campaign is to put the onus onto you, the individual. If you would just drive less. And move it away from the company. So, what we have to do is hold the companies into account while we put into place policies…
SK: …and regulations…
AJ: …and regulations that will allow, collectively, large numbers of us to make that choice, to move away from that resource but that’s going to take investments in public transportation, in regulation, that, if we can follow the spirit of the Iraqi public who’s doing it during a massive foreign occupation and war, I think we can come up with a few good ideas here as well.
SK: What about in California? Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Copenhagen and has, in a way, broken ranks with his own party on the issue of whether global warming itself is a reality – he does agree with pretty much every climate researcher in the world that it is happening and he was lauded in Copenhagen for being a leader in California. How does California compare to the rest of the country and have we gone as far as we could?
AJ: California compares well to the rest of the country and it’s such a bad barometer – it’s so low that, yes, it’s good. One of the stories that I tell in the book is the interview that I did with Terry Tamonin (sp.), California Environmental Secretary and he came in with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a friend and ally of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger was supported by the oil industry but also, on this platform, that he was going to put in place meaningful climate change. And you would think that that would be all the right ducks in a row. Right? You’ve got a very popular aggressive governor, you’ve got a really good environmental protection secretary, you’ve got California and you’ve got the oil industry actually supporting the governor and it seems like all the ducks would be in the row for really meaningful legislation. Well, what we got at the end of the day was AB32 and what AB32 does, which is great, is it now allows us to know for certain that our biggest polluters in the state are our refineries and our cars. That’s great, we know that. We kind of knew it before. What we are unable to do is regulate any of that. So, we have great information – information is super, I’m a big believer in information, I write books because I think information is important – but the next step is what you do with it. And, Terry Tamonin tried to get regulation in that bill, that would actually regulate our refineries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And that’s when he came up with the phrase, it’s impossible to be a regulator behind the petroleum-powered smokescreen – I couldn’t get the regulation.
SK: So a lot of work in this state to be done as well.
AJ: That’s right.
SK: My guest is Antonia Juhasz. She has written The Bush Agenda. Her latest book is The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry and What We Must Do to Stop It. It’s just out in paperback and she just finished a book tour. Antonia, is there a website that you’d like to recommend for listeners that would like to stay on top of the work that you do?
AJ: Yes, there are two: my book site, tyrranyofoil.org and then I am a director of a brand new program at global exchange focusing on Chevron and that’s globalexchange.org/chevron
Special thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview.