Is Obama Greenwashing His Climate Record in Alaska?
Investigative journalist Steve Horn says the National Petroleum Council has institutionalized pro-gas and pro-oil policy regardless of which political party is in power
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
President Obama is kicking off his three-day trip to Alaska by highlighting the impacts of climate change on the United States. The Arctic is currently warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and according to NASA if we go back to the 1980s when the satellite record began you can see that we’ve lost almost two-thirds of the volume of sea ice that used to be there. But with Obama talking tough on climate, why did the president two weeks ago grant Royal Dutch Shell permission to drill oil and gas in Alaska? And according to the U.S. Department of the Interior there is a 75 percent risk of a large oil spill if these leases are developed. Our guests today want to look at what some are calling a two-phase policy and what interests are behind the president’s decision.
Now joining us from Madison, Wisconsin is investigative journalist Steve Horn. He’s also a research fellow at DeSmogBlog. Thank you so much for joining us, Steve.
STEVE HORN, DESMOGBLOG: Good to be back, thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Steve, critics are pointing out the hypocrisy in President Obama’s visit to Alaska. They’re saying that on the one hand Obama’s calling for urgent action to tackle climate change, but on the other hand his administration just gave leases to Arctic drilling to Shell. Was this deal done before Obama got into office? Or could he have even done more to stop it?
HORN: Well, President Obama stated in his most recent weekly address that yes, this was a process that got started before his time in the White House, I believe under the Bush administration. And what happened under his administration is that it kept being pushed forward.
That being said, this is really interesting the last couple years in the Obama administration, this new quote-unquote push for his climate legacy. Lots of things fits into a broader set of policy initiatives being pushed such as Clean Power Plan, and a few other policies. But I think that the thing that one has to ask is, of course, who’s going to write that history? Who’s going to write–who’s going to frame what his climate legacy is. Because of course you have to look at the, to look at everything that he’s done in office above and beyond of course Arctic drilling. Which he’s helped push for, his administration has helped push for. There’s the whole gamut of fracking, offshore drilling in the Atlantic, offshore drilling in the Gulf. And then plus spreading fracking technology out in the world, whether Hillary Clinton’s State Department, of course, which was underneath President Obama, and much more.
So we have to, really, I think that the framing is a little bit troubling in a way, problematic in that the whole thing is, is sort of being framed as if, as if he did not push forward Arctic drilling. That his, his quote-unquote climate legacy would not be as tarnished. Of course we have to look at the whole picture, and this fits into a much broader picture, pushing different fossil fuel objects around North America and around the world.
DESVARIEUX: But President Obama’s response to some seeing him pushing these anti-climate change sort of pieces of legislation and deals is that at the end of the day our economy relies on oil and gas, and we can’t overnight just jump to renewable energy. Let’s take a look at what the president had to say about that.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our economy still has to rely on oil and gas. And as long as that’s the case I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports, and we should demand the highest safety standards in the industry: our own. Still, I know that there are Americans who are concerned about oil companies drilling in environmentally sensitive waters. Some are also concerned with my administration’s decision to approve Shell’s application to drill a well off the Alaskan coast using leases they purchased before I took office.
I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well.
DESVARIEUX: So Steve, you just heard the president there saying he shares our concerns but at the end of the day we, we can’t just jump to renewables like that. We still depend on oil and gas, so if we’re going to depend on it let’s at least drill in domestic market as opposed to supporting foreign markets. What’s your response to that, Steve?
HORN: Two responses. One, of course, the United States is not going to stop relying on foreign markets for oil and gas. The United States is, sort of serves an interesting role for the oil and gas industry as a global guarantor for the production of oil and gas. That’s the entire purpose behind the Department of Energy, for example, to make sure that spigots remain open. It’s why that agency was created many decades ago. And so first of all, foreign oil dependence is not going to end, because even if the United States isn’t consuming that oil, U.S. allies are. NATO allies, for example.
Second of all, there’s just that framing that he set up, that is that for a while we’re going to need oil and gas, until renewable energy becomes a bigger and more mainstream thing. I think it’s interesting because that, that kind of it–that excuse serves as a means to push for the rampant and nonstop oil and gas drilling. I don’t think that anyone who’s knowledgeable about some of the benefits that oil and gas brings, including powering cars, including [offering] energy to homes, I don’t think anyone is saying that oil and gas will never be part of the portfolio. I think that the entire premise is that under this economy, he was very honest about that. Under the current economic order, oil and gas, with rampant consumption, with rampant production and you know, under I guess the [inaud.] standard, the current neoliberal order, yes. There’s this need for nonstop and rampant oil and gas production. But I think that that just kind of goes to what he represented. He is a neoliberal president. He believes in the current neoliberal economic order. And so that’s why renewable energy will only be part and parcel of the current economic system.
That being said, and of course [if] there was a different economic system in place, oil and gas are probably part of that no matter what, of that system. But so–probably increasingly so with renewable energy. And so it’s kind of a red herring in a way, and it’s one that’s often presented by people like him, and different institutions that support that order, that neoliberal economic order.
DESVARIEUX: I’m so glad you mentioned the neoliberal economic order because of course we have to consider the power of money and the influence of money. What type of influence is the National Petroleum Council as a federal advisory committee having on the U.S. secretary of energy, and what impact is that having on Arctic drilling?
HORN: The National Petroleum Council is an advisory committee of the Department of Energy, of the secretary of energy, and it was created a long time ago, back in 1946. So it’s been in place for a long time, yet somehow it’s still pretty poorly understood by the U.S. public and the global public. And so long story short is that this is a committee consisting of some of the most powerful CEOs of oil and gas industry companies. It’s one of the most powerful figureheads of think tanks in Washington, DC. And others, but it’s predominantly executives of big oil and gas companies. And not only U.S. ones, global ones. That gets to the whole thing with the United States being a guarantor for the global oil and gas industry.
What it does is it advises energy policy in the United States. And then in the example of the Arctic I think it’s a really interesting and important case study. That is, the Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, in October 2013 ordered a report to be written about Arctic drilling and its future. And as of March 2015 they published the report, it came out at the 125th annual meeting of the National Petroleum Council. The report was presented at that meeting. The first person to speak was ExxonMobil’s CEO Rex Tillerson, who is the head of the Arctic Drilling Committee of the National Petroleum Council, also the vice president of the National Petroleum Council. Basically that report said that well, look, shale gas and fracking probably doesn’t have much more life in it, maybe a good decade or so, and then it’s going to really, drilling is going to have to be ramped up much more just to continue the volume of current oil and gas that’s flooding the global market. And so Arctic drilling is important for that reason, and then it was a whole other litany of reasons why Arctic drilling is justified.
But that being said, I think that the most important thing is that it was the National Petroleum Council pushing it. They have been behind lots of other pushes for oil and gas throughout the past decades. And yet they’re kind of part of this deep state that will exist no matter who’s president. No matter if it’s President Obama, if it’s President Bush, or their predecessors.
And we talk about the climate legacy of Obama, for example. And then it’s a big PR push, and it’s being pushed by his PR people, yet the real policymakers are those that are affiliated with the National Petroleum Council. They’re the ones that are actually setting energy policy with regards to oil and gas, at least in the United States, and more broadly on a global [level].
DESVARIEUX: That’s so fascinating, Steve. I mean, we should definitely follow up and do another segment just specifically on the National Petroleum Council. But I greatly appreciate you joining us. Thank you so much for being with us.
HORN: Great to be on. Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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