One day soon, I’m betting, the Earth will fall quiet.
I did not fully grasp this until a friend invited me to take his Tesla for a spin. “Floorboard it!” he commanded. I did and instantly understood that — despite Big Oil — life as we hear it is being transformed. We leapt from zero to 60 miles per hour in four seconds.
Without a sound.
Our species is on the cusp of abandoning its single worst mistake, the infernal (not a misprint) combustion engine.
Imagine standing on a street near the I-5 freeway in Seattle and carrying on a normal-volume conversation. Imagine opening the windows of your home along that freeway without being assaulted by unbearable noise and toxic fumes.
Admittedly, “soon” is a term of art. Even though customers globally already have spent one trillion dollars purchasing all-electric passenger cars (EVs), by the end of this year EVs will comprise only 3% of all passenger cars.
The re-introduction of silence to Earth nevertheless is arriving much faster than expected. In the U.S. last year, 810,000 all-electric vehicles were sold, 66 % more than the previous year and 5.8% of all cars sold here. Hybrids have been selling even faster.
Why? Voters had the wisdom to elect lawmakers, and a president, who are spending our tax dollars to cope with climate change by lowering the price of building and buying EVs and hybrids.
President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act lowered EV production costs up to $9,000 for manufacturers and gives buyers financial incentives. That, plus competition and falling prices of battery components, has sped up our nation’s EV production by three to five years, analysts say.
It’s easier to design EVs than gasoline-powered vehicles and cheaper and faster to produce them, automakers report. By year’s end, EVs are expected to cost consumers about the same as many gasoline vehicles. Since they have far fewer parts, EVs are less costly to maintain, and the electricity that fuels them costs less than gasoline.
So what’s not to like? Hello?
Plenty, if you’re Big Oil.
Big Oil balks
Oil producers suddenly see the end of a fossil fueled world arriving much earlier than they’d hoped. They will not quietly slink away. A formidable political and economic infrastructure irrationally values their private good over the public good.
Because the product they peddle is killing the Earth, oil companies have been prodded, gently, to pledge reductions in oil and gas production and to invest their profits sensibly in renewable energy.
Prodded. Not required.
It’s an ill wind indeed that blows no good for someone. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the winds of war blew historic levels of profits — $200 billion in 2022 — into the coffers of oil companies. For London-based Shell alone, 2022 profits doubled over 2021 to $42 billion.
Did Shell seize this moment to transform these tragically triggered windfall profits into a public good by investing them in renewable energy? Or cut back, as promised, on its plans for pumping oil and gas?
It did not. Shell’s chief executive, Wael Sawan, says Shell will defer its promise to decrease fossil fuel production. Nor will Shell use the windfall to significantly increase investments in renewable energy.
Shell isn’t alone. British Petroleum (BP) also doubled its profits. Nonetheless, BP will backtrack on promises to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by the end of this decade. Instead, BP will increase production, reducing emissions by only 25 per cent, according to BP head Bernard Looney.
What does Big Oil think is a better use of all this blood-soaked money? Buying back stock and paying higher dividends to investors.
“We need a renewables solution, not a self-destructive fossil fuel resurgence,” protested an irate United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. He rightly has chastised the oil industry for its “bottomless greed”, calling its behavior “immoral.”
“Your core product is our core problem,” Guterres recently reminded oil industry leaders. We well may add that their insatiable greed is proving to be just as big a problem as their poisonous product.
Guterres told Big Oil executives something else: “If you cannot set a credible course for net-zero [CO2 emissions], with 2025 targets and 2030 targets covering all your operations, you should not be in business.” Amen. Enough already.
Big Oil makes crystal clear that even with the fate of humanity at stake, it will not do the right thing. For that to happen, Big Oil requires legal mandates. Left, as it foolishly has been, to its own myopic devices, Big Oil promises to be the death of us all.
Meanwhile, creative legal workarounds to impose accountability on a morally unaccountable industry are underway.
Among Shell’s shareholders is a group called Client Earth. It has filed a groundbreaking suit in London against individuals who serve as Shell board members. The suit charges them with personally failing to manage the risks of a demonstrable climate hazard, thus negligently harming investors’ likelihood of profits.
Former Vice President Al Gore saw today’s climate crisis coming decades ago. He tried to warn us then, and he’s warning us now.
If we are ever “to stop using the sky as an open sewer,” Gore told the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, last month, “we cannot let the oil companies and the gas companies and petro-states tell us what is permissible.”
Solveig Torvik lives near Winthrop.