You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that we, like many online media outlets, regularly receive invitations to participate in press events held by businesses, non-profit organizations and government agencies. You might be surprised (as were we, quite frankly) to read that we got one last week from the American Petroleum Institute. Yes, you read that right: API invited Treehugger, as well as EcoGeek, The Oil Drum, Green Options, and Maria Energia to participate in a conference call with the organization's CEO, Red Cavaney this past Wednesday. The topic of the call: energy and the environment. Also participating were bloggers and writers from NewsWatch (the Houston Chronicle), the Wall Street Journal Energy Roundup, Fortune/CNN Money, and ShopFloor.org (National Association of Manufacturers).
We accepted API's invitation. While we're always a bit suspicious about the motivations behind outreach from businesses and organizations that have historically shown hostility towards environmentalism, we also believe that open dialogue is the only way to address that hostility, and perhaps even change it. We held no illusions, though: we know the claims that have been made about API's involvement in efforts to challenge the scientific consensus on global climate change and human contributions to it. We went into the call with our radars on "high."As one would expect from someone in such a position, Cavaney was personable and knowledgeable. Each of us asked at least one question, and he took the time to answer at length -- the transcript of the call is eighteen pages long. As one also might expect, he was ready for questions on peak oil, climate change, alternative fuels and the politics of energy and the environment. We all heard about the oil and natural gas industry's desire to "be at the table, and ... share our experience" in discussions about possible mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions, and that the industry is "willing and open to listen to others." When asked directly about API's position on the scientific consensus that climate change is largely caused by human activity, Cavaney responded,
We’re not scientists that are experts in that area. We have concluded that there’s sufficient signals that it’s important we get on with trying to mitigate, you know, the outcomes that may flow from the path that we’re on, and so we’re focused on being a part of that. Individual companies or individuals themselves may elect to choose to put funds, participate in research and all, but from our standpoint, you know, we’re moving forward with trying to be on the solution part of that ledger. We think that there are valid and honest questions that are up there, but, you know, those will be left to others to try and resolve and work on in the times ahead.We certainly weren't expecting an open and warm embrace of the scientific consensus that points to the burning of hydrocarbons as a major contributor to global warming. As Cavaney's commitment to solutions was expressed with caveats regarding API member participation and a nod to "valid and honest questions" about the science of climate change, we'll likely continue to view their commitment to mitigating the effects of climate change with some suspicion.
We won't go so far as to say we think API's CEO was being disingenuous. Rather, he and his industry colleagues have been forced to address what may seem like an interminable dilemma: how do you promote the development and sale of products that have made the oil and gas industry incredibly wealthy and powerful, but which are also contributing to one of the greatest environmental challenges ever faced by humankind? We won't pretend that this dilemma will be easy for the petroleum industry to resolve -- there is a lot at stake, and not just oil company profit margins. The peak oil theorists are definitely right when they note that oil and gas provide the foundation of western economic power. At the same time, the threats posed by climate change loom large, and portend even greater economic and political upheaval than an aggressive shift away from fossil fuels. That shift may be all that can really mitigate the effects of the climate crisis: Cavaney is right that, even with the prospect of peak oil, there's still a lot of the stuff in the ground. There's certainly enough to do lasting damage should we choose to use it as indiscriminately as we have in the last century. We genuinely hope that API acts in the spirit of cooperation and commitment to solutions that its CEO expressed to us. ::EnergyTomorrow.org (in PDF)