National Oil Companies Will Keep Pumping Fossil Fuels 'To the Last Molecule'

Which is why we have to stop buying what they are selling.

Protests against Shell Oil
Protest against Shell Oil.

Pierre Crom/ Getty Images

It's a standard trope these days that personal responsibility doesn't matter, that climate change is all the fault of big oil. Climate scientist Michael Mann goes so far as to write, "Personal actions, from going vegan to avoiding flying, are increasingly touted as the primary solution to the climate crisis... In fact, one recent study suggests that the emphasis on small personal actions can actually undermine support for the substantive climate policies needed. That’s quite convenient for fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP."

It's also quite convenient to blame ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP for the climate crisis because we see their signs on street corners, but the large international firms control just over a tenth of the world's supply of fossil fuels. The Economist notes—as we did a few years ago—that three-fifths of the world's oil and half of its natural gas is pumped by national oil companies (NOCs) like Aramco in Saudi Arabia, Gazprom in Russia, and CNPC in China. Then there are a lot of smaller NOCs in Africa and South America that the Economist says are poorly and inefficiently run.

"The Algerian and Venezuelan companies emit three to four times as much carbon in oil production as do the more geologically blessed and better-managed firms such as ADNOC [United Arab Emirates] and Aramco, and flare seven to ten times as much gas per barrel as does QatarEnergy." Just four of the NOCs have enough fossil fuels to go for another four decades at current rates.

The Economist concludes that it is going to be a struggle getting the NOCs to turn off the taps when countries are so desperate for their revenue. And while some of the biggest and richest NOCs are playing with hydrogen or decreasing their emissions intensity by cleaning up their production, most are smaller and are not making these investments. The biggest NOC of them all, Aramco, has no intention of reducing its output; according to the Economist, the Saudi energy minister, Abdulaziz bin Salman, last year stated the kingdom’s vision clearly: "We are still going to be the last man standing, and every molecule of hydrocarbon will come out."

This Is What Happens When You Are in Hock to the NOCs

Map of Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany
Map of Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Meanwhile, many countries are finding out what it means to be in hock to the NOC. Germany is dependent on Russia's Gazprom for fossil gas that runs industry and heating, and Russia has been restricting supply because of Germany's support of Ukraine. Companies have been ordered to dial down thermostats to 66 degrees Fahrenheit this winter and may have to ration gas to industrial customers. 

The New Statesman writes that in Spain businesses are banned from turning the air conditioning lower than 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and shop fronts have to go dark at 10PM.  In the UK, a third of all households may fall into "energy poverty" this fall, spending more than 10% of total income on heating.

Energy expert Jon Rosenow describes in The New Statesman how people are taking personal steps to reduce their energy consumption, noting that in Germany, "energy efficiency is properly on people’s minds." He writes:

"There is constant coverage in the media, and people seem to be really trying to take action." Sarah Bird, 35, a musician living in Berlin, said this winter she had made "a conscious choice not to use the heating too much." Instead, she "put on a winter coat and used two duvets and, like an old nanna, I take a hot water bottle to bed." Her latest energy-saving measure is to buy a sand timer to encourage shorter showers."

That '70s Show

It is basically life during wartime, caused by national oil companies using their power in ways we haven't seen since the Arab oil embargoes of the seventies. The strategy then was to reduce demand and find alternate sources of energy, and that's what we have to do now.

All of which brings us back to reducing consumption. As noted earlier, it is convenient to blame ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP for our problems, but they are 10% of the world's supply. Nothing is going to convince the NOCs not to supply every last molecule of fossil fuel they can; the only thing that you or I or our governments can do is reduce demand. That means insulating our homes, investing in alternatives like renewables, driving less, and, yes, taking some personal responsibility and finding that hot water bottle.

While North Americans are not going to have shortages, the price is set by worldwide supply and demand. The NOCs control the supply, so we have to reduce the demand. We have to stop buying what the NOCs are selling.