Bringing a ‘Norm’ to a Fossil Fuel Gun Fight

ClimateEconomy Fossil Fuels
Bringing a ‘Norm’ to a Fossil Fuel Gun Fight

Last year’s U.N. climate conference in Dubai resulted for the first time in a global agreement to “transition away” from fossil fuel use. Also, countries will dig up more oil and gas in 2024 than any other year in human history.

Fossil fuel companies and petrostates are absolutely thriving in a world theoretically trying to kick them to the curb, and most alarmingly, they are still expanding their reach. Vast new oil or gas fields in places like Guyana and Mozambique are only just ramping up production, with huge plans for more; American companies, already leading the world in liquified natural gas exports, are throwing temper tantrums about a pause on new export facilities; China and India continue to permit and build coal-fired power plants.

In short, it remains largely acceptable, on a global scale, for a new fossil fuel project to get started. What if we could change that?

That’s the idea from four academics — Fergus Green, Olivier Bois von Kursk, Greg Muttitt, and Steve Pye — in a Policy Forum paper in Science on Thursday. From University College London and the Geneva-based think tank International Institute for Sustainable Development, the group argues that it should be feasible and useful to establish a “No New Fossil” norm, focusing advocacy and diplomatic efforts on ending permitting of new infrastructure and away from trying to prematurely close down existing projects. Essentially: Stop yelling about closing a natural gas plant and start making it entirely taboo to consider permitting a new one.

“[A] future fossil fuel project represents an investment prospect, which is weighed against the returns that could be obtained from alternative investments,” they write. “But once construction has begun and capital sunk, the proponent’s economic interests lie in continuing to operate that project for as long as possible.”

Along with the economics, they argue it is far more politically feasible to simply turn off the permitting and exploratory spigot than it is to turn off the actual spigot of oil spilling forth from an existing oil field or pipeline. There are also legal implications to consider once projects have been initiated, such as the use of investor-state dispute settlements where companies can sue countries for billions of dollars when a policy change threatens a project they have already poured money into — in theory a trillion-dollar loophole oil and gas companies have already made use of in trying to put a chill into climate-related policymaking decisions.

The authors’ solution, though, feels a tad naive. “We urge governments to announce that they will no longer permit new fossil fuel exploration, production, or power generation projects (including expansions of existing projects) and to take whatever legislative or administrative action is necessary to give effect to such a policy,” they write, noting that some of this is already happening with efforts like the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance and the Powering Past Coal Alliance. This could have a sort of snowball effect, theoretically making outlier nations the pariahs of the international community.

Only… is there any evidence those outlier nations would bat an eyelash? The United Arab Emirates just weathered a full year of international criticism for appointing the head of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company to also run the COP28 climate meeting; they simply didn’t care. A few weeks after the meeting ended the country’s oil and gas expansion plans were “gaining momentum,” with an eye toward adding a million barrels per day of production over the coming few years. Is Saudi Arabia suddenly going to stop expanding its oil footprint because of an international norm?

The authors acknowledge that big producers will resist the idea, but offer few convincing reasons why the diffusion of this norm would somehow fix that issue. There is also some cloudy thinking on how fighting new projects differs from fighting existing ones — yes, a new project like an oil refinery will have local environmental and public health impacts, but so does the refinery currently pumping toxins into poor neighborhoods in your city. Why does the threat of a new project “provide a focal point around which opponents with different grievances can mobilize” but the existing one doesn’t, exactly?

The sheer existence of this argument in a sense demonstrates its likely futility; the fossil fuel industry is making record profits and easily fending off climate challenges, expanding like crazy into new markets, and merging and acquiring its way to a monolith of apparently unbreakable proportions — and all the opposition has is “norms”.

Obviously stopping new projects is a good idea on its face; and maybe the authors are right that it could chip into the overall emissions picture a bit faster than trying to close existing projects down.

“The successful institutionalization of a No New Fossil norm would substantially weaken the fossil fuel industry,” they write. “An industry that is not expanding is an industry in decline, and declining industries find it harder to attract finance and win political favor.” But there is a whiff of tautology involved here: “successful institutionalization” means the world has largely stopped permitting new fossil fuel projects, so of course at that point it is widely agreed that we should not permit new fossil fuel projects. In the end, it is more a description of a better world than a roadmap for finding one.

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