Big Oil changes sides in the War on Coal

by John Quiggin on June 11, 2015

As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter, the previously glacial pace of movement on the issues has speeded up. One of the most important, and surprising, developments has been a string of increasingly sharp attacks on coal, coming from representatives of major oil and gas companies. As this (rather excitable) piece explains, the reason is simple. The policy debate has crystallised around the idea of a carbon budget – the remaining amount of CO2 that can be emitted while keeping atmospheric concentrations at levels consistent with 2 degrees of warming or less.

Obviously, if such a budget is imposed and adhered to, a lot of fossil fuel resources, currently sitting on corporate account books, will have to be left in the ground. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies have done their best to prevent such an outcome, promoting science denial, and encouraging national governments to shirk their share of the burden with the argument that others should do more. Such a strategy implies a united front among fossil fuel owners, since the longer the imposition of a budget can be delayed, the better off they all are.

The recent break in the fossil fuel coalition therefore marks a new stage. Rather than try to expand the budget for all fossil fuels, the oil and gas companies have decided to get as much as possible for themselves, which means shutting down coal as fast as possible. The facts that have made such a strategic switch sensible are many and varied but the most important are

(a) the increasing recognition of the health effects of burning coal which gives national governments like that of China a strong incentive, independent of climate change, to reduce coal use
(b) the fact that the most immediately promising alternatives to fossil fuels are renewable sources of electricity which compete directly with coal, and are, to a significant extent complementary with gas (as a dispatchable source, gas-fired electricity tends to offset problems associated with the variability/intermittency of renewables.

What’s the appropriate response here? In the end, it will be necessary to phase out fossil fuel use altogether. But the logic of tackling coal first is inescapable. If that logic drives a wedge in the fossil fuel coalition, so much the better for all of us.