2021 Has to Be the Beginning of the End for Big Oil


A fierce blaze broke out at the refinery in southern Tehran after a liquefied gas line leaked and exploded. Flames light up the night sky.

Photo: Vahid Ahmadi/Tasnim News/AFP (Getty Images)

It seems like everyone had a pretty rough 2021, and no wonder—we’ve had to contend with an ongoing global pandemic, crumbling political infrastructure, climate disasters with no end, and all of Joe Manchin’s ongoing bullshit. But there’s one thing that put a little bit of a spring in my step, and that’s that Big Oil had an even worse year. While we’re by no means out of the woods when it comes to the oil industry’s grip on our political system, in 2021 we got to see what it looks like to make fossil fuel interests really squirm.

U.S. Politicians Finally Came for Big Oil

Oil interests were already not thrilled with the prospect of a Biden administration after four years of oil-friendly Trump policies; Biden showed them they had something to worry about when, on the day of his inauguration, he pulled permits for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The administration hasn’t totally knocked it out of the park by taking it to Big Oil since then, but it’s a big turnaround from the Trump era.

Democrats on the Hill have also made Big Oil CEOs’ lives miserable. For the first time ever, several top executives from oil giants and industry groups were called to testify under oath about their companies’ roles in perpetuating climate denial and misinformation. The appearance before the House Oversight Committee ended with subpoenas, meaning the public could soon learn even more about the way these companies operate. Oh, and the oil executives got Katie Portered.

Big Oil Got Wrecked in the Boardroom and Court of Law

It’s not politicians fed up with oil companies’ plans to keep cranking out more fossil fuels. In May, Exxon and Chevron’s shareholders upturned the status quo on those companies’ boards, voting for three new climate-focused investors for Exxon and a resolution to curtail Scope 3 emissions at Chevron. On that same day, a Dutch court handed down a devastating ruling to Shell, ordering it to cut its carbon pollution 45% by 2030. In response, Shell’s CEO wrote a whiny LinkedIn post.

…And the Court of Public Opinion

It turns out May was just a prelude to more comeuppance. In June, an Unearthed sting snared two top Exxon lobbyists. The duo aired a bunch of dirty laundry about the oil giant. One employee admitted on record for the first time that the company had engaged in climate denial, and detailed how it manipulates politicians on the Hill to do its bidding; as a result, Exxon was kicked out of a climate advocacy group that it helped form. Keith McCoy, one of the lobbyists caught on tape, has since left the company, and Exxon did a bunch of public damage control to distance itself from his statements.

In October, Shell got a taste of its own public humiliation when its CEO got publicly dragged by youth activists onstage at a TED talk. This was just a few months after a Shell executive told a story onstage about an employee’s kid being embarrassed by where her dad worked, which is just a colossal self-own.

An oil spill in Huntington Beach, California, was an ecological disaster that also further underscored why we need to get off oil ASAP. All in all, it’s probably been a particularly exhausting year responding to terrible press for the communications departments of companies like Shell, Exxon, and Chevron. Couldn’t have happened to nicer PR departments, really.

Science and UN Climate Talks Also Put Big Oil in a Box

The bad news for Big Oil, however, really kicked off in May. The International Energy Agency, a respected international organization whose outlooks are used by financial organizations, governments, and major fossil fuel companies to make decisions, put in plain text what we all know to be true: New fossil fuel exploration needs to stop almost immediately in order to keep the world on track with the Paris Agreement.

As a little added kick in the metaphorical nuts, the UK government told oil companies that they weren’t welcome to sponsor the United Nations climate meeting. That’s an about-face from previous talks, where oil companies and big polluters were welcome with open arms. Though the final text wasn’t a death knell for Big Oil, a small group of first-mover countries inked a separate deal agreeing to end fossil fuel expansion in what could be a sign of things to come.

Despite the Setbacks, Big Oil Is Still Standing

Even though it’s against the wall, Big Oil has proven to be resilient. And there have been a few questionable moves by politicians to keep it propped up. They include puzzling legal decisions made by the Biden administration—some in favor of controversial pipelines like Dakota Access and Enbridge’s Line 3—and a surprisingly lax attitude towards fossil fuel leasing. As the year wore on, the White House started to look a lot friendlier (or at least less hostile) to the industry, especially with recently rising gas prices.

That House hearing also gave a chance for Republican representatives to kiss the industry’s ass, indicating fossil fuels still have an iron grip on the party. And even though they were banned from sponsoring the climate meeting, oil interests still found a way to get a substantial seat at the table in negotiations; their influence showed in the final text.

But it certainly feels like something has shifted. Businesses, politicians, and regular people are more attuned than ever to the role the oil and gas industry has played in getting us to the dire place we are today. People are fed up with decades of manipulation and are increasingly calling for action. And it’s clear the industry is on the defensive. It’s employing all the tools in its arsenal, dreaming up new buzzwords, making new pledges, launching new PR campaigns, taking over social media, and generally hoping to convince us that it’s part of the climate solution—as long as oil companies can keep drilling.

Sure, Big Oil had a bad year. But now is not the time to let up the pressure. If we know anything about this industry, it’s that it’ll do everything to stay in power.



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