Big Oil loves war in Ukraine, but it won’t last
Today is the last day of CERAWeek in Houston — the annual gathering of the fossil fuel industry in the world’s hydrocarbon capital. All the usual suspects are on hand — the CEOs of Exxon and Chevron, the heads of the oil and gas lobbies and the government enablers — and there’s a party vibe: After a decade of underperforming in every other economic sector, Big Oil had a mega-profitable year after exploiting the energy and geopolitical crisis Russia caused with its invasion of Ukraine.
But it’s no secret why, especially to us. One of us, Svitlana, spent much of the year in her native Ukraine, listening to air-raid sirens and dodging missiles that Russia lobbed at Ukrainian civilians; the other, Bill, spent the year tallying the toll of increasingly dire heat waves across the planet. And we know that the cause is here in Houston: a fossil fuel industry that will seize any opportunity to keep its business model going.
To the Exxons of the world, the war in Ukraine presented a perfect opportunity for two reasons. One, it drove the price of gas and oil sky-high for a while, locking in record profits. And two, they argued the industry should be allowed to build new gas infrastructure, purportedly to ship gas to Europe to make up for the supply that Russia had been providing.
Big Oil’s conduct is beyond hypocritical, of course — these companies helped Vladimir Putin build up the oil and gas regime that is funding his war against Ukraine. The previous CEO of Exxon literally has a medal of friendship from Putin, as thanks for investing tens of billions of dollars to develop Arctic oil. But hypocrisy has never slowed these guys down, and they’ve seized the moment to win permits for gas export terminals and other massive infrastructure in the U.S. — stuff that won’t come online fast enough to make a difference in Ukraine (or any other part of Europe) but will lock in fossil fuel use and consumption for decades to come, making it all but impossible to reach our climate change goals and objectives on a rapidly heating planet.
Happily, there’s another wind blowing — literally. Yes, Europe had to find alternative sources for gas this winter, and there’s been sufficient supply around the world from existing development. And Europe has — with some prodding from Svitlana’s Razom We Stand, a Ukrainian NGO —committed to making a faster transition to clean energy.
In fact, solar and wind power generated a fifth of Europe’s electricity in 2022, overtaking gas for the first time. Europe is leading the world in demonstrating that one of the weaknesses of relying on finite fossil fuel resources is that the people who control those resources inevitably exert leverage — both energy and geopolitical. In contrast, the sun and wind are the opposite of scarce, meaning they support democracy and geopolitical stability.
Ukraine itself could become a green energy showpiece as it is rebuilt after Russia’s defeat. Ukraine can leave behind the Soviet-era, heavily centralized power system and take advantage of cheap, renewable and decentralized technologies, such as heat pumps.
But first, Russia must be defeated, which means shutting down its fossil fuel funding. There must be a full, transparent and tightly enforced embargo on all Russian fossil fuel. Price caps and other half-measures aren’t working well enough; a fossil fuel ban is justified and required.
There were dire predictions that Europe would freeze this winter, but it didn’t — and with real effort, by next year it should be in an even stronger situation, with more green power. That would upset the fossil fuel forces gathered in Houston this week. But it would be a step not just to Ukrainian liberation, but to the liberation of a planet threatened by a rapid rise in temperature. The best possible memorial to the brave people of Ukraine would be to act on the lesson their suffering offers the world. Fossil fuels fund the chaos and crisis; renewable energy provides energy and geopolitical security and a livable planet.
director of the Ukrainian organization Razom We Stand, which grew out of the successful #StandWithUkraine campaign to end the global fossil fuel addiction that feeds Putin’s war machine.
Bill McKibben is the founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 for action on climate change.