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BP Plans To Keep It In The Ground, Sort Of

The climate justice movement has created conditions that make it harder for companies like BP to explore and extract fossil fuels.

by Robin Tress

Greenpeace activists delivered 500 solar panels with a total area of over 800 square meters to BP's London headquarters in St. James Square Feb. 5, 2020. Activists locked to oil barrels blocked all six office doors around the building. (Photo:Suzanne Plunkett/Greenpeace)

British fossil fuel giant and sixth biggest polluter of all time, BP, is making a move away from continued fossil fuel extraction. BP has announced plans to cut extraction of fossil fuels to 40 per cent below 2019 rates by the year 2030. This, as Oil Change International notes, is the first commitment “from a Big Oil and Gas company to recognize that significant reductions in oil and gas production must occur within this decade.”

BP board chairman Helge Lund says, “Energy markets are fundamentally changing, shifting towards low carbon, driven by societal expectations, technology and changes in consumer preferences.”

I understand these “societal expectations” to be pressures from social movements around the world, and I feel a deep sense of gratitude to everyone who has put decades of work into these movements.

What BP has committed to:

BP has announced that it will cut extraction by 40 per cent compared to 2019 levels by 2030 and that it will reduce upstream emissions and “carbon intensity” of their products by 15-30 per cent. This is the first time a fossil fuel giant has laid out a clear plan to reduce extraction on a clear and short timeline.

It is significant that BP is taking action on a 2030 timeline. Scientists are calling for global emissions to be cut in half by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050 in order to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, and yet most governments and corporations refuse to acknowledge this 2030 imperative in policy. For example, Trudeau continues to focus on net zero carbon by 2050, but aiming so far in the future without seriously planning for cuts of at least 65 per cent by 2030 is reckless. BP’s 2030 timeline is unusually bold and may set a new bar for others to live up to.

Part of BP’s plan to focus on “low carbon energy” includes investment in carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) and bioenergy. CCUS technology attempts to pull carbon from the atmosphere, either ambiently or from a point source of pollution. Unfortunately, CCUS is a false solution to the climate crisis. It does not stop fossil fuels from being used, does not disrupt the systems that led to the climate crisis, and it does not work. Bioenergy, also known as biofuel, is not much better – while biofuels tend to produce fewer associated emissions than typical fossil fuels, they are far from carbon neutral.

What BP has not committed to:

Even with this new move, BP is not doing its fair share to keep the global climate from warming more than 1.5 degrees.

Cutting their extraction by 40 per cent below 2019 levels does not put BP’s oil and gas production in line with a 1.5 degree warming scenario. One big problem with BP’s announcement is that the company will continue to hold a 20 per cent stake in Rosneft, a Russian oil company with no climate plan and numerous active fossil fuel projects.

BP is also leaving the door open to exploration in countries where BP already has operations (like Canada). This, plus BP’s continued partnership with Rosneft, mean the company could continue extracting fossil fuels for decades to come.

Reducing extraction and producing more low-carbon energy does not change the nature of BP’s operations – they are private, they are non-democratic, and they are massive.

In BP’s announcement they talk about a plan to partner with 10 cities around the world on “decarbonization efforts,” but in the same breath they talk about “doubling customer interactions to 20 million per day.” This is not a surprise, as we know the core function of corporations is to turn a profit but serves as a helpful reminder that BP’s primary motivation is (of course) profit, not sustainability or justice.

It’s unclear at this time exactly what BP’s partnership with 10 cities would look like, but we know what happens when corporations partner with public entities around utilities – rates go up, and quality of service goes down. The Council of Canadians has always called for community owned and managed renewable energy systems, publicly owned utilities, and energy democracy.

BP in Nova Scotia’s offshore

BP holds seven leases for offshore oil and gas exploration in Nova Scotia. After drilling one well in one of these lease areas, BP spilled 136 000 L of toxic drilling mud onto the bottom of the ocean and was never required to clean it up. The company still holds these leases and could continue exploration if they so choose.

While BP is cutting back on exploration, its announcement says nothing about dropping exploration leases or projects in countries they already operate in, and the company has made no moves towards dropping the leases in Nova Scotia.

More than business as usual

What I’m taking away from this news is that corporations are just corporations – profit is their primary motivation, and they will try everything within the landscape of the market to make that profit. In this case, BP is recognizing major market shifts and trying to make a profit within these new conditions.

The climate justice movement has created conditions that make it harder for companies like BP to explore and extract fossil fuels including economic and social disruptions like blockades, court cases, holding fossil fuel corporations accountable for their human rights violations, campaigns for fossil fuel divestment, policy advocacy, community resistance and more. Our movement has created the “societal expectations” and “consumer preferences” that force BP and other corporations to change.

And now, we’re demanding more than business as usual.

I am impressed by this announcement – but not by some clever economists at one of the world’s largest, dirtiest and richest oil companies. I’m proud and impressed that more than a decade of intense organizing around the world has created a movement that knows a fundamental step towards climate justice is to keep the oil in the ground.

Robin Tress is a climate and social justice campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

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