ExxonMobil recently launched a new plan to develop carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) systems, and that has enabled the company to portray itself as a climate action hero of sorts. However, critics have charged that CCS can be deployed to perpetuate fossil energy at the expense of public health, and now 220 medical journals have joined in a global effort that adds considerable weight to the argument against CCS.
ExxonMobil’s pivot into CCS follows a long history in the field of climate change denial over the years, though in 2018 the company did withdraw its financial support for a leading purveyor of climate misinformation.
Meanwhile, other fossil energy stakeholders have taken steps to diversify their energy holdings at the source. Shell and BP, for example, are among those making significant investments in wind power, solar power and green hydrogen as well as electric vehicle charging and other technologies relating to decarbonization.
While these clean tech investments generally pale in comparison to ongoing fossil energy interests, these companies do bring high-profile investor dollars to the clean power table, helping to build supply chains, drive the renewable energy market forward, and attract top talent to the clean tech field.
In contrast, the only significant commitment that ExxonMobil has made toward innovative new clean technology is a long running algae biofuel research program.
Algae has been a promising biofuel crop, but the technological obstacles are many, and commercial development of any sizable scale appears to be far in the future. In that context, the research effort appears to be little more than an elaborate greenwashing campaign.
Perhaps in recognition that a more immediate solution would cast the company in a better light, earlier this year the company launched a new branch called ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions. Despite the broad-ranging name, the initial focus is exclusively on CCS. Last month, Inside Climate News noted that the availability of federal funding could also be a factor in the decision to focus on CCS.
Inside Climate News additionally pointed out that while CCS can be applied to cement making and other heavy industries, it can also be deployed to perpetuate fossil energy operations that pollute local communities.
The focus on local public health puts ExxonMobil in an awkward position, considering that the company has long used the public health argument to advocate in favor of fossil energy.
That argument may have worked to some degree years ago, when renewable energy was relatively expensive. During the early years of the Obama administration, the company’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, became known for arguing that decarbonization was an expensive venture that would harm local populations. Only fossil sources could provide enough affordable, abundant energy to resolve global public health issues, he argued.
In a 2012 corporate letter cited by Foreign Policy, Tillerson elaborated on the case for fossil energy against renewables.
“In the coming decades…society will continue to face complex challenges related to a growing world population, economic growth, climate change, food security and public health," he wrote, adding that “We must recognize that none of the challenges we face can be addressed without reliable and affordable access to energy.”
Tillerson’s argument skips over the numerous public health issues faced by communities located at or near fossil energy operations. That shortcoming was picked apart by critics back when he was ExxonMobil CEO, and it has withered away even more since then. The environmental justice movement has gathered force in recent years, poking significant new holes in the old “energy poverty” argument by drawing attention to the local health impacts of fossil energy operations.
That is why ExxonMobil, and companies like it, will find little if any support in this week’s dramatic call to action by public health experts, in which approximately 220 health journals around the world simultaneously published editorials calling for wealthy nations to pick up the pace on decarbonization.
On its surface, the editorial effort appears to vindicate the large-scale carbon capture solutions promoted by ExxonMobil, among others.
However, the editorials do not actually call for climate action at any cost. They argue that climate action must be attended by action on environmental justice, including habitat preservation as well as community health.
The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, for example, leads with the point that “health is already being harmed by global temperature increases and the destruction of the natural world,” before emphasizing that health professionals worldwide are “united in recognizing that only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.”
The NEJM editorial further points out that heat-related impacts on human health “disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems.”
While not explicitly naming fossil energy companies, the editorial also underscores the need to stop habitat destruction related to fossil energy extraction or, for that matter, biofuel crop cultivation, pointing out that health experts have been advocating for action on habitat preservation for many years.
“Thriving ecosystems are essential to human health, and the widespread destruction of nature, including habitats and species, is eroding water and food security and increasing the chance of pandemics,” the authors write.
As for the responsibility of wealthier nations to shoulder much of the climate action burden, the authors argue that the consequences of inaction on climate change and habitat destruction will “breed more conflict, food insecurity, forced displacement, and zoonotic disease — with severe implications for all countries and communities,” unless wealthier nations pull their resources together on climate action.
“This is an overall environmental crisis,” the authors emphasize, not simply one of decarbonizing the global energy landscape.
In effect, the authors make a strong case against using CCS to perpetrate fossil energy extraction. Whether or not government policy makers listen remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the collective editorial effort underscores the need for business leaders to steer clear of quick technology fixes and focus their attention on long term solutions that provide for habitat preservation and local public health alongside decarbonization, not as an afterthought.
Image credit: Chris LeBoutillier/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.