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About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a...  (More)

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The power of protest

Uploaded: Nov 6, 2022

On Wednesday and Thursday of this past week, I attended the 2022 Global Energy Forum at Stanford, a biennial gathering focused on the evolving energy ecosystem. This year’s agenda was compelling, with speakers from top corporate and government institutions and topics ranging from clean transportation to corporate pledges to government financing. I hoped to learn about some new challenges and interesting work that I could cover in future blog posts, and I do have some good ideas. But I am surprised to find myself writing about the Forum itself for this post.

The two-day Global Energy Forum was organized into a series of one-hour panels. A moderator would introduce an area and then ask questions of the experts on stage before choosing from questions that the audience had submitted. This worked out well and there was some interesting discussion. There were two exceptions to this format. On Wednesday Senator Joe Manchin dialed into a virtual “fireside chat” to discuss the Inflation Reduction Act with Professor Steven Chu, and on Thursday Exxon CEO Darren Woods took the stage to answer questions from Exxon board member Alexander Karsner.

This is where I started to wonder about the influence of Exxon funding at Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, the Forum’s sponsor, which is part of the Doerr School of Sustainability at Stanford. What has Exxon accomplished recently that is so laudable and noteworthy as to merit a solo hour on stage at this event? Just the day before, Karsner had hosted a panel on “Energy Company Transitions” with senior executives from Shell and TotalEnergies. It would have been terrific to have a US oil company on stage with those two European firms. And yet Woods was given almost a full hour on his own.

The main thing I recall Woods talking about was the way that Exxon reorganized earlier in the year to be more flexible as they transition their business to include work on green hydrogen, biofuels, and carbon capture and storage. (1) Exxon has switched from 11 companies, each with their own R&D labs, to three companies that share central R&D and engineering capabilities. The idea is to make it easier for them to shift resources between businesses as some grow more quickly than others. It also puts their growing low carbon business on the same level as their fossil fuel and petrochemicals businesses.

That makes a lot of sense to me, and you can read more about it here. But is a corporate reorganization really enough to elevate Exxon to its own “fireside chat”? The Exxon CEO got more stage time than anyone else at the conference except for Karsner, who was interviewing him. And unlike in any of the other panels or interviews, Karsner didn’t engage much or even at all with the audience questions, though there were some good ones. For example, Exxon does not include Scope 3 emissions in its goals, while both Shell and TotalEnergies do. It would have been great to get Woods’ take on that, and even more so if they were all on the same stage.

Instead Karsner offered up his own questions during what was meant to be the Q&A period. He ended with “If you could wave a magic wand and have some technology become reality, what would it be?” I thought Woods might suggest something like “low cost synthetic fuel”, since that is in their domain and we had just heard from Airbus about the challenges we have with low-emission flight. But Woods’ answer was that he would like to see negative emissions at scale. I was struck by that, because it doesn’t help his business evolve and get cleaner, it just facilitates the growth of their old, polluting business. Why is that his number one choice? So they don’t have to change anything? It seems backwards looking at best. (2)

When the European oil majors (Shell and TotalEnergies) were on the stage, I submitted the question that I discussed in an earlier blog, a question that was asked of a Chevron executive at UC Berkeley. “You have a choice between following the market and meeting demand for clean energy, or using your considerable leverage in the energy ecosystem to accelerate the transition to clean energy. What are you doing to proactively help and encourage your customers to switch to clean energy?” The Chevron exec had pushed back hard against this question, saying it was not their business to influence demand. So I was curious to see what the Europeans would say, though I suspected they might just skip over the question.

To my surprise, the TotalEnergies executive specifically picked out my question saying “This is a great question!” and responded with something like “Yes, it’s frustrating right, we don’t control demand but we need to influence it in order to hit our goals. So, there are a couple of things that we are doing. As one example, there is a sort of a chicken-and-egg between people who want an EV but are waiting for more charging infrastructure to be deployed, and the charging infrastructure waiting for there to be enough demand from EVs. So we said, okay, we are just going to go out in front and build the charging infrastructure. We are putting in 150,000 charging stations by 2024.” He didn’t duck the question, instead he embraced the question and was able to elucidate some of the corporate strategy around it.

The Exxon CEO in constrast sounded much like the Chevron CFO at Berkeley, saying that Exxon will respond to demand with the lowest emissions possible; that when the transition happens, Exxon will be ready; that price is a function of supply and demand, and with demand going up supply needs to go up; etc. Exxon is a mere passive participant in a market that is beyond their control.

All of this is to say that, by the end of the Exxon hour, I was feeling a little queasy. The conversation was very chummy, the questions very soft, and the session went well beyond its allocated time, with Karsner joking about how he was annoying the host with this. I can only listen to so much of “Tell me, why would Stanford students want to come and work at a place like Exxon?” (3) When it ended, I grabbed a packet of M&Ms from the host desk thinking they might make me feel better, and headed outside for some fresh air. And what happened then is why I am writing this blog.

Outside the patio, just past a barrier, a group of people stood with signs reading “Exxon Knew”, “Shut the Doerr on Fossil Fuel”, and “Stop Fossil Fuel Capture”. Some wore costumes and one hit a small gong as they chanted “Hey hey, ho ho, Exxon funding’s got to go”. I was curious and moved closer to take a look. As I realized what the group was about, a smile spread across my face and I sank into a chair nearby to soak in the hope and relief that I felt from this protest. I noticed other attendees lingering as well, watching and listening. After a while one of the protestors picked up a microphone and talked about the history of Exxon, their complicity and even leadership in climate denial and climate delay, and their low level of investment today in clean technology relative to their traditional business (less than 10%).

Many Stanford students, faculty, and staff have led a campaign for months to encourage the Doerr School of Sustainability to refuse fossil fuel funding and sponsorship. Dean Arun Majumdar has shared his thoughts on this topic, encouraged people to have open minds and patience, and has said that he will listen and come to a conclusion at the end of fall quarter. I now have a somewhat more informed opinion about this. I believe that oil and gas companies need to transition and that we should help them to transition. Their scale and influence can be a big lift. But they need to be sincere and committed, forthright about the damage (and good) that their products are doing, and willing to spend much of their recent windfall profits to accelerate the clean energy transition. They should be championing and acting in lock step with our Paris ambitions. Exxon is not there. And it may well be that most others aren’t as well. So for Stanford’s Doerr School of Sustainability to lionize the CEO on a stage is just wrong. I don’t disagree with Majumdar when he writes “I believe the businesses trying to make a meaningful effort to change ought to be allowed some room and time to change their course and align their values, goals, and actions to address climate change.” But you can give people room without giving them a stage.

In my opinion, Stanford needs to look beyond words to commitments, beyond commitments to actions, and beyond actions to investment. The protesters are right to protest, and I hope that Majumdar and Doerr listen. I don’t want to go to Stanford again and have the same feeling and experience that I did with that Exxon performance.

Notes and References
1. Oil and gas companies often branch out into those three areas because they use many of the skill sets of their employees, and Exxon is no exception. The only thing I missed hearing him talk about was geothermal exploration.

2. We absolutely need negative emissions, but the oil and gas companies should not be focused on that, and in fact we want them to push ahead as if there are none, not grow to rely on them.

3. One thing that’s interesting is that Karsner was brought onto Exxon’s board, against Woods’ will, to help the company transition to clean energy. So maybe he is making inroads and helping the company to change, and this performance was an attempt to help Woods feel good about it. But even if that is the case, Stanford doesn’t have to be complicit in that.

Current Climate Data (September 2022)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

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Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Nov 6, 2022 at 7:29 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

Sherry, as a climate change activist, you won't be satisfied with anything an oil company executive has to say. You're at odds, and you have to ask yourself, were the "free" M&Ms worth it? Oil companies are more powerful than protesters and activists. I think oil companies pretend to care, and they placate the masses. I commend you for your efforts. You really do care more than most.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Nov 6, 2022 at 11:53 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Jennifer, I think the whole point of this is: Can we figure out criteria by which we do not paint all oil and gas companies with the same brush, so we can give more attention to the better actors. I *want* to be satisfied with some things the oil executives say (and do). Can we set policies that encourage them to meet those criteria, rather than lavishing more attention on the ones that give us more money?

Posted by Cheryl Lilienstein, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 9, 2022 at 1:27 pm

Cheryl Lilienstein is a registered user.

A question I would have asked all presenters, and urge those whose work is funded by energy corporations: What percentage of the windfall profits will be used to fund transition to renewable energy, and what percentage will go to stockholders?

The Biden Administration released substantial US oil reserves in order to stabilize the economy, yet energy corporations opportunistically did not curb prices sufficiently, are still "fueling" inflation, and are still accumulating windfall profits. From humanity's point of view, the need for developing a green economy is urgent, and the windfall profits enabled by inflation could go two ways: make energy companies potent proactive developers, or pay off stockholders. What's your plan?

Posted by BruceS, a resident of Greenmeadow,
on Nov 10, 2022 at 12:49 am

BruceS is a registered user.

It strikes me that the oil companies have two problems:

1. They're primarily drilling and chemistry companies, and none of the existing energy alternatives really match this expertise (one exception might be geothermal, but that probably will remain a fairly niche field). Battery chemistry is of course huge, but still a change from their current expertise, and they'd be behind all the companies already involved in that.

2. Most corporations these days (and alas even most investors) think of long term planning being for a year or so (normal planning is for the next quarter).

The first is a real problem for oil companies. Changing their expertise is neither easy nor guaranteed successful.

The second is a problem for all companies. It's not good, but not easy to fix.

Does this all absolve the oil companies? Not really, and definitely not from propagandizing against Global Warming for years. But it seems to me that they are in a pickle, albeit one partly one of their own making.

Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of JLS Middle School,
on Nov 10, 2022 at 10:25 am

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Sherry, it sounds like what was happening behind the "paywall" was more of a lecture series, while the voices of dissent were relegated to the sidewalk. It's becoming more common as the "haves" use each other for support of crumbling infrastructure. The voices outside lack the resources to effect change. As Cheryl Lillienstein noted, billionaire corporations have politicized and now capitalized on the misfortune of consumers who are at their mercy. I don't trust capitalists to be part of real change that will save the world. I'm fossil fuel dependent. I'm in that tax bracket that can't afford to upgrade to an all electric life, and now I'm quickly becoming unable to afford to fuel my car and buy groceries. One or the other, not both. The corporations are playing a game I played as a child, called "PIT". But they play by different rules. One that gives them all of the advantages. We are a first world country (seemingly) with all of the space age and scientific equipment and know-how to create renewable sources of energy. It's my belief that we are just being milked for all we have, before someone reveals that what we flush down our toilets every day could be converted into fuel. An endless supply. Of course this is a pipe dream but something like this does exist, I am sure of it. But Exxon will be the last to tell us about it until they can figure out how to capture the profits. TotalEnergy may be on the right track, but 150k chargers is a pittance. Yet, it will likely keep pace with the number of people who can afford to buy electric cars. I won't be buying a new car until at least 2025, depending on the economy. The prices of electric cars need to come way down. In other words, I won't be buying an electric car, ever.

Posted by Eric Muller, a resident of Los Altos,
on Nov 10, 2022 at 12:04 pm

Eric Muller is a registered user.

Not exactly on Big Oil, but this mini conference at Stanford may be interesting:

Corporations and Climate Risk in the Real World: The Case of PG&E
Sponsored by Corporations and Society Initiative (CASI)
Web Link

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Nov 10, 2022 at 6:19 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@BruceS, the oil and gas companies have found good matches for their expertise and assets in hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture and storage, and biofuels. I don’t see why they couldn’t also work on new types of plastics, recycling pathways, etc. They are also used to long-term planning because new wells are a long-term investment, and take a long while to get permitted and built. I think it’s more a question of will. It’s hard to ramp down a profitable business, even if it’s clearly doing harm. See opioid manufacturers, cigarette manufacturers, etc. That is why they spent so long denying that there was any harm, and then delaying action, even though they clearly knew what they were doing. They have done incalculable damage by their actions, and I have zero sympathy for them. They could start by owning it and then helping us all get out of this mess. Ditto for the US when it comes to loss and damages for third-world countries. It’s too much to ask, but it shouldn’t be.

@MyFeelz, I hope at some point you at least consider a used EV. They used to be screaming deals, though nothing is cheap right now. FWIW, Peninsula Clean Energy has up to a $6000 rebate on used EVs. Maybe other local utilities will step up as well. The Inflation Reduction Act also offers up to a $4000 rebate for used EVs. Help is coming!

@Eric, that sounds like a great event. Thanks for the pointer.

Posted by Paly Grad, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Nov 13, 2022 at 8:14 pm

Paly Grad is a registered user.

Speaking of rebates, could an argument be made to offer rebates on hybrid vehicles which may offer significantly better gas mileage than similar non-hybrid models?

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