There’s a Messaging Battle Right Now Over America’s Energy Future
Climate scientists, oil executives, progressives and conservatives all agree on one thing these days: The energy transition is upon us.
The uninhibited burning of fossil fuels for more than a century has already warmed the planet significantly, and cleaner and more sustainable sources of power are urgently needed in order to avoid further catastrophic changes to the environment.
But even as longtime adversaries use the same terminology, calling in unison for an “energy transition,” they are often talking about starkly different scenarios.
According to the scientific consensus, the energy transition requires a rapid phasing out of fossil fuels and the immediate scaling up of cleaner energy sources like wind, solar and nuclear.
But many in the oil and gas business say the energy transition simply means a continued use of fossil fuels, with a greater reliance on natural gas rather than coal, and a hope that new technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration can contain or reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses they produce.
“The term energy transition is interpreted one way by the climate hawks, and in a totally different way by those in the oil and gas industry,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “It is a very ambiguous term. Like, what does that even mean?”
The phrase has become what is known in linguistics circles as an “floating signifier,” Dr. Leiserowitz said. He called it “a blank term that you can fill with your own preferred definition.”
Efforts to move the world away from fossil fuels have been proceeding in slow motion for years, as nations and corporations advance scattershot efforts to reduce emissions. But the transformation is reaching an inflection point today, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompting climate advocates and the oil and gas industry to advance dueling narratives about what the energy transition is and how it should be carried out.
Climate researchers point out that there is little room for ambiguity. With increasing urgency, a series of major scientific reports has underlined the need to phase out fossil fuels and the damaging effects of planet warming emissions.
Last year, a landmark report from the International Energy Agency said nations around the world would need to immediately stop approving new coal-fired power plants and new oil and gas fields and swiftly phase out gasoline powered vehicles to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
And last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, said the number of people suffering irreparable loss or dislocation because of extreme weather would soar without a rapid shift away from fossil fuels.
Those in favor of a fast pivot to clean energy contend that the war in Ukraine, which has put a spotlight on Europe’s heavy reliance on Russian oil and gas, has only driven home the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels.
“There’s a well-understood path that we all need to follow here,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit organization that advocates for swift action to address climate change. “It’s a fundamental shift away from production and use of oil and gas and toward renewable resources.”
The general public is also broadly supportive of a determined move away from fossil fuels, with 69 percent of Americans saying that developing sources of clean energy should be a high priority for leaders in Washington, and the same share supporting a transition of the U.S. economy to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, though, just 31 percent of those polled thought the United States should phase out fossil fuels entirely.
“Public support for rapidly accelerating the transition to clean energy is driven largely by the view that burning fossil fuel is bad for peoples’ health and the planet’s health, and that transitioning to clean energy will produce more jobs and strengthen our economy more than continued reliance on fossil fuels,” Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, said in an email. “Public perception is well aligned with the views of health experts and economists on these points.”
Oil and gas executives, however, have a very different view of how the energy transition should play out.
At CERAWeek, a major energy industry conference in Houston last week, there were more than 100 panel discussions and presentations about the “energy transition,” and the term was used to describe programs articulating a broad range of visions from virtually eliminating the use of coal, gas and oil, to using all forms of energy, including fossil fuels, for the foreseeable future, but capturing the emissions that are damaging the planet.
“All energy sources will be needed to support a successful transition,” Amin Nasser, chief executive of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, said at the conference. “Our industry must play its part, too.”
Mr. Nasser lamented the lack of a cohesive intergovernmental plan for an energy transition and said that politicians were discouraging oil and gas production without allocating sufficient resources to develop renewable energy sources that could quickly replace fossil fuels. Mr. Nasser did not mention that oil companies have lobbied to weaken and block legislation that would address climate change, such as President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which would dedicate $550 billion in tax incentives to clean energy.
“We don’t really have a transition plan,” he said. “We have a chaotic transition plan.”
Fossil fuel executives cited the war in Ukraine as proof that their industry remains indispensable. Many major oil and gas companies have pledged to ramp up production in the short term in an effort to stabilize global energy markets, even as they talk up their part in the energy transition.
Darren Woods, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, said in a speech that his company was increasing oil production while at the same time using its technology to help address the challenge of “reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting the transition to a net zero future.” Exxon is among several big oil and gas companies to invest in efforts to capture and store carbon, and to produce energy with hydrogen, which is derived from fossil fuels but produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
And in an interview in Washington this week, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas companies, dismissed the idea that the “energy transition” meant a significant drop in the use of fossil fuels. She noted that the Energy Information Agency last year predicted that demand for oil and gas will continue to rise steadily through 2050.
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“We can talk about this idealistic supposed future where there’s no oil, natural gas and coal,” Ms. Sgamma said. “But that’s not the reality.”
She argued that while renewable energy sources like wind and solar are getting cheaper, they have been difficult to scale and are unreliable.
“So if we’re going to talk about a transition, let’s find something that we can transition to, because right now we don’t have a technology that can provide all of our needs 24-7. Flat out we don’t,” she said. “So just realistically, we’re going to be here through 2050 and many years after.”
Critics of the oil and gas industry view their insistence on the enduring value of fossil fuels as a stall tactic at best, and deceptive at worst.
“This is a cover for ‘We don’t want a real transition,’” said David Victor, a climate policy expert at the University of California, San Diego.
Murky terminology also leaves the door open for greenwashing.
“Any company, even an oil company, can say, ‘Oh, we’re behind the energy transition,’” Dr. Leiserowitz said, pointing to examples such as Exxon’s marketing of its algae biofuels and BP’s attempt to rebrand itself “Beyond Petroleum.”
“That’s a clever way of tapping into this broader narrative of transitioning,” he said.
Yet even if the term means different things to different constituents, the fact that fierce adversaries share a common language could be a useful development.
Teenie Matlock, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California Merced who had studied the semantics of climate change, said that having a shared set of terms was an important step in efforts to find common cause, even if not everyone agreed on the particulars right away.
“With the word ‘transition’ and the way it’s being used, it opens the window for multiple stakeholders,” she said. “It invites everyone to take part in a dialogue.”
Dr. Leiserowitz agreed, adding that the fact that the oil and gas industry was acknowledging the need for change at all was a major breakthrough.
“The positive side is that it is a flexible enough term that it gets everybody moving in the same direction, and it cannot be underestimated how important that is,” he said. “Just using the term ‘energy transition’ means that we’re going from where we are today. So you’ve already established the fundamental direction of progress, and that’s huge.”
Semantics alone are unlikely to dictate the pace at which fossil fuels are replaced with cleaner energy sources. Economics will determine just how much the world “transitions” to clean energy and leaves fossil fuel behind, said John Podesta, a former senior counselor to President Barack Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
Will fossil fuel plants that use technology to capture and store dangerous carbon dioxide emissions be competitive with wind and solar along with battery storage? Will paying to fill the tank of a gas-powered car still be the best choice when electric vehicle charging stations are more plentiful?
“We’ll let the marketplace decide that,” Mr. Podesta said. “I’m going to make my bet on renewables plus storage, but you know, other people make different bets.”