Big Oil Reckons With Climate Change

12:08 minutes

aerial view of a sprawling oil refinery with many round large tanks and myriad pipes
Credit: Shutterstock

Depending on your perspective, Wednesday was a bad day to be an oil company, or a good day to be a climate activist. Three major oil companies had climate change pushed higher on their agendas: Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030; Chevron was told by its shareholders to reduce not just its emissions from oil production, but also those of its customers; and at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting, a small advocacy firm managed to score two, and possibly three, spots on its board of directors.

So where did these climate coups come from, and what could come next? Vox staff writer Umair Irfan talks to John Dankosky about this week’s wins for the planet, as well as the limits of such reforms.

Plus other stories from the week, including Moderna’s promising COVID-19 vaccine results in adolescents aged 12-17, and President Biden’s call for more investigation into COVID-19’s origins.

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Segment Guests

Umair Irfan

Umair Irfan is a senior correspondent at Vox, based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky, in for Ira Flatow. Later this hour, we’ll talk about the 15% to 20% of Americans who are still in wait-and-see mode about getting the COVID vaccine. And we’ll look at how drought in the Southwest is affecting the Colorado River basin.

But first, depending on your perspective, Wednesday was a bad day to be an oil company or a good day to be a climate activist. Three major oil companies had climate change pushed higher on their agendas. Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. Chevron was told by its shareholders to reduce not just its emissions from oil production, but also those of its customers. And at Exxon’s annual shareholder meeting, a small climate advocacy group managed to score seats on its board of directors.

So where do these climate coups come from, and what could come next? Vox staff writer Umair Irfan is here to talk about this big story. Welcome back to the program, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So I just ran through these oil company stories pretty quickly. Maybe you can dig into them in a bit more detail. A lot happened on this one big day.

UMAIR IRFAN: Yeah, that’s right. You know, one of the biggest ones was at Shell. This is a major international oil company. And a Dutch court ruled that essentially, they have to control their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Now, Shell did put out a plan a few years ago saying that they were going to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But crucially, this ruling says that they have to account for what’s known as scope 3, which is basically not just the emissions that they produce, but emissions that are produced from burning their product by their customers. And so that means that they have a much larger scope of responsibility here. And what this ruling will likely mean is that they’ll have to actually stop, you know, combusting and also drilling for more oil. So this is a fundamental change to their business model.

JOHN DANKOSKY: A fundamental change there coming from the courts. In some ways, though, these other moves that are really shareholder based might make even more of an impact. Talk us through those.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. So these shareholder-owned companies mean that investors have a say in how these companies are run. And more recently, climate activists have found that they can get a seat at the table by buying stock in these companies. And in the case of Exxon this week, yes, there was an investment firm that literally got seats on their board. And they have two. They might potentially get up to three seats.

And this is a way that they’ve been able to make their voices heard, essentially. They have these big meetings that these companies are required to hold. They can make their case for why actually addressing climate change is a good business decision, but also that continuing to drill for oil is a bad decision. And that’s kind of what’s interesting here with both ConocoPhillips and Chevron, is that they’re making the case that this is a business benefit to address and mitigate climate change and that it’s causing harm if they don’t.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What are some of the limitations of the power that shareholders actually have to force any change in these companies, though?

UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, the big thing is that these companies are obligated to generate a profit for their shareholders. And so anything that requires an investment upfront has to translate into something that’s going to generate a profit down the line. And so that business case has to be made. They’re legally obligated to do this. They can actually be sued if they do things that are counterproductive to their shareholders.

So it’s really hard to make that case. But in recent years, you know, with this global push for climate action, with companies coming up with their own developments and technologies, and also governments starting to impose more restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, these shareholders, these activists, are actually able to make a compelling business case that it makes sense to actually start addressing climate change, to start diversifying the business portfolio and dealing with the world past oil.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Despite all this good news for climate activists, though, it should be clear that there are plenty of big oil companies that just can’t be forced to change at all through these kind of avenues.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. These are the investor-owned oil companies that we’re talking about, but the largest share of oil production right now is being held by nationally-owned oil companies. So these are basically government-run corporations. And for these governments, you know, particularly those around the Middle East– countries like Saudi Arabia– oil is the dominant source of revenue. They don’t really have much of an alternative. And because they’re owned by governments, there is less opportunity for individuals and activists to get a seat at the table to try to sway their decisions. And so these companies are increasingly making up a larger share of oil production, and they’re becoming harder and harder to sway.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s move on to some COVID-19 news here. Pfizer’s vaccine was approved for adolescents earlier this month. And later on in the program, we’re going to be talking about vaccine hesitancy, including in parents. But in the meantime, now Moderna has some promising results for this 12 to 17 age group in its latest set of data. Tell us more about what we heard.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, the company Moderna reported this week that they found 100% efficacy in children ages between the ages of 12 and 17, with no serious safety issues. And now they want to seek FDA approval to administer this vaccine to younger people just like Pfizer did.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So Pfizer had similar results. Pfizer has already been approved. What took Moderna so long?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, part of the reason is how Pfizer got their initial emergency use authorization. When they filed for that initial approval, they looked for approval for ages 16 and up. So they were able to vaccinate teenagers this whole time. Moderna’s approval was primarily for ages 18 and older. And Pfizer also, being a US biotech company, knows how to grease the wheels and work with regulators, and so they had a little bit of an advantage in terms of organizing and getting their results out faster.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is really good news. If Moderna gets approved, then there’s more vaccine available for adolescents. But Umair, is supply– at least in America– really the problem here?

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, I think we’re running into an issue where we’ve already vaccinated most of the people that desperately want a vaccine, and now we’re trying to get to the people that are a little bit more hesitant and the holdouts. And so we’re going from the people that were willing to wait in line for this to the people that really need a little bit more persuasion. And so supply is not really the issue here. I think it’s more about demand and persuading people to actually get this vaccine.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and there is this question about whether or not the vaccines that might be used for low-risk 12-year-olds in America could be better used elsewhere in the world.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. The important thing to remember is that while the cases and deaths are declining in the US, the pandemic is just about the worst it has ever been when you look at the international picture. You know, India, for instance, is still reporting huge numbers of cases. The New York Times this week pointed out that there are 27 million official cases, but the real number could be high as 700 million infections.

And so the case could be made here that the United States would actually benefit by vaccinating health workers in other countries, because the US is part of the global economy. And when other countries get their economies back on board, that benefits us as well. And it also helps control the transmission of this disease. The more it spreads, the more likely it is to mutate and produce new variants.

JOHN DANKOSKY: In the other big COVID-19 news of the week, President Biden has ordered an investigation into the origins of the virus. Now, the bulk of the evidence, as we know, has pointed toward natural origins. Why is Biden asking for more investigation into this right now?

UMAIR IRFAN: A part of it is that there has been sort of a change in thinking among some of the scientists. Now that we have a little bit more distance from the initial days of the pandemic, scientists are– some scientists are saying that we haven’t completely foreclosed the possibility that this could have escaped from a lab. Now, let’s be clear that what we’re not talking about here is some sort of engineered virus or some sort of bioweapon. What they’re saying is this potentially was something that was being studied in a research laboratory, and through an inadvertent accident, through just some sort of mistake, just got out of there. And they want to make sure that this is something that’s ruled out, because that will help them probe the true origins of the virus. And so that’s why they’re saying this deserves a little bit more attention.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, so much of the conversation around the source has been political over the course of the last year. But you know, Anthony Fauci, Akiko Iwasaki from Yale, who’s been on this program, are among the scientists who are saying it’s pretty important that we actually find out the origin here.

UMAIR IRFAN: That’s right. You know, the potential of a global pandemic-causing virus is something that’s very important. And we want to find out where the reservoirs of this virus are. Do these occur naturally in nature? Is there a natural exposure route that we can close off? And if it wasn’t in nature, and it came through human error, then that merits even more investigation, because we have laboratories like this all over the world that are studying viruses, and we want to make sure that if there was a mistake, we can find it and close that pathway off.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Given all the politics around this, though, is there any kind of evidence that would really cement our certainty that the virus emerged naturally or didn’t?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, some of the scientists I’ve talked to have acknowledged that even if they are interested in probing the natural origin versus the lab leak, they know that it’s unlikely we might get a definitive answer. But there are still some things that we didn’t get a chance to look at in the previous investigations, you know, like the World Health Organization inquiry. Things like certain lab records. They want more interviews with scientists. They want a little bit more exploration of how the lab was functioning on a day-to-day basis. And by looking at those sources, they can actually help narrow the range of possibilities and point more narrowly at where the likely sources are going to be.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s move to space news here. And all of a sudden, there’s another rover on Mars. China has one there now. Tell us more.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right. This is part of China’s Tianwen mission that was launched last year. That included an orbiter, a lander, and a rover. And the Zhurong Rover just got rolling this week and started returning some of the first images of the Red Planet this week.

This rover looks kind of like the Curiosity and the Perseverance rovers from NASA, so it has six wheels. It has solar panels on top. But this one’s a little bit smaller, weighing in at about 500 pounds. And its instruments are going to be used to study mineralogy and weather on Mars, but also look for things that can support life, like water and ice.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Will it have a helicopter?

UMAIR IRFAN: It will not have a helicopter, but it does have cameras and sophisticated instruments. And it is expected to operate for about 90 days.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Does it seem like there’s going to be more competition about more countries trying to get rovers onto Mars? Now there are two. Could there be a third, or maybe some sort of private investment firm that gets a rover there, too?

UMAIR IRFAN: I mean, there’s certainly a lot of international interest in Mars. It’s an important scientific area of study, but it’s also a point of national pride for countries. You know, so the Soviet Union sent missions to Mars. India has a satellite in orbit. Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates sent a spacecraft to Mars.

So a lot of countries really do want to plant their flag, perhaps not literally, but with scientific instruments on Mars and let the world know that they are capable of conducting research in that area. So definitely something that we’re going to see more activity in in the coming years.

JOHN DANKOSKY: All right. Let’s finish with what I think is a really cool story. Scientists sent a laser pulse that moved faster than light. OK, so can I just say, this is really cool, and I didn’t know this was possible.

UMAIR IRFAN: Right, so the research team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory reported that they detected pulses that move faster than light. What they used was a couple lasers pointed at a plasma made of hydrogen and helium. And when the lasers collided, they detected these brightness spots that were moving. And so when one of the lasers had a larger wavelength, the pulse moved slower than the speed of light, but when it had a much shorter wavelength, it was able to be detected at a pace that seemed to be faster than the speed of light.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is remarkable. Are there any practical applications of this? I mean, now that we have seen this, what happens next?

UMAIR IRFAN: Well, one thing is, this is an experiment that will probably lead to more experiments. This is something that they’re going to probably probe further just to make sure that this is a valid result. But also, this is something that they can use to better optimize lasers and other equipment that they use for measuring and conducting other experiments. You know, they are running into some limits with some of the lenses that they use, particularly with high-energy lasers that can sometimes melt glass.

But important thing to remember is that this doesn’t really violate the laws of physics as we know them. The scientists did point out that none of the photons themselves in the light beams, in the laser beams, actually moved faster than the speed of light. What they were detecting was a pulse of brightness. It’s not something that you can use to actually transmit information, so information still can’t move faster than the speed of light. And so that rule has still not been broken here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, so we haven’t broken this foundational rule, at least this week. That’s all the time we have. Umair Irfan is staff writer for Vox. He joined us from Washington, DC. Umair, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much for joining us.

UMAIR IRFAN: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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