Let's buy out Big Oil
The case for nationalizing the fossil fuel industry
When it comes to climate change, we're nearly out of time.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, concluded we have 12 years to cut global carbon emissions in half, and 32 years to cut them to zero. Otherwise, global warming will enter truly dangerous territory by the end of the century.
It's time to think big. That the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is discussing a Green New Deal is certainly a good sign. But we need to think bigger.
For instance: What if we just straight up nationalized the fossil fuel industry?
Think of it this way: Proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas still in the ground are several times as big as what we can burn while staying within the (moderate) safety of a 1.5 degree Celsius global temperature rise. Those reserves are owned by people and corporations, with a total value of $10 trillion to $20 trillion. Preventing catastrophic climate change requires convincing those people and corporations to simply walk away from that vast store of riches: Don't drill it, don't burn it, don't profit from it, don't sell it to anyone else. Simply let it disappear.
This is an absolutely gobsmacking demand. As Chris Hayes once noted, the only precedent in U.S. history for destroying wealth claims on that scale in the name of the greater good is the abolition of slavery — which required the bloodiest war America has ever fought.
Not only is that fossil fuel wealth a gigantic incentive for the industry to keep burning and profiting — it's also a source of enormous political power. In the 2018 election, fossil fuel interests spent over $90 million just to kill three modest state-level climate policy referendums. We just learned that the Trump administration's rollback of car emission standards was driven by Big Oil lobbying. Imagine the fight the industry would put up to stop a national carbon tax, or a Green New Deal effort to build a renewable infrastructure that competes for energy consumers.
So why don't we just buy the fossil fuel industry out and leave all that oil and coal in the ground?
This would neutralize, or at least significantly curtail, the economic incentive that fossil fuel shareholders have to fight back. They'd get to keep their money. In fact, they'd probably get to make money, since the government would need to offer a premium.
Nationalizing the industry could provide a solution to what to do with the 1.1 million people who work in oil, gas, and coal. Laying them off would be terrible. Instead, the government could fold them into the Green New Deal effort, and redirect them to build a renewable energy infrastructure. It could liquidate the physical capital of the fossil fuel industry to the same purpose.
This would cost trillions and trillions of dollars. There is no sugarcoating that figure. It is a gargantuan sum of money that is almost impossible to actually conceptualize.
But it would also be a one-time purchase. It might even end up costing less than we've spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are quite literally talking about the future of life on Earth. The price, no matter how mind-explodingly high, is worth it.
If modern human civilization is going to continue to survive — let alone thrive — on this planet, we must take action. We cannot be lulled into a sort of defeatist resignation, or let ourselves stifled by ruthless industrialists trying to protect their own wealth. We must act. No matter the cost. And the most straightforward way to truly curb emissions isn't by browbeating and regulating the industry: It's by buying the industry out.
Of course, there remains the problem of the rest of the world. The U.S. government has the legal ability to buy up a lot of the world’s fossil fuel production, but certainly not all of it. Yet if radical decarbonization on a global scale is what's needed, America has no choice but to lead by example.
And imagine if the U.S. government really did control the fossil fuel industry. We would have the ability to wind down all production in time to avoid cooking the planet. We'd still need to build the green systems to replace all that energy, but we would've eliminated the single biggest economic and political player that opposes that project. And all (probably) for less money than we've spent wrecking the Middle East.
When you look at it from that angle, it's something of a bargain.