Scolding oil companies for being oil companies is wrong way to go

It seems to have become a standard complaint lately on the part of the eco-aware, that the big oil companies are not doing enough to invest their mega-huge profits into research and development of renewable energy alternatives. The latest salvo is from the oil-enriched descendants of John D. Rockefeller, who are publicly scolding the management of ExxonMobil for being so intransigent about the global warming crisis.

Descendants of legendary oil tycoon John D Rockefeller have accused ExxonMobil of adopting a myopic approach towards alternative sources of energy and of refusing to engage in any meaningful discussion about the future of the planet.

At a feisty press conference in the penthouse suite of a luxury Manhattan hotel, members of the billionaire Rockefeller family complained that the world’s biggest oil company has repeatedly declined to listen to concerns about the direction of the business which has its roots in their ancestor’s 19th-century Standard Oil empire.

On the heels of this, The Guardian reports that Shell is following in ExxonMobil’s “damn the Earth, full oil speed ahead!” footsteps by backing out of a wind-power project in order to free up money to invest in more oil exploration.

The future of the world’s largest offshore wind farm and a symbol of Britain’s renewable energy future was thrown into doubt last night after it emerged that Shell was backing out of the project and indicated it would prefer to invest in more lucrative oil schemes.

I’m as frustrated as anyone, well as most aware people at least, that the oil companies are pillaging the global economy with their truly gross profits and also pillaging the global climate in their day-to-day business. Nonetheless, I don’t understand why we would expect ExxonMobil and its cohort ilk to be the ones to come to our renewable energy rescue. The managers of these corporations have succeeded so well by knowing how to manage the oil business (and to grease the hands of politicians, of course). That doesn’t mean they are the best managers for renewable energy businesses. If their hearts aren’t in it, why ask them to do it? Instead, it makes much more sense to me to tax the hell out of the bastards–and I say that purely, dispassionately, and objectively on the basis of the economic theory of accounting for negative externalities–and use the money to conduct government-funded R&D or to grant tax breaks to private efforts to improve and implement renewable energy alternatives.

There are two advantages to this. First, as I suggested above, the oil executives are probably the wrong people to be running renewable energy endeavors. They might do an okay job at it, but we don’t want an okay job done, we want the best conceivable job done and we’re more likely to get it when the leaders of the effort are passionate about what they’re doing for additional reasons than the desire for maximum profit. Second, if ExxonMobil takes $1 billion or $5 billion or whatever of their planned $25 billion capital investment fund and puts it into renewable energy, that helps out in the development and deployment of renewables; but it does virtually nothing to reign in ExxonMobil’s position as economic pillager par excellence. It doesn’t put a dent in the profits they have available for ongoing bribing–legal or otherwise–of politicians. It doesn’t put a dent in their attitude that they can and should extract every last penny from the consumer that they possibly can, homelessness and hunger be damned. A tax smack-down not only allows funds to be shifted to where they desperately need to go, but it helps out on these other economic and social justice fronts as well.

Let the oil companies be oil companies. But at the same time constrain the sphere of power (economic, political, environmental, and social) that they rule over. That way you get two birds with one stone.

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