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What the fossil fuel industry is saying in this year's climate talks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The United Arab Emirates is one of the biggest oil producers in the world, and it's hosting the U.N. climate talks this week. The oil industry is highly visible at the summit in trying to shape global climate policy. Some of the industry's statements might sound like they are agreeing with climate activists. To dig into whether they actually are, Camila Domonoske of NPR's Business Desk and Julia Simon of the Climate Desk are here. And, Julia, to start, tell us what argument the oil industry is making at these talks about how to tackle climate change.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: What oil producers are saying is that the problem is not oil and gas itself. It's the carbon dioxide released when you burn those fuels. Those emissions heat the planet. Companies say if they can reduce or get rid of those emissions, the world can keep using fossil fuels. And we've heard from Sultan Al-Jaber, the head of the climate talks, the head of the UAE's oil company. He said last month that there's, quote, "no science out there" that says switching away from fossil fuels is needed to achieve climate goals. That is incorrect. But this argument is woven into what many oil companies are saying about climate change.

SHAPIRO: Camila, can you give us an example?

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Yeah. Let's start with a spot that our listeners might have heard on NPR's own programming from ExxonMobil, which is an NPR sponsor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The world needs ways to reduce carbon emissions. ExxonMobil is working on solutions in its own operations, like carbon capture and...

SHAPIRO: OK. Reducing carbon emissions sounds good. That's what climate advocates want, right?

DOMONOSKE: Yes. But you'll notice what it doesn't say is the world needs to cut its use of oil. Instead, it's suggesting a solution, this idea of carbon capture. That's a technology where a company captures carbon dioxide emissions before they hit the atmosphere and then stores the emissions underground. But carbon capture technology is expensive, and it often doesn't work well.

SIMON: And, Ari, the stakes are high if this technology doesn't work. Scientists say if we don't rapidly cut emissions, the world will experience far more catastrophic warming. Here's another example of language that leaves room for continued use of fossil fuels, this time from Chevron's CEO in a non-NPR podcast called "3 Takeaways."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "3 TAKEAWAYS")

MIKE WIRTH: The future of energy is lower carbon, and Chevron intends to lead in that future.

DOMONOSKE: Now, we should note that while this interview did not run on NPR, Chevron is also an NPR sponsor. Our marketing team is totally separate from our newsroom. We operate independently. We asked NPR's spokeswoman about this, and she said NPR has no list of sources from which funding will be refused. However, conflicts of interest or similar concerns are considered.

SIMON: So what Chevron's CEO wants to focus on is this idea of lower carbon energy.

SHAPIRO: To me, as a casual listener, lower carbon energy sounds like pivoting away from oil and gas to cleaner energy. Is that what it means?

SIMON: Sometimes, yes. But sometimes it means continuing to make oil and gas, just making it cleaner - emphasis on lower carbon emissions, lower. It's squishy.

PAASHA MAHDAVI: That's the point, right? It's supposed to be confusing.

SIMON: That's Paasha Mahdavi, professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara who studies oil company rhetoric.

MAHDAVI: Lower carbon energy just means you're producing the same thing you were doing. You're just doing it with fewer emissions.

SIMON: And it can mean fewer emissions in the oil fields but still a lot of emissions from, say, the cars that are burning gasoline. So lower carbon is a phrase you need to watch because it can mean a lot of different things.

DOMONOSKE: And same thing for - you may have heard this one - net zero.

SHAPIRO: Yes, we hear the phrase net zero all the time. What does it actually mean?

DOMONOSKE: It means reducing emissions, and then whatever you can't eliminate you cancel out, like by planting trees. And net zero goals are important in climate policy. But for many oil companies, net zero pledges only cover the emissions from producing the oil, not from using it. So think solar-powered oil rigs. And to be clear, this genuinely is an important part of the climate fight because the oil industry has a giant climate footprint in its own operations. It's so big. But the oil that gets sold releases way more emissions when it's used than were saved by using solar panels or wind power to make it.

SHAPIRO: OK. So lower carbon, net zero - any other phrases we should be paying particular attention to?

SIMON: Yes, we have one more. We're going to play a Chevron clip from YouTube.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: To deliver the energy we need today while forging new paths to the future in ways that are affordable, reliable and ever cleaner.

SIMON: So the key words here are affordable and reliable.

SHAPIRO: Which sound great, but what's actually going on under the surface?

SIMON: Often the oil industry uses those words to say, look at how great fossil fuels are, and also a way to take a not-so-subtle dig at renewable energy - reliable, this idea that, in contrast, solar and wind are flaky, that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow, and affordable, that renewables are too expensive. And these ideas aren't really accurate. Solar and wind costs have fallen a lot in the past few decades. And combined with things like batteries and a bigger power grid, solar and wind can be really reliable.

SHAPIRO: So bring us back to the climate talks in Dubai. Why does all of this matter there?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Many big oil producers are there openly arguing the world should not and will not switch away from oil and gas. An ExxonMobil spokeswoman said our analysis of this is simplistic because it doesn't focus on why Exxon argues in favor of oil and gas. In a recent speech, Exxon's CEO acknowledged the societal cost of climate change but said the societal benefits of oil and gas are unmatched in human history in terms of eradicating poverty and improving quality of life. We also reached out to Chevron about this story, and they said, in part, we continue to take actions to lower the carbon intensity of our operations while continuing to meet the world's demand for affordable, reliable and ever cleaner energy.

SIMON: And, Ari, you might recognize some terms in that statement - lowering carbon, affordable, reliable energy. And those terms leave room for more oil and gas even as scientists say the world needs to move away from fossil fuels fast.

SHAPIRO: Julia Simon of NPR's Climate Desk and Camila Domonoske from NPR's Business Desk. Thank you both.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

SIMON: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.
Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.