Threats to Democracy: The Fossil Fuel Industry

In similar fashion to the tobacco industry’s campaign to sow seeds of doubt about the health effects of smoking and the addictive nature of nicotine, the fossil fuel industry has spent billions of dollars over time on propaganda to create public doubt about the reality of climate change, which has now led to a climate crisis owing in large part to their successful disinformation campaign. Through think tanks, media outlets, advertising campaigns, well funded and coordinated influence over institutions of higher education, direct and indirect funding of political campaigns, and the placement of executives in state and federal government agencies; the fossil fuel industry has delayed an appropriate response to the climate crisis in order to prolong the period in which they might continue to make trillions of dollars in profit while a livable climate rapidly slips away from humanity’s grasp.

Perhaps no industry has enabled autocrats in the past 50 years more than the fossil fuel industry. From the maintenance of fossil fuel funded autocratic petro-states like Russia and Saudi Arabia to the funding of autocratic politicians within flawed and failing democracies to protect their power and profits, the fossil fuel industry has supported systems and practices that have diminished democracies and strengthened autocracies around the world. The fossil fuel industry is one of the greatest threats to democracy in the world today. Fortunately, the most vibrant democracies in the world are working diligently to move away from dependence on fossil fuels because when the people as a whole are represented, they elect a livable climate over the interests of fossil fuel companies.

One need only look at the failing democracy of my home state of Oklahoma to see what happens when a state becomes fully captured and controlled by the fossil fuel industry. In a state that theoretically should be awash in revenue for education and healthcare, we rank near the very bottom of the list of state rankings in both areas. We also suffered the effects of years of wastewater well induced seismicity that caused damage to Oklahoma homes and businesses. And the fossil fuel industry’s willingness to fund theocratic and patriarchal politicians has led Oklahoma to be the worst state in the United States in which to be woman, with reproductive choice being the latest right removed. Owing to extreme gerrymandering of the state by Republicans to maintain permanent control, a large number of Oklahomans seem to have given up on the possibility of political change, which may be why Oklahoma consistently has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. Instead of a vibrant democracy with strong economic opportunities for all, Oklahoma has become a commodity colony of the fossil fuel industry.

Moving beyond Oklahoma and looking at the United States as a whole, it was no accident that the most autocratic President in the history of the United States would appoint a cabinet with so many persons with fossil fuel industry ties. The mutually reinforcing relationship between petro-state autocracies and the fossil fuel industry has been waxing for decades. Why should fossil fuel companies promote democracy when the autocrats of the world like Putin and MBS are serving the interests of the fossil fuel industry so efficiently?

The appointment of the CEO of Exxon Mobil Rex Tillerson to be Trump’s first Secretary of State, a person with no state department expertise and who was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin for his work on an oil venture partnership worth potentially $500 billion, was a powerful symbol and direct result of this relationship of profit and geopolitical power between autocrats and the fossil fuel industry.

Scott Pruitt was selected by Trump to become Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt served the interests of oil and gas companies for years as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, and on more than one occasion he often took his public talking points about the fossil fuel industry directly from email communications from Oklahoma City’s Devon Energy. His appointment to head the EPA was made through the influence of his political patron Harold Hamm, CEO and founder of the oil company Continental Resources, who had much to benefit from a roll back in environmental regulations and who served as Trump’s energy advisor during his presidential campaign. When Pruitt’s penchant for personal corruption became too public and distracting, he was replaced as administrator of the EPA by a coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, whose quiet demeanor made him even more effective than Pruitt in weakening environmental protections to the benefit of the fossil fuel industry.

To lead the Department of Energy, Trump appointed Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy, who was a board director at Energy Transfer Partners LP and at Sunoco Logistics Partners LP. The two companies Perry served were jointly involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline project. The ongoing development of a network of pipelines is one of the keys to creating a long term fossil fuel infrastructure that increases dependence on oil and gas and delays the transition to renewable energy.

It is appropriate to ask why the fossil fuel industry that played such a significant role in helping Trump become President and that played such an influential role in his administration has been so silent about Trump’s direct attacks on the integrity of the 2020 election, his role in inciting a violent insurrection, his rants against the DOJ and the FBI, and his endangering of American democracy in general. Could it be that the fossil fuel industry is simply continuing to put profits over patriotism and willing to sacrifice democracy for autocracy if it furthers their interests? If this is not the case, then their resistance to Trump’s attacks on democracy is long overdue.




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