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Oil and Gas Companies Are Trying to Rig the Marketplace

By Andrew Dessler

Many of us focused on the problem of climate change have been waiting for the day when renewable energy would become cheaper than fossil fuels.

Well, we’re there: Solar and wind power are less expensive than oil, gas and coal in many places and are saving our economy billions of dollars. These and other renewable energy sources produced 30 percent of the world’s electricity in 2023, which may also have been the year that greenhouse gas emissions in the power sector peaked. In the United States alone, the amount of solar and wind energy capacity waiting to be built and connected to the grid is 18 times the amount of natural gas power capacity in the queue.

So you might reasonably conclude that the market is pivoting, and the end for fossil fuels is near.

But it’s not. Instead, fossil fuel interests — including think tanks, trade associations and dark money groups — are often preventing the market from shifting to the lowest cost energy.

Similar to other industries from tobacco to banking to pharmaceuticals, oil and gas interests use tactics like lobbying and manufacturing “grass-roots” support to maximize profits. They also spread misinformation: It’s well documented that fossil fuel interests tried to convince the public that their products didn’t cause climate change, in the same way that Big Tobacco tried to convince the public that its products didn’t harm people’s health.

But as renewables have become a more formidable competitor, we are now seeing something different: a large-scale effort to deceive the public into thinking that the alternative products are harmful, unreliable and worse for consumers. And as renewables continue to drop in cost, it will become even more critical for policymakers and others to challenge these attempts to slow the adoption of cheaper and healthier forms of energy.

One technique the industry and its allies have used is to spread falsehoods — for example, that offshore wind turbines kill whales or that renewable energy is prohibitively expensive — to stop projects from getting built. What appear to be ordinary concerned citizens or groups making good-faith arguments about renewable energy are actually a well-funded effort to disseminate a lie. Researchers at Brown University have revealed a complex web of fossil fuel interests, climate-denial think tanks and community groups that are behind opposition to wind farms off New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Fossil fuel interests also donate piles of money to sympathetic politicians who then make false claims about renewable energy and push oil and gas on their constituents even when renewable energy is cheaper. After the Texas blackout in 2021, which was caused in part by the failure of the natural gas system, politicians blamed renewable energy, and have since argued that more natural gas is needed to strengthen the state electrical grid.

The Texas grid could certainly be made more robust. But building backup natural gas plants that should ultimately sit idle 90 percent of the time is probably the most expensive way to address the problem, compared with approaches like paying consumers to cut their energy use when the electrical grid nears its limits.

One of the most pervasive pieces of misinformation being spread by fossil fuel interests is that we cannot run our society on renewable energy. It is true that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. However, we could deal with this by expanding our existing electrical grid to allow us to move clean energy from regions with excess to those with shortfalls. When that’s not sufficient, power sources that can be quickly turned on and off, like batteries or hydroelectricity, can match supply and demand. In the current U.S. grid, natural gas provides the primary balance for intermittent wind and solar, and we can keep using it that way — in very limited quantities — when we need it. One studypublished in 2020 showed that we could operate a grid that is 90 percent clean energy and 10 percent natural gas by 2035, which would produce energy for a cost similar to that of a grid with a continuation of current policies.

Alarmingly, fossil fuel interests are also looking to dictate how schoolchildren learn about the environment. Children are some of the most powerful messengers when it comes to climate awareness, so fossil fuel promoters are keen to shape their understanding from the start. They have succeeded in getting the Texas State Board of Education to reject textbooksthat accurately depict the effects of climate change and extreme weather.

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