COP21: Big Oil in hiding at Paris climate talks
Oil executives avoid the spotlight as world leaders debate the future of fossil fuels
With signs reading "freeze tar sands expansion" and other similar messages, members of a group called the Canadian Youth Delegation chant as loud as they can.
They're hard to miss as they shout from the main concourse inside the United Nations conference on climate change in Paris.
"The time for action is now," Calgarian Nimra Amjad says in an interview. "It's important to show that youth from Alberta care about a green-energy economy and that we want to shift away from fossil fuels."
The next day, another group with a similar tune: Oil Change International calling for countries, including Canada, to stop subsidizing fossil-fuel companies. The demonstration is led by Alex Doukas, a Canadian who has lived in Calgary and Toronto.
'This is not a battle between catastrophists and complacents. It's a battle for good ideas'- Donna Kennedy-Glans, Viewpoints Alberta
Daily demonstrations are the norm at this conference, with fossil-fuel companies frequently the prime target. It's one reason why the big oil and gas companies are keeping a low profile in Paris.
One week into the conference and it seems those energy companies prefer ad campaigns and sponsorships here in Paris, instead of setting up public pavilions and booths, as hundreds of other government organizations, NGOs and companies have done.
Media interviews are regularly refused and, when executives do speak at one of the countless conference events, the moderator is either part of an energy company or at the very least an industry-friendly voice.
Another reason for averting attention is the scandal brewing in the United States with Exxon Mobil.
New York's attorney general is examining whether Exxon Mobil deceived investors about the causes and impacts of climate change. The company rejects the notion it suppressed research.
One oil executive from a different company said he wasn't allowed to do any interviews because his head office is worried about the Exxon Mobil developments. The executive said his company didn't want anyone to say something wrong at the UN conference, a massive international environmental stage.
"I don't get the low-profile myself," says Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Calgary oil executive and provincial politician. "This is not a battle between catastrophists and complacents. It's a battle for good ideas."
She is part of Viewpoints Alberta, a group aiming to spur conversation about the province's energy future.
"If I were an oil company representative and I were here," says Kennedy-Glans, "I would to talk to as many people as possible about what works, what doesn't work and how do we get all hands on deck?"
The lack of presence by the oil and gas industry at the climate conference speaks to a growing disconnect between the energy sector and general public.
He suggests environmentalists, especially, will be energized by the Paris talks to be more aggressive with Big Oil.
"I think there are strong signs of increasing pressure from many elements of civil society on industry," said Diringer. "They've scored points on the coal industry and are now turning their sights to the oil industry."
The oil and gas sector does not have much to gain at these negotiations. Nevertheless, the companies are pushing for countries to adopt carbon pricing systems and for nations to come up with a strong climate agreement, so industry knows what to expect in the years ahead.
Diringer suggests the oil and gas companies are missing an opportunity to improve perception. Big Oil CEOs should not just talk about wanting carbon pricing, but should roll up their sleeves and aggressively lobbying for such policies. In addition, they need to explain how they see their business model evolving and can they offer a convincing vision of surviving and thriving in a low carbon world.
[Environmentalists] scored points on the coal industry and are now turning their sights to the oil industry.- Elliot Diringer, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Diringer has advice for oil executives: "You are really going to have to devote some energy to repositioning the image of the industry as a solution instead of as a problem."
It's difficult for Big Oil to even cast itself as committed to helping the world transition to a low-carbon future, since the investments by them in renewable energy are dwarfed by the money spent on new oil and gas projects.
Future of oil
"Oil and gas ... will still be an important part of the mix for the foreseeable future." said Gérard Moutet, a vice-president with oil and gas company Total. "If we look to 2030, oil pollution will be about the same today and more gas pollution."
Moutet made those comments on a big stage, following a speech by Al Gore, in front of hundreds of people. Not everyone was pleased.
"For me it's just not understandable because we all know that 80 per cent of all fossil fuels have to be kept in the ground for us to have a future," said one woman from the environmental group 350.org, who stood up immediately to comment. "When you talk about your business plan, I don't care and I don't believe it."
It's obvious from the protests in Paris the industry has an image problem, but Big Oil itself can't seem to acknowledge that. It's continually on the defensive, instead of joining the conversation.
It's baffling because if the stakes are as high as scientists fear, everyone needs to contribute, especially the companies with expertise in the energy field.
The Paris climate conference is the biggest environmental event of the decade and so far, a missed opportunity for an oil and gas industry that doesn't seem motivated to sit at the table.