Oil Industry’s Shift to Plastics in Question as Report Warns $400 Billion in Stranded Assets Possible


Off Africa’s eastern coast, north of Madagascar, lies Aldabra Atoll, a cluster of coral islands that surround a tropical lagoon.

Aldabra is a UN World Heritage Site that’s home to a stunning array of wildlife, including tens of thousands of wild giant tortoises, far more tortoises than in the Galapagos Islands. Sir David Attenborough, the documentary filmmaker, has called Aldabra “one of the wonders of the world.” The atoll is exceedingly difficult to visit, not only because it’s so remote, but also because new arrivals must contend with a $225 per-visitor daily environmental impact fee — as well as piracy in the region.

This wild, protected place is also, according to newly published research from Oxford University, littered with over 500 tons of plastic waste.

That’s the amount remaining after the Oxford team itself removed 25 tons of plastic debris, a manufactured mountain of plastic trash that included 360,000 used flip flop sandals and literal tons of plastic nets, ropes and other fishing industry trash. “This is the largest accumulation of plastic waste reported for any single island in the world,” Oxford noted as the findings were announced.

giant tortoise
Some 100,000 giant tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea) range across Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. Photo Credit: David Stanley, via Flickr.

The story of how even one the most inaccessible places on Earth has become clogged with plastic trash and industrial waste starts, in some ways, with a deliberate deception.

Approaching a Point of No Return”

Back in 1989, according to an extraordinary new investigation by NPR and PBS Frontline, executives from Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and others met privately at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington D.C., where they discussed the growing problem of plastic trash.

Since the 1950’s, the world has produced over 8.3 billion tons of plastic, according to UN Environment, virtually all of it derived from fossil fuels. During the 1970’s and 80’s, plastic waste generation rates more than tripled, causing growing concern among consumers.

“The image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate,” Larry Thomas, a former president of a plastics industry association, wrote in records obtained by NPR from that meeting. “We are approaching a point of no return.”

The solution the gathered executives arrived at, NPR found, was to advertise a solution that industry officials knew was unworkable: recycling.

“They knew that the infrastructure wasn’t there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot,” Thomas, now turned whistleblower, told NPR.

Nonetheless, the plastics and oil industries forged ahead. They launched and advertised plastics recycling initiatives (which NPR found all fizzled within a handful of years), campaigned for states to require plastic goods to carry a triangle of arrows around a recycling code, and convinced consumers to dutifully sort their plastic trash alongside items that can genuinely be profitably recycled, like glass and metal.

recycling bins
Recycling bins in Cupertino, California. Photo Credit: Peter Kaminsky, via Flickr.

The campaigns resulted in very little actual plastic being recycled. Less than ten percent of the plastic ever made has been recycled even once, a 2017 peer-reviewed scientific paper found — and global recycling ran further aground the following year, when China banned imports of most used plastics after that nation’s attempts at processing and recycling the world’s plastic scrap became inescapably overwhelmed.

Now, Interpol reports an “alarming increase in illegal plastic pollution trade,” citing a rise in illegal dumping and burning of plastics, forgeries, and even the murder of the mayor of a small town in France who’d attempted to stop illegal plastic dumping, “pointing to the kind of violence usually associated with organized crime.”

But from the plastic and oil industries’ perspectives, pro-recycling campaigns proved to be extraordinarily effective — not just because advertising plastic recycling helped to insulate the industry from public concern, but also, as NPR noted, because recycled plastic was always actually a poor and expensive substitute for new plastics — which meant less competition for oil companies and plastics manufacturers.

“Climate Fires”

Today, the oil industry faces new and unprecedented levels of pressure because of a different kind of environmental catastrophe directly linked to its products: climate change.

The world’s need to curb its use of oil and other fossil fuels has never before been so visible or stark. In the US, this past month has brought three of the four largest wildfires in California history — including one fire that’s burned nearly three quarter of a million acres and that remains just 25 percent contained.

The entire western coast of the United States is covered by a dense wall of wildfire smoke that, viewed from above in NASA satellite imagery, stretches nearly unbroken from Mexico to Canada and that, viewed from the ground, has turned the skies an unearthly orange. In images seen worldwide, the Golden Gate bridge stands illuminated by the yellow blazes of hundreds of burning trees as the waters below and skies above glow brightly through the smoky haze. Dozens of people are dead, and more missing, CNN reported on Saturday.

“These are not just wildfires,” Washington governor Jay Inslee said at a Sept. 11 news conference. “They are climate fires.”

There’s solid evidence to back up that claim, starting with the connection between fires, drought, extreme weather and a warming world. “Hotter temperatures, less dependable precipitation and snowpack that melts sooner lead to drier soil and parched vegetation,” Scientific American reported in August. Over 12,000 lightning strikes, the product of a week of unusual storms, provided sparks that lit up to 600 fires across California in mid-August. That same week, temperatures in Death Valley spiked to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, possibly the hottest temperature in recorded history.

More extreme wildfires are, horrifyingly, just the most currently-visible tip of the climate iceberg. Climate change will accelerate the pace and scale of crises worldwide — a process that is already underway. More than one in ten people worldwide could be forced from their homes over the next few decades, the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Ecological Threat Register warned on Wednesday.

People are always asking, ‘Is this the new normal?’” climate scientist Philip B. Duffy told The New York Times recently. “I always say no. It’s going to get worse.”

Amidst all this, the oil and gas industry has visibly grown increasingly alarmed — about its own economic future. The science connecting fossil fuels to climate change has never been more certain. And while the US has still failed to take the sorts of action that scientists say is necessary, businesses and their investors have been forced to increasingly consider the possibility that major efforts to slow the climate crisis through stronger greenhouse gas regulation — long on the horizon but never yet materialized — might arrive.

In recent years, oil industry leaders have sought to reassure investors that they have a plan even if the world starts to shift away from burning fossil fuels for energy and transportation. And their message to investors about the future for oil demand has found a central theme: more plastics.

A “Plastic Pillar”

This past year has brought massive disruptions for fossil fuel producers, who saw oil prices briefly dip far below $0 a barrel in some places amid pandemic lockdowns and witnessed ExxonMobil, once the king of blue chip stocks, unceremoniously booted from the widely-watched Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The last decade saw US oil and gas production skyrocket — but the sector also underperformed the market eight out of the last nine years, according to industry analysts.

And going forward, the oil industry faces increasing doubts about demand for oil in the future because of an expected shift to electric vehicles. The gas side of the oil and gas industry also faces growing competition from renewable energy, which has gone from being the most expensive way to generate power to, in many cases, the cheapest.

But executives with major oil giants have said that even if oil demand grown dries up, they expect they’ll still be able to sell an increasing amount of their products as petrochemicals. “Unlike refining, and ultimately unlike oil, which will see a moment when the growth will stop, we actually don’t anticipate that with petrochemicals,” Andrew Brown, a Royal Dutch Shell official, told the San Antonio Express News in 2018.

This strategy, according to a report published this month by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, carries significant financial risks, putting $400 billion of petrochemical industry investments at risk of becoming stranded assets. That’s nearly an entire year’s revenue for the worldwide plastics industry, based on 2018 figures from the Plastics Industry Association, potentially down the drain.

And the vast majority of those petrochemical investments are, in fact, investments in plastics. “Whilst most commentators have noted that petrochemicals are a major driver of expected oil demand growth, we can go one stage further,” the Carbon Tracker report notes, “and demonstrate that it is specifically plastics within petrochemicals that drive the expected growth in oil demand.”

Beaver County Shell petrochemical and plastic complex under construction
Shell’s petrochemical project outside Pittsburgh, PA, seen here under construction in the summer of 2019, is expected to produce 1.6 million metric tons of plastics a year. Photo Credit: Laura Evangelisto © 2019.

Part of that narrative centers on demand for plastics in Africa and Asia — but already that effort is running up against bans on single-use plastics and efforts to prevent plastics pollution from spreading.

The vast majority of nations worldwide — 127 of 193 countries— have some sort of rules or regulations that limit plastic use, according to a December 2018 United Nations report found.

A New York Times investigation recently found that the American Chemistry Council (ACC) pushed for policies that would expand the use of plastics in Africa, including single-use plastic produces. “We anticipate that Kenya could serve in the future as a hub for supplying U.S.-made chemicals and plastics to other markets in Africa through this trade agreement,” an ACC official wrote in a letter to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

The ACC takes credit on its membership page for working to protect the plastics industry in the US. “We also orchestrated a powerful response to mounting public concern about plastics, uniting industry stakeholders to confront 282 bills in 42 states,” the ACC says, representing roughly half of the bills that the Council saw as “requiring our engagement” in 2019.

The Times’ reporting, incidentally, was attacked by the ACC, which suggested in a blog post that a Pulitzer-winning reporter had breached journalistic ethics by not getting comment from a Kenyan trade official. “Maybe they sent a courtesy email and didn’t hear back,” the ACC suggested, adding that “people are left questioning whether the New York Times should be considered a reliable source on this issue in the future.”

There was, however, no need to speculate — the Times article explicitly noted that reporters had sought comment from both US and Kenyan trade officials but did not receive answers. (“The Office of the United States Trade Representative didn’t respond to interview requests or to detailed lists of written questions, nor did officials at Kenya’s Trade Ministry,” the Times wrote.)

In other words, that attack is the sort of messaging that collapses upon scrutiny — a message that’s not grounded in what’s true, but in what would be convenient for the speaker if it were true.

But facts, as the saying goes, are stubborn things. And the world we live in today has already changed significantly from the world that existed in 1989, when messaging around plastics, even if untrue, was enough to affect reality for the oil industry.

There are some signs that impacts being felt in the petrochemicals industry. This month, Saudi Aramco canceled plans to build a $20 billion petrochemical plant in Saudi Arabia, and said it was reviewing its purchase of gas export infrastructure in Texas. Oil giant BP anted up $1.1 billion for wind energy projects in the US and in June announced it was selling its petrochemicals division.

We’re seeing a deterioration of the plastics market right before our eyes,” the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis’ finance director Tom Sanzillo said in July, citing a plunge in plastic prices.

The pandemic and the need for personal protective equipment (PPE) doesn’t really make a dent in the industry’s prospects, Carbon Tracker concluded. “At the outset it is worth noting that the amount of plastic used in PPE equipment is very low and not sufficient to outweigh falling plastic demand elsewhere as a result of the economic shock of COVID,” they wrote. “In their analysis of the global plastics market in 2020, Wood Mackenzie is for example forecasting a 4% fall in global plastic demand this year in spite of rising demand for PPE.”

Remove the plastic pillar holding up the future of the oil industry, and the whole narrative of rising oil demand collapses,” said the report’s lead author, Kingsmill Bond, a Carbon Tracker energy strategist. “It is simply delusional for the plastics industry to imagine that it can double its carbon emissions at the same time as the rest of the world is trying to cut them to zero.”

Main Image: Gooseberry Point, Whatcom County, Washington, 2017. Credit: Mitchell Haindfield, via Flickr.
Sharon Kelly is an attorney and investigative reporter based in Pennsylvania. She was previously a senior correspondent at The Capitol Forum and, prior to that, she reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other print and online publications.

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