Inside the Saudi Strategy to Keep the World Hooked

Source: By Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times • Posted: Monday, November 21, 2022

The kingdom is working to keep fossil fuels at the center of the world economy for decades to come by lobbying, funding research and using its diplomatic muscle to obstruct climate action.

Two people walk on sandy ground between rows of solar panels.
A solar farm at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

Shimmering in the desert is a futuristic research center with an urgent mission: Make Saudi Arabia’s oil-based economy greener, and quickly. The goal is to rapidly build more solar panels and expand electric-car use so the kingdom eventually burns far less oil.

But Saudi Arabia has a far different vision for the rest of the world. A major reason it wants to burn less oil at home is to free up even more to sell abroad. It’s just one aspect of the kingdom’s aggressive long-term strategy to keep the world hooked on oil for decades to come and remain the biggest supplier as rivals slip away.

In recent days, Saudi representatives pushed at the United Nations global climate summit in Egypt to block a call for the world to burn less oil, according to two people present at the meeting, saying that the summit’s final statement “should not mention fossil fuels.” The effort prevailed: After objections from Saudi Arabia and a few other oil producers, the statement failed to include a call for nations to phase out fossil fuels.

The kingdom’s plan for keeping oil at the center of the global economy is playing out around the world in Saudi financial and diplomatic activities, as well as in the realms of research, technology and even education. It is a strategy at odds with the scientific consensus that the world must swiftly move away from fossil fuels, including oil and gas, to avoid the worst consequences of global warming.

The dissonance cuts to the heart of the Saudi kingdom. The government-controlled oil company, Saudi Aramco, already produces one out of every 10 of the world’s barrels of oil and envisions a world where it will be selling even more. Yet climate change and rising temperatures are already threatening life in the desert kingdom like few other places in the world.

Saudi Aramco has become a prolific funder of research into critical energy issues, financing almost 500 studies over the past five years, including research aimed at keeping gasoline cars competitive or casting doubt on electric vehicles, according to the Crossref database, which tracks academic publications. Aramco has collaborated with the United States Department of Energy on high-profile research projects including a six-year effort to develop more efficient gasoline and engines, as well as studies on enhanced oil recovery and other methods to bolster oil production.

Aramco also runs a global network of research centers including a lab near Detroit where it is developing a mobile “carbon capture” device — equipment designed to be attached to a gasoline-burning car, trapping greenhouse gases before they escape the tailpipe. More widely, Saudi Arabia has poured $2.5 billion into American universities over the past decade, making the kingdom one of the nation’s top contributors to higher education.

Men in long, white robes and keffiyehs entering a domed tent.
Visitors to a Saudi forum at the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, this month.Kelvin Chan/Associated Press

Saudi interests have spent close to $140 million since 2016 on lobbyists and others to influence American policy and public opinion, making it one of the top countries spending on U.S. lobbying, according to disclosures to the Department of Justice tallied by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Much of that has focused on bolstering the kingdom’s overall image, particularly after the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 by Saudi operatives. But the Saudi effort has also extended to building alliances in American Corn Belt states that produce ethanol — a product also threatened by electric cars.

“People would like us to give up on investment in hydrocarbons. But no,” said Amin Nasser, Saudi Aramco’s chief executive, because such a move would only wreak havoc with oil markets. The bigger threat was the “lack of investment in oil and gas,” he said.

In a statement, the Saudi Ministry of Energy said it expected that hydrocarbons such as oil, gas and coal would “continue to be an essential part of the global energy mix for decades,” but at the same time the kingdom had “made significant investments in measures to combat climate change.” The statement added, “Far from blocking progress at climate change talks, Saudi Arabia has long played a major role” in negotiations as well as in oil and gas industry groups working to lower emissions.

Saudi Arabia has said it supports the Paris climate agreement, which aims to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and intends to generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030. The kingdom also plans to plant 10 billion trees in the coming decades, and is building Neom, a futuristic carbon-free city that features speedy public transit, vertical farms and a ski resort.

And Saudi Arabia is hedging its bets. The government has invested in Lucid, the American electric vehicle company, and recently said it would form its own electric vehicle company, Ceer. It is investing in hydrogen, a cleaner alternative to oil and gas.

Still, the green transition at home has been slow. Saudi Arabia still generates less than 1 percent of its electricity from renewables, and it isn’t clear how it plans to plant billions of trees in one of the world’s driest regions.

All the while, the climate threat is getting harder to ignore. At current rates, human survival in the region will be impossible without continuous access to air-conditioning, researchers said last year.

Among researchers at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, a space station-like compound powered by 20,000 solar panels where discussion focuses on solar and wind projects or technologies like carbon capture, the more immediate trade-off is clear.

“If we keep consuming our own oil,” said Anvita Arora, who directs the center’s transport team, “we won’t have any oil left to sell.”

Saudis and the Corn Belt

In early 2020, Rob Port, who hosts the podcast “Plain Talk” on politics and current events in North Dakota, got a call from people representing the Saudi Embassy. Would he be interested in interviewing a Saudi spokesman about oil markets?

The call came from Dan Lederman at the LS2 group, a lobbying agency in Iowa that has also worked for agricultural and ethanol groups, and one of the few lobbying firms that stuck with the Saudis as others cut ties after the Khashoggi murder.

In May of that year, Fahad Nazer, a Saudi Embassy spokesman, appeared on Mr. Port’s podcast. “They were talking about how they have the same interests we do,” Mr. Port said, particularly an interest in “a thriving global oil market.”

That outreach was part of a major effort by LS2group, on behalf of the kingdom, that has reached states including the Dakotas, Texas, Iowa and Ohio. For a retainer of more than $125,000 a month, LS2group targeted local radio hosts, academics, event planners, sports-industry officials, a former football player and a ski and snowboard club owner, according to filings with the Justice Department.

Much of that campaign has been on general topics, like the history of close relations with the United States. However, states like Iowa, the nation’s top ethanol producer, could be fertile ground for the Saudis’ view on electric vehicles, said Jeff M. Angelo, a former Iowa state senator who now hosts a talk show and was approached by Saudi representatives.

“Ethanol producers here in Iowa are saying the same thing: ‘Isn’t it terrible that the Biden administration is forcing you to buy an electric car when we could be producing biofuels right here in Iowa, and making money, and supporting our farmers, and being energy independent?’” he said.

Another facet in Saudi Aramco’s effort to perpetuate gasoline cars is the research center near Detroit. There, researchers are working on an innovative device. Attached to a car, it would suck some of the planet-warming carbon dioxide from the exhaust before it can rise into the atmosphere and warm the world.

The prototype, developed by an Aramco lab, traps only a portion of emissions.But it is part of an effort to keep gasoline cars competitive. Transportation uses two-thirds of the world’s petroleum, so any shift away from gasoline vehicles would greatly eat into oil demand.

It is a shift that Aramco does not want to see.

“Are electric vehicles going to doom oil?” Khalid A. Al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s minister of investment and former chairman of Saudi Aramco, said at an energy forum in 2019. “The answer is no.”

Saudi Aramco has teamed up with major automakers, like Hyundai, to develop an “ultra lean-burn” fuel for hybrid gas-electric vehicles that would still use petroleum. And some Saudi funded research throws doubt on electric vehicles.

In June, the Department of Energy also released the findings of its six-year initiative to research cleaner gasoline engines and fuels, which said that gasoline cars “will dominate new vehicle sales for decades.” Aramco and the department have also collaborated on technical papers on methods to increase the flow of oil from wells.

Sequel to ‘La La Land’

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, was incredulous. The International Energy Agency, set up a half-century ago to ensure the security of global energy supplies, had just sounded oil’s death knell: It said the world would need to immediately stop approving new oil and gas fields, and to quickly phase out gasoline vehicles, to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Prince Abdulaziz compared that notion to a Hollywood movie. “It’s a sequel to ‘La La Land,” he quipped at a news conference.

Saudi Arabia continues to explore for oil and gas. It pumps oil at an extremely low price of about $7.50 a barrel, beating almost every major rival. Compared to fracking in the United States, for example, and the extensive flaring of methane that entails, Saudi production is also cleaner than competitors.

Last year, Saudi Arabia joined the United States, Canada, Norway and Qatar on a plan to further reduce drilling emissions. Saudi Aramco said last year it would reach “net zero” by 2050, essentially pledging to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere from oil extraction and production. However, that pledge excludes oil’s main source of planet-warming emissions, those produced by burning it.

“They see that as an advantage. They think that if buyers start discriminating between dirtier barrels and cleaner barrels, Saudi Arabia looks a lot better than oil produced in the Permian Basin in the United States” or other places, said Ben Cahill, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Saudi officials say that a rapid transition to renewables and to cleaner electric vehicles would bring economic chaos, a view they say has been vindicated by he recent turmoil in the global energy market amid a supply shortfall and surging prices.

“Adopting unrealistic policies to reduce emissions by excluding main sources of energy will lead in coming years to unprecedented inflation and an increase in energy prices, and rising unemployment and a worsening of serious social and security problems,” Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, said in July at a United States-Arab summit in Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia’s strategy is playing out at global climate talks.

Back in March, when, Saudi Arabia and Russia pushed to delete a reference to “human-induced climate change” from a policy document at a United Nations meeting, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a French climate scientist leading the session, fought back and won.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the climate,” she later said. “This is the reason why I took the floor to argue.”

The Saudi intervention was the latest example of what other negotiators describe as a yearslong effort to slow progress by homing in on scientific uncertainties, downplaying the consequences, emphasizing the costs of climate action and delaying negotiations on procedural points.

Last year, Saudi Arabia successfully helped strike a sentence from a United Nations report that called for an active phaseout of fossil fuels. The statement “limits options for decision makers,” a Saudi adviser to the kingdom’s minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources said, according to documents leaked by the environmental group Greenpeace. “Omit the sentence.”

“They have a strategic agenda, said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, “which is they don’t want anything to happen.”

At the latest round of talks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia highlighted an alternative vision, one that relies on large-scale carbon capture and storage. By 2027, the kingdom will build a facility capable of storing as much carbon dioxide as 2 million gasoline cars would emit in a year.

That would be a breakthrough, because carbon capture has yet to be proven at scale. Yet it was Saudi Arabia’s way of preparing for a warming world, said Adel al-Jubeir, the kingdom’s climate envoy. “In Saudi Arabia, we’re committed to being ahead of it.”

Vivian Nereim contributed reporting from Riyadh, and Lisa Friedmanfrom Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.