OPEC Leader Tells Members to Block Any Climate Summit Deal to Curb Fossil Fuels

Source: By Lisa Friedman, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2023

In a letter, the secretary general of the oil cartel called on countries in the group to “reject any text or formula that targets energy.”

Haitham Al-Ghais, visible from the shoulders up in a business suit. He has silver hair and a neat silver beard.
Haitham Al-Ghais, the secretary general of OPEC, warned member countries of “undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels” at the summit. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

The head of the OPEC oil cartel, alarmed that nations gathered at the United Nations climate summit in Dubai are considering an agreement to phase out fossil fuels, has directed the group’s members to scuttle any deal that would affect the continued production and sales of oil, gas and coal.

In a letter dated Dec. 6, Haitham Al-Ghais, secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, warned all members that there was rising pressure at the summit to target fossil fuels. He called those plans “politically motivated campaigns” against oil-rich nations that put “our people’s prosperity and future at risk.”

“It seems that the undue and disproportionate pressure against fossil fuels may reach a tipping point with irreversible consequences,” Mr. Al-Ghais wrote. The letter was sent to top ministers in all 13 OPEC countries as well as 10 additional nations in an expanded group known as OPEC Plus, which includes Russia.

He urged the petroleum producers to “reject any text or formula that targets energy i.e. fossil fuels rather than emissions.”

Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are dangerously heating the planet. The fossil fuel industry has sought to frame the problem as one of emissions; if the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane could be contained or removed from the atmosphere, the world could continue to burn oil, gas and coal, they argue. Others say that is technically impossible at the moment and fossil fuels must be replaced with solar, wind and other renewable energy.

The OPEC letter, which was first reported by Reuters, is significant because, under U.N. rules, any agreement forged at the climate summit must be unanimously endorsed. Any of the 198 participating nations can thwart a deal.

OPEC declined to discuss the letter. It comes as government ministers and diplomats enter the most grueling period of the two-week summit, where they work into the night in scores of meeting rooms trying to hammer out an agreement across cultures, economies and politics by the Dec. 12 deadline.

A draft of negotiating text made public by COP28 officials on Friday included several options for final language, ranging from a call to phaseout fossil fuels “in line with the best available science,” to no mention at all of the future of oil, gas and coal.

The possibilities also included a phaseout of “unabated” fossil fuels, a vague term that suggests that oil, gas and coal could continue to be used as long there was technology to capture and store the resulting carbon emissions. No such technology currently exists at the scale that scientists say is required.

The OPEC letter sets up a potential showdown in the remaining days of the summit between the group’s member states and other nations, including the United States, that want world economies to transition away from fossil fuels.

Scientists say countries need to stop burning coal, gas and oil in order to limit average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold beyond which scientists say humans will struggle to adapt to the storms, heat, wildfires, drought and species extinctions that are already underway but would accelerate.

The planet has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius.

As 2023 comes to a close as the hottest year in recorded history, warnings from scientists are growing more urgent, and as climate disasters have affected every corner of the globe, there is increasing pressure on the diplomats gathered in Dubai to take action.

“The letters show that fossil fuel interests are starting to realize that the writing is on the wall for dirty energy,” Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, an environmental group, said in a statement.

On Saturday, a small group of climate activists from the organization 350.org staged a sit-in at the OPEC Pavilion at the summit. “This is a clear obstruction to the climate talks,” one of the protesters said. “Because we need a fast, fair, forever phaseout of fossil fuels now. ”

Among those feeling pressure is Sultan Al Jaber, the Emirati energy executive who is presiding over the climate summit. While Mr. Al Jaber has been accused by activists of having a conflict of interest, on Friday he said that a transition to wind, solar and other renewable energy was inevitable.

If nations do agree in Dubai to phase out fossil fuels, or even phase them down, it would be a historic moment.

Past U.N. climate deals have shied away from even mentioning the words “fossil fuels,” let alone contemplating a phaseout. The closest nations came was in Glasgow in 2021, when negotiators tried to insert a “phaseout” of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, into the final agreement, but China and India objected. They settled on a “phase-down” of coal-fired plants that don’t have the technology to capture their emissions, but no timeline was established.

In Dubai, during the first week of negotiations, Saudi Arabia moved to block several proposals regarding a phaseout of fossil fuels, according to three diplomats who have been involved in the talks. The negotiators, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the deliberations, said Saudi Arabia’s negotiators have simply refused to engage in any discussions about the future of fossil fuels.

Mr. Adow said that addressing the climate crisis “cannot be held back by a small band of countries that control the world’s oil supply.”

Former Vice President Al Gore is pushing for changes to the U.N. rules so that agreements would require approval from a so-called supermajority of 75 percent of countries, rather than unanimous consent.

Under the current rules, countries have to “beg for permission from the petrostates” to “protect the future of humanity,” Mr. Gore said at a Bloomberg event at COP28.

Senator Ed Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who is arriving at COP28 this weekend with a bipartisan group of House and Senate members, said he worried about the heavy concentration of fossil fuel lobbyists at the summit.

The Associated Press estimated that at least 1,300 fossil fuel lobbyists, a record, are in attendance, while a coalition of environmental groups examined registration records and put the number at more than 2,400. “Those lobbyists are determined to lock us into a fossil fueled path,” Mr. Markey said.

The oil cartel set up a pavilion at the summit for the first time this year, in a far corner of the grounds. Its space was no larger than a modest studio apartment, with a handful of chairs arranged for small-scale speaking events.

Most of the space appeared devoted to sharing a wide range of facts about petroleum products. On a visit last week as the conference was opening, two OPEC staff members were arranging and handing out booklets focused on oil and gas drilling. A digital screen on the wall ticked through production levels for various member countries. Visitors were few, but those who stopped by were offered complimentary chocolate and pens, with OPEC branding.

Marty Durbin, the senior vice president for policy at the United States Chamber of Commerce, maintained that oil executives were out in force at COP28 because they wanted to be “part of the solution.” He said the references to fossil fuels in the final agreement were not as important as the pledges many oil companies made this week to curb methane, a greenhouse gas, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Brad Plumer, Somini Sengupta, Jim Tankersley and Stanley Reed contributed reporting.

Lisa Friedman reports on federal climate and environmental policy from Washington. She has broken multiple stories about the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal climate change regulations and limit the use of science in policymaking. More about Lisa Friedman