Anyone who was still questioning whether climate change can exacerbate violent international conflicts has only to look at Saudi Arabia, where drones struck oil installations in the eastern part of the country on September 14. While the Trump administration is blaming Iran, Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack on Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, which is both the source of the kingdom’s vast wealth and, as the world’s largest corporate emitter of greenhouse gases, one of the primary drivers of the climate emergency making life increasingly difficult throughout the region.
Rising temperatures have exacerbated water shortages in Yemen, where some 19 million people already lacked access to clean water and sanitation due to mismanagement and drought. Saudis have weaponized this water scarcity in their war in Yemen, targeting areas for their proximity to fertile land and destroying water infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is also facing some of the worst risks from soaring temperatures. This summer, the temperature in Al Majmaah, a city in central Saudi Arabia, reached 131 degrees Fahrenheit, while rapid desertification was reported throughout the Arabian peninsula.
Saudi Aramco, the most profitable corporation in the world, released more than 40 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases between 1992 and 2017, the equivalent of almost 5 percent of industrial carbon dioxide and methane. The company, closely held by the Saudi royal family, is now confronting the challenges of climate change in ways that mirror many western fossil fuel giants: by launching a rebranding effort that positions the firm as an environmental leader.
“There is no limit to our industry’s potential if we can meet society’s demand for ultra-clean energy,” said Amin Nasser, the chief executive of Aramco, at the World Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, last week. Nasser led Aramco to help found the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a splashy new effort to showcase the oil industry’s pledge to achieve “global net zero emissions” in the spirit of meeting the “ambitions set by the Paris Agreement,” the United Nations climate accord.
The company’s various social media pages have driven home the argument. In one video, posted by Aramco last month and set to the wobbling bass beats of an EDM rave track, claims the Saudi oil giant has worked to leverage its research power “to deliver sizable reductions in CO2.” Another promotional video touts the company’s focus on emission control technology, stating that Aramco is “committed to urgent action on climate change.”
But the Saudi oil company’s lofty branding campaign belies a stunning history of undermining action to address the climate crisis, a concerted effort designed to preserve the profits of Aramco.
In stark contrast to its current splashy greenwashing campaign, Saudi Arabia has played a quiet yet powerful role in thwarting proactive climate policy at United Nations conferences and U.S. domestic policy battles alike.
For nearly thirty years, the Saudi delegation has played a deft role in obstructing global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“The Saudis have been very good in making sure only weak measures have been adopted,” said Joanna Depledge, editor of the journal Climate Policy, who has written about Saudi obstructionism.
Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meeting in Madrid, in 1995 — when Mohammad Al-Sabban, then a Saudi petroleum official, famously confronted scientists, claiming the science around climate change was not settled — Saudi delegates have maneuvered to push for a series of delays.
Despite its vast oil wealth and high per capita income, Saudi Arabia often positioned itself as the voice of the developing world, winning the right to serve as a voice for the G-77 group of developing countries in climate talks. In this role, Saudi delegates have demanded steep concessions for poorer countries. The demands, while justified at face-value, have allowed Saudi negotiators to extract lengthy delays, at times while working in concert with Western oil interests.
Don Pearlman, a former lobbyist with the law firm now known as Squire Patton Boggs, once led the Global Climate Council, an ad-hoc lobby group of fossil fuel firms convened to prevent curbs on carbon pollution. Pearlman worked closely with the Saudi delegation to introduce a series of obstructionist motions to climate talks.
The U.S. diplomatic cables released by Chelsea Manning further reveal Saudi intransigence on more recent climate negotiations. James Smith, then the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, bemoaned the “obstructionism that Saudi negotiators have often shown,” in an email relaying negotiation talks to State Department officials.
Al-Sabban, during the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen for a climate accord, declared on television that “there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change,” and added that, “whatever the international community does to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have no effect on the climate’s natural variability.” Now retired from his government position, Al-Sabban hasn’t changed his position. In recent tweets aimed at an American journalist, he declared, “Trump will be in the office for another term to kill all of your nonsense climate lies.”
While Aramco has rebranded, the government strategy at impeding global climate negotiations has not.
While Saudi Arabia has been standing in the way of climate progress since the 1990s, “I almost wonder if it hasn’t gotten worse,” said Depledge, who noted that, during the most recent UN climate change negotiations in Katowice, Poland, “Saudi Arabia was picking at point after point” in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Saudi Arabia joined with the U.S., Russia, and Kuwait to object to wording welcoming that report, which was published last October and spelled out the impacts of warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees of warming, which had been the focus of previous work, could expose an additional 10 million people to the threats of sea level rise and tens of millions of people to suffering from extreme heat, water scarcity, and flooding. The 0.5 degree difference is also expected to double the number of plant and animal species that will become extinct.
Saudi Arabia’s posture in global climate talks belies its true position on the ramifications of global climate action.
Despite the glossy greenwashing spin in Aramco’s latest publicity blitz, the company’s true fears about a shift away from oil were revealed this year in its first-ever bond sale. The corporate debt, used to fund Aramco’s acquisition of the Saudi Arabian plastics and chemical firm Sabic, included a corporate disclosure detailing the conditions that stand to endanger the profitability of the firm.
Aramco, the bond filing revealed, earn profits of over $111 billion a year. Future revenue, however, could be curtailed sharply if major economies begin transitioning to renewable energy.
“Climate change concerns and impacts could reduce global demand for hydrocarbons,” the Aramco filing’s risk section declares. The policies that could harm the demand for oil include “carbon emission cap and trade regimes, carbon taxes, increased energy efficiency standards and incentives and mandates for renewable energy.”
Technological advances, such as electric vehicles, could also reduce the demand for refined oil products, the filing noted. Many governments around the world are moving to adopt carbon emission reductions in line with the Paris agreement, the Aramco filing further warns, a dynamic that could hasten reduction in the use of fossil fuels.
The filing also shows the company’s focus on a range of petroleum products, including jet fuel. In the Katowice climate talks last year, Saudi Arabia, reflecting Aramco’s interests in jet fuel production, objected to having the International Civil Aviation Organization report on the climate impacts of aviation.
Aramco did not respond to a request for comment.
Beyond the international stage, the influence of Saudi Arabia’s lobbying clout has left an imprint on the domestic battles over climate change.
Saudi Arabia’s lobbying prowess is legendary in Beltway circles, mostly for its influence over the lucrative sale of U.S. arms and other hot-button issues. The government and its state-run subsidiaries retain a roster of around 145 registered agents seeking to influence American public policy.
Less scrutinized, however, are Aramco companies that have a seat at the table with other U.S. oil giants seeking to influence domestic energy policies. Aramco owns several refineries and chemical plants, including the largest North American oil refinery, in Port Arthur, Texas, through a company it controls called Motiva Enterprises. The Aramco-owned subsidiary also sells gasoline through Shell-branded gas stations throughout the southeast.
Motiva, like other oil majors, shapes the energy debate largely through industry trade groups. The company is a dues-paying member of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, a trade group for oil refiners.
Brian Coffman, the president of Motiva, has a seat on AFPM’s board. Other refinery companies, including Koch Industries, Valero Energy, Marathon Petroleum, and ExxonMobil, are also members of AFPM, providing the group with $31 million a year to advance the industry’s interests. AFPM referred questions about Motiva’s role in the trade group to Motiva, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, AFPM played a critical role in defeating Washington State ballot Initiative 1631, a state referendum designed to institute a carbon tax. AFPM gave $1.25 million to the opposition campaign, which used the money to barrage voters with advertisements urging defeat of the measure.
AFPM, notably, has also bankrolled many of the groups that have played a vital role in the discourse around climate science. AFPM provides $75,000 a year to the Heartland Institute, an extremist think tank known for declaring that there is no human cause or evidence for climate change. The think tank once sponsored a billboard campaign comparing those concerned about climate change to the Unabomber and Osama bin Laden.
AFPM funds, using member oil company money, also flow to other groups that have lobbied against renewable energy policies. AFPM funds the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the American Energy Alliance. All three groups have advocated against climate-friendly policies such as the low carbon fuel standard and the enactment of carbon trading programs.
Aramco is also a major board member to the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful oil lobbying group with vast influence in Washington, D.C. API, as it’s known, sponsors television advertisements, employs lobbyists, and maintains close ties with the Trump administration. A recent investigation found that both AFPM and API are deeply involved in a state-based effort to obstruct electric vehicle investments.
In recent months, Aramco, through its Motiva subsidiary, has hired the Nickles Group, the lobbying firm founded by former Republican Sen. Don Nickles, to influence regulatory policy. Its team has focused on the renewable fuel standard, a contentious law that requires refineries to blend ethanol or to buy credits from other refiners. Aramco also funds a variety of Beltway think tanks, including the Center for International Strategic Studies, a moderate group that promotes maintaining the U.S. strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Even as they push back against efforts to reduce emissions during climate negotiations, the Saudis are girding themselves for them in other arenas. With the expected increase of electric vehicles, Saudi Aramco is preparing to shift away from crude oil and into petrochemicals. The state oil company announced in March that it would be buying a controlling stake in Sabic, the Saudi plastics manufacturer, to utilize non-carbon-intensive products for its petroleum wealth.
While derailing international and U.S. domestic efforts to address climate change, Saudi Arabia is already experiencing some of its worst effects. The record high temperatures throughout the Arabian peninsula this summer will increasingly become the norm, according to researchers, making parts of the country and the entire Middle East region uninhabitable.
Meanwhile, to the west on the Red Sea coast, the Saudi city of Jeddah has begun flooding yearly. Saudi Arabia is ranked among the most “water stressed” countries in the world — a predicament it deals with by using both fossil fuel profits and fossil fuels themselves to desalinate and pump seawater.
Correction: September 18, 2019
This article has been updated to correct the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by Saudi Aramco between 1992 and 2017.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets that aims to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis.