Op-Ed: Treat fossil fuels like nukes, with a nonproliferation treaty

The Los Angeles City Council is poised to endorse a call for a global Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Approval could make Los Angeles the first U.S. city — New York is also in the running — to sign on to the treaty resolution. Introduced in November by Councilman Paul Koretz, it won unanimous support in committee and awaits likely passage by the full council in the new year.

The treaty would do just what its name says: Signatory governments would agree to stop further expansion of the fossil fuel industry within their boundaries. A U.N. report released Dec. 2 indicates just how imperative that step is: To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the goal set in the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, global emissions would have to drop 6% a year between now and 2030; alarmingly, nations instead project an average annual increase of 2% a year.

The treaty addresses a nearly universal failing of climate change regulations, which usually attempt to curb energy demand (by establishing, say, a cap-and-trade system or setting far-off deadlines for clean energy conversion) instead of attacking the oil industry directly by limiting fossil fuel supply. Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative, points out that the Paris agreement is so focused on emissions and demand that it doesn’t even use the terms “coal,” “oil,” “natural gas” and “fossil fuels” — the substances that cause those emissions.

California’s failure to limit supply makes state leaders’ claims to global climate leadership questionable. The state’s most recent two governors, Jerry Brown and now Gavin Newsom, have acknowledged the gravity of the climate crisis, but their administrations have both issued new oil well permits at a rate of 1,000 to 3,000 a year, according to FracTracker Alliance. In fact, new drilling permits in the first nine months of 2020 jumped to 1,646, an increase of 137% over the same period in 2019. The governors’ disinterest in stopping new permits is attributable to the continuing power of the oil industry’s lobbying and campaign contributions, which exert a strong influence on both parties.

Still, the oil industry is dramatically weakening. Exxon lost $2.4 billion in the first nine months of 2020. In California, fossil fuel production is falling despite the issuance of new drilling permits partly because so few of those permits result in oil production, and partly because legacy fields are going dry. (The state slipped from third to seventh among states in annual oil production between 2015 and 2018, the last year for which statistics are available.) Correspondingly, the industry’s claims to its astonishingly large subsidies — globally, roughly $5 trillion, about 6% of global GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund — seem more and more unjustifiable. Of course, considering fossil fuels’ role in destabilizing global climate, those subsidies are outrageous.

Two British social scientists issued the initial call for a global fossil fuel treaty. In a 2018 Guardian op-ed, they proposed the 1970 U.N. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which went into effect just two years after it became eligible for signature, as a model for a similar swift approach to limiting fossil fuel production.

Besides committing governments to ending the development of new fossil fuel resources, the treaty proposal calls for a coordinated, accelerated phaseout of existing fossil fuel production. It would divert money from fossil fuel subsidies to clean energy development in poor countries. The treaty’s creators are also sponsoring the creation of a global registry of fossil fuel production. Data on reserves and production exist, but they want to bring them together in a comprehensive, publicly accessible, standardized report so that supply-side progress toward climate goals can be measured.

Numerous nations — including New Zealand, France, Costa Rica, Belize and, as of November, Denmark — as well as state and local governments have announced moratoriums on new oil exploration and production. Others have phased out fracking and coal production and use. Within a month of the September launch of the treaty initiative, Vancouver, Canada, became the first city to sign on. Hundreds of civic organizations have endorsed the idea, along with nearly 8,000 individuals, including climate activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben.

Los Angeles is a natural focus for treaty organizers because of its unusually high concentration of oil infrastructure in an urban setting: The city is home to more than 800 active wells in 26 oil and gas fields. Last month, a City Council committee called for the drafting of an ordinance that could phase out oil and gas production in L.A., but any such measure faces heavy industry resistance. By contrast, the treaty resolution, which merely tells the federal government what the city would like it to do, should attract little opposition.

“It’s a little bit like holding on to wild horses,” Berman says of the treaty’s current momentum. “After 30 years of doing this work, it feels like the first time I’m working on something that is commensurate with the scale of the problem.”

Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion.