Climate law: Capital’s strategic retreat

September 13, 2022

From the September-October 2022 issue of News & Letters

by Franklin Dmitryev

The passage of the first big U.S. climate bill, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), marks the oil and gas industry’s strategic retreat, which is at the same time a regrouping and counteroffensive.


From Nov. 12, 2016, rally in Chicago for No Dakota Access Pipeline. Photo: Franklin Dmitryev for News & Letters.

Big Oil’s campaign of denial and obstruction was so successful that it delayed serious action for four decades. That is measured in the suffering of humanity—especially the countries exploited by colonialism, national minorities, the poor and working classes, and women.

It is seen in the disasters plaguing the earth, from fires and drought to intense storms and floods, from mass sea animal deaths to the world food crisis, from pandemics to armed conflicts and fleeing refugees. That is fossil capital’s achievement at a warming of only 1.1 degrees Celsius—the first taste of the apocalypse it promises.

In its control of the Republican Party and key Democrats like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—a coal baron and the biggest recipient in Congress of oil and gas money—fossil capital did make the IRA its vehicle in the class war against humanity. They are mitigating their retreat forced by the combination of Indigenous, youth and other climate justice struggles and the inescapable reality of extreme weather disasters.

As one industry lobbyist anonymously put it: “If you look at the pros and cons, the pros [for Big Oil] generally outweigh the cons. The Easter eggs that Manchin forced into the bill on leasing, they’re a big deal.” Mainstream environmentalists also see pros outweighing cons, out of desperation for real action, and locked as their minds are into the restricted possibilities of the existing economic and political system dominated by capital.

The most obvious oil sops are the law’s requirement to reinstate canceled oil and gas lease sales in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and to offer millions of acres for oil and gas leases each year before space can be offered for wind or solar power on the seas or federal lands. In keeping with the IRA’s nationalistic character, this sacrificing of humanity’s security is labeled “energy security.” No aid is given to other countries even though the U.S. is by far the biggest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases.

But the bill also devotes much of its billions of dollars to false solutions designed to prop up fossil fuels, auto manufacturers, nuclear power and agribusiness. Carbon capture and storage never captures all the carbon and actually increases the toxic pollution assaulting nearby communities, the majority of which are people of color, but it is enshrined as a climate solution. It would also require thousands of miles of pipelines to be built.


A companion bill demanded by Manchin (and agreed to by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who along with Manchin is in the top ten Congressional recipients of pipeline money) would slash public input and environmental reviews for energy infrastructure projects like pipelines. That is a clear response to the Indigenous-led defeat of the Keystone XL pipeline and the success of Appalachian people and environmentalists in stalling the Mountain Valley Pipeline through West Virginia and Virginia.

Even before Manchin had his way with Biden’s bill, it was designed to hand over maximum power to private companies and investors as against ordinary citizens by directing funds to tax breaks, grants and loans that favor corporations and NGOs with abundant resources.

At a moment when even the conservative International Energy Agency has declared that all new fossil fuel projects must cease, the bill does nothing to make that happen and instead encourages growth of fossil fuel as well as renewable energy.

The widely reported figure of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is misleading. It includes projections of existing trends, meaning the IRA is supposed to reduce emissions by 10-20%, and even that comes from computer models based on unconvincingly optimistic assumptions about the spread and effectiveness of technologies not currently available or feasible at scale.


Many IRA backers claim to be on board with climate scientists’ dire warnings of the urgent need for “fundamentally transforming…how we do everything” but our political system ends up with fatally flawed measures because these representatives of capital are vehemently opposed to transforming human relations in production and in social life as a whole.

That is why the youth and other climate justice activists met the IRA with more protests, such as in Washington and at Schumer’s Manhattan office, and with vows to keep fighting the pipeline deal and calling for a climate emergency declaration.

Ashley Engle (Shawnee and Lakota) of Oklahoma said: “They rode the roller coaster of compromise all the way into the ground and left us to burn in the flames. This is not only not enough, but it’s really harmful, and we need Biden to step up.” Meanwhile, youth are moving from climate strikes to occupations.

Without these kinds of actions from below, the capitalist economic-political system would never have achieved even this small step. Their reach for fundamental social transformation must become the focal point if the world is to break out of the suicidal path this system is still careening down.

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