High concentration of money means high concentration of power. Except in lucky, benevolent circumstances, high concentration of power leads to an abuse of power that has a net negative effect on the associated population. With that in mind, take note that money has seldom been concentrated as much as it has been in the oil industry.
Last week, I wrote about a US democratic crisis. It concerns Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump on the surface, but a bit more deeply, it concerns oil. Take a deep breath and bear with me a moment while I set the stage before connecting the dots.
Image from Yuri Kadobnov / AFP – Getty Images file, with color and framing modified.
Even if it seemed like a total fantasy that the oil industry would deflate massively in the next half century, there’s plenty of oil to fight over and billionaires can always greedily desire billions of dollars more in their piggy banks. In short: rich is not rich enough and oily oligarchs are willing to deceive, harm, and even kill to get richer. Don’t step on their toes. (Ahem.)
Russia’s economy is heavily centered around oil & gas, with 30% of the country’s GDP and 50% of the state budget coming from that sector. The Russian economy as a whole is not very strong, which means much of the population has a fairly low quality of life, but the oligarchs at the top have found out a way to consistently funnel money into their offshore bank accounts, mansions, luxury condos, exclusive artwork, etc. — which means much of the population really has a fairly low quality of life. The oligarchs launder this money into Western societies for a variety of reasons, but most of all, to protect it. (Note: there is some speculation Vladimir Putin is the richest person in the world, with much of that wealth stemming, of course, from the country’s oil and gas business.)
One of the most disruptive events in international climate politics was the absurd “climategate” faux scandal. Well, actually, there was a scandal — hackers stole and cherry picked emails to try to make climate scientists look like evil villains. It was an absurd narrative, but it somehow did take hold enough to disrupt a great amount of climate policy. In case you weren’t keeping up on that story, note that it’s widely presumed (practically proven) that Russian hackers and Russian agents were behind this coordinated event. Count it as an email hacking test run and an obvious attempt to derail climate action in order to milk more money out of oil and gas. The bottom line: “We will screw society to make more money on oil and gas.”
Consistently grooming American businessmen, people of significant political influence, and potentially politicians, the Russian government has long aimed to get their people in a position to shape US political decisions. Donald Trump was probably a long shot for them (who the hell thought that guy could become president!), but he was at the least a superb person to launder money through. He had repeated business failures, was horrible at paying back debt or paying contractors, and had tremendous trouble getting any loans from US or European banks as a result. However, according to one or both of his adult sons, his real estate business was largely afloat through the past decade or two because of Russian money. Wealthy Russians apparently got him the money he needed, and he didn’t bother to ask questions. Furthermore, it has been determined that aside from straight financing, various Russian oligarchs have had no problem laundering money through his properties. No doubt about it, Trump — in one respect or 5 million — owes some rich Russians for their help.
And remember, that money Trump received from Russia was soaked in oil. Oil money wants a return on its investment, and that generally means more oil production.
In the midst of buttering up Trump, throwing a financial noose around his neck, and disturbing international climate politics, the Russian government also went a bit too far for US and European taste. In the past six years, the country was penalized for human rights abuses and its invasion of Ukraine. The US government put sanctions on the country, which now mean a lockdown on a decent portion of certain Russian oligarchs’ finances and sanctions on the oil & gas industry and state banks. That’s not something Putin has been happy about.
In what must have seemed like a deep long shot, but one worth taking, Russian hackers, fake news creators, and underhanded social media influencers responded by coming out in force to interfere with the US presidential election and try to elect “their president,” which is apparently what Trump is now called in the Russian media. They also pushed for Brexit in similar style and routinely try to help far-right-wing politicians across Europe.
What did the Russian government want from these efforts? Among other things, it wanted sanctions lifted. The oligarchs want their ruthlessly hoarded oil money back. Reportedly, the meeting of a Russian lawyer and Russian spy with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort in a Trump Tower chat during the election covered lifting sanctions.
After winning the Republican nomination, the single thing Trump’s campaign team wanted changed in the Republican Party platform was reportedly softer wording on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Before Trump even took office, his team was apparently promising to drop sanctions on Russia. Furthermore, Trump appointed an oil man who had received an “Order of Friendship” directly from Putin as his Secretary of State. (That’s former CEO of ExxonMobil Rex Tillerson.) There are some reports out there that Russian connections to the Trump team may have vetoed Trump’s choice of Mitt Romney for that position and pushed for Tillerson instead, but at this point, that’s something I haven’t seen confirmed. Either way, Tillerson was a highly atypical choice and had a lot of people scratching their heads … unless you connected a few obvious dots. A positive surprise is that Tillerson ended up having a strong stance against Russia and in favor of NATO. He supported strong global alliances with historic friends of democracy even while he hollowed out the State Department. Alas, he was dropped, apparently because his views on international diplomacy didn’t match up with Trump’s (the latter of which seem to be: make America look bad in the eyes of nearly every country on earth and weaken our global influence as much as possible, but be besties with Putin and his oligarch buddies).
In recent weeks and months, against the apparent interests of the United States, Donald Trump has repeatedly taken pro-Russia, anti-USA, pro-oil, anti-humanity stances on some of the topics most important to Russia:
- Attack NATO.
- Try to pull out of the global Paris climate agreement, becoming the only country in the world to not be in the agreement.
- Make military changes in North Korea and Syria that Putin prefers.
- Propose that Russia be allowed back into the G8 and pretend there’s no reason the country was kicked out of it.
- Do absolutely nothing to counter election interference in coming years.
- Join a Putin–Trump/”Russia–USA” summit in which Putin gets put on a higher pedestal and seemingly gets to run the show while the US gains nothing.
- Actually suggest it’s a great idea to have the Russian intelligence agency work with US intelligence forces to investigate claims that Russian intelligence personnel interfered with US elections. (Yes, that’s right, let’s show the Russian spy agency how we determined its staff interfered with our election! Why don’t we just hand them our nuclear codes while we’re at it?)
- Perhaps even more shockingly, say it was an incredible idea to send innocent Americans critical of Putin, who Putin would love to see killed, to Russia for interrogation.
Yes, Trump sounds and even looks like a bought man, which is why even some Republican Congressmen were freaking out last week.
The Republican Party as a whole, unfortunately, has done little to push back on these absurdities. Apparently lacking a spine and being beholden to their top donors and newfound bully boss, they have not used powers granted to them by the Constitution to put a check on the presidency. Then again, they have long been bought by the anti-democratic, anti-humanity oil industry. It seems they have also been influenced and partially funded by Russian money through the NRA (National Rifle Association). Republican voters want clean energy, but Republican politicians continually side with rich coal and oil companies over the preferences of their voters. They have been accustomed to selling out democracy for more political power, so doing so in favor of a potentially treasonous president and top adversary just means going with the flow. Oil money is oil money, anti-human policies are anti-human policies, and the Republican Party has been on that beat for decades.
In summary, we’ve got this:
- Oil & gas money has been used to attack democracy for years.
- Russian oligarch cash, originating in large part from the oil & gas industry, has been laundered through Trump properties and has personally benefited Trump for years.
- During the Obama years, Russian attacks on democracy and human rights led to US & European sanctions on certain people and companies running the show in Russia.
- Russian oligarchs want those sanctions lifted and put their thumbs on the scales of US presidential and Congressional elections, the British Brexit vote, the French presidential election, and other democratic processes in order to help get people into power who will lift sanctions and push back against EU-connected alliances.
- Donald Trump seems to be taking Russia’s side over America’s side on topic after topic, presumably as a reward for the help Trump got in the election and in his private business in years prior. And that means more attacks on our democracy and a further shift off of a Republican cliff. Gone are the days of pro-American, pro-human policies from the Republican Party.
- Who thought we’d see the day?
It seems such oil money also goes into attacks on solar energy, wind energy, electric vehicles, and, of course, Tesla. Whether the money comes from oil-soaked, anti-democratic Russian oil & gas revenue or from oil-soaked, anti-democratic US oil & gas revenue, the story is the same — the links between the oil industry and attacks on democracy are deep, broad, and numerous. Mo’ oil money, mo’ problems.
Therefore, part of getting more cleantech deployed is getting oil-drenched politicians out of Congress. And part of regaining our democracy is kicking oil money out of politics. If the USA is going to achieve greater cleantech progress, that means removing Republicans from Congress and booting Donald Trump from the White House (he spends much of his time and taxpayer money at his own golf resorts and hotels anyway). That seems to be one of the best way to save our democracy, since anti-democratic leanings are often directly tied to the oil & gas business, whether in the USA or Russia.
Russia has been fighting against democracy for decades. The Republican Party has been fighting against democracy and the majority of Americans for decades as well. It’s time for more Americans to take their democracy seriously and fight back politically