President Barack Obama just completed what in many ways was a historic trip: the first sitting President to visit Alaska’s Arctic. He was there to bear witness to climate change’s impacts.
Understandably, critics have taken issue with the inherent hypocrisy and “greenwashing” of the entire endeavor. Just weeks earlier, on August 17, he handed Shell Oil the final green-light necessary to tap into Arctic oil. Although such criticism has a point, it misses the force behind the decision to approve Arctic drilling to begin with: the National Petroleum Council (NPC) Obama’s administration oversees.
In October 2013, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz requested that the NPC do a study on the potential for Arctic drilling. A year and half later the NPC’s Artic drilling study committee – chaired by ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson – not only published a pro-drilling report titled, “Arctic Potential: Realizing the Promise of U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas Resources,” but also created an entire website and social media campaign around its release. Throughout its history, NPC has published hundreds of similar policy-impacting reports, most recently publishing one touting natural gas fracking in 2011.
Created in 1946 as the successor to the Petroleum Industry War Council, the NPC is an advisory committee to the Secretary of Energy consisting mostly of executives and CEOs of some of the biggest oil and gas companies on the planet. A case in point: its president is Charles D. Davidson, CEO of Noble Energy, and its vice president is the aforementioned Tillerson. As the “advisory” badge makes clear, NPC advises and influences U.S. and more broadly, global energy policy.
On one occasion, the existence of NPC was called into serious question. In February 1962, President John F. Kennedy wrote an executive order, “Preventing Conflicts of Interest on the Part of Advisers and Consultants to the Government,” pertaining to conflicts-of-interest for federal advisory committees such as NPC. Months later, Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach wrote that NPC members “play essentially an industry role rather than an independent role” as they were supposedly intended to play according to NPC’s Articles of Organization.
Ultimately, nothing substantial came of the inquiry, at least anything that would reverse the power and influence of the NPC on policy-making in the U.S. Rather, NPC and federal advisory committees like it became enshrined into law via the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972.
Empowered by the blessing of federal law, NPC published a multi-volume report in 1980 whose reverberations are still being felt around the world today. The report centered around tapping into unconventional oil and gas resources, including shale basins, coal seams and production brine injection. A year later, NPC published another report titled, “U.S. Arctic Oil and Gas,” pushing drilling up north some three and a half decades before Obama’s Arctic approval.
Which brings us back to Obama’s visit. Myriad news articles and analysis pieces have been written about his trip to the Arctic. Some writers have defended him, while others have criticized him, but the main problem is the focus on him. Indeed, some Obama-centric critiques even play right into the cynical public relations framing his White House team has created around the trip, one revolving around his “climate legacy.”
Of course, like all matters of “legacy,” that will depend on the historian. Stenographers will write one version of history, while critics of Obama will craft an entirely different history. Regardless, moral “climate legacy” pleas to Obama depend on a flawed “Great Man” theory of history, one that says great leaders – and not institutions such as the NPC, oil and gas multinationals, environmental organizations and other organized blocs of power – sow the seeds of social change.
Were that the case, though, one would have a hard time explaining why Big Oil worked in concert with the U.S. government to create the NPC to begin with, why the ultra-rich create and finance Super-PACs, why activists organize as groups of people, and the list goes on. People, obviously, make up these institutions and may even be key leaders within them. But at the end of the day, these are the entities driving social and political change.
On January 20, 2017, a new president will be inaugurated to live in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Odds are, after seven decades of precedent, that he or she will do nothing to repeal the policy-making clout of the NPC.
“How important are these advisory committees? The top business leaders apparently think they are important, as shown by their participation on them,” University of California-Santa Cruz sociologist G. William Domhoff wrote in an article about federal advisory committees. “It shows that it is often the seemingly small things that matter to corporations when it comes to government regulations. The devil is in the details.”
Details such as the NPC — not questions of Obama’s “hypocrisy” or “climate legacy” — should be the focus for critics of Obama’s northern adventure. In this case, the devil will be the runaway climate change that scientists say Obama’s approval of tapping into the Arctic is all but certain to cause. Thank the NPC and its advice, courtesy of ExxonMobil.