The 5 biggest oil companies earn more in 60 seconds than 95% of American households make in a year.

A Market of Fossil Extraction

Russ Fugal
7 min readSep 7, 2019


There are over 520 billion barrels of oil in the probable reserves of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates alone (source) — enough to cover the Great Lakes in over six feet of crude oil sludge. Most of this oil can hit the market at all-in-costs of less than $12 per barrel (source), so these oil resources represent 17–28 trillion dollars in profits (at $46–$66 per barrel) — revenues (if shared equally) of about $1 million for every family of five in those countries.

Here’s the problem — our remaining budget is only 420–580 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2) if we are to limit global heating to 1.5°C (source). That budget includes emissions from electricity and heating (primarily coal and methane), and agriculture (primarily ‘economical’ industrial farming practices for food and livestock).

Oil is used primarily in transportation, which accounts for only 14% of emissions — 14% of 420 GtCO2 is only 59 GtCO2. There are $28 trillion reasons to burn 520 billion barrels of oil, which will add 224 GtCO2 to the atmosphere, and we must limit our oil burning to 59 GtCO2.

420 | 59 | 224 | $28,000,000,000,000
The math just doesn’t work.
It gets worse.

These middle-eastern countries are not the only ones rich in oil. Burning the oil in the U.S. will add 57 GtCO2 with another 125 GtCO2 from the oil of Russia, Canada, Brazil and China. Burn all the prospective oil left in the world and we add 538 GtCO2. Burn all the recoverable coal in just the U.S. — add another 463 GtCO2. That’s 224 +57 +125 +538 +463 +… out of 420–580 billion tonnes.

Well you might say, “What if we just stop building new facilities and products that burn oil, coal, and natural gas; what if we stop extracting these fossils as these are retired?” Existing infrastructure will add 658 GtCO2, and we already have proposed power plants (planned, permitted or under construction) which would emit an extra 188 GtCO2 (source). Our remaining budget is only 420–580 GtCO2.

The problem is that we are burning fossil carbons as fuel and the global economy we’ve built does not permit us to stop.

The problem is that we are burning fossil carbons as fuel and the global economy we’ve built does not permit us to stop. There is too much money to be made in further investments, and existing investments (sunk costs) are already a problem. Existing infrastructure must be retired early, investors must forego opportunities and must see existing investments pay out less than expected, the solutions are not ‘economical’, at least not if we want to limit global heating to 1.5°C (and we do want to limit global heating to 1.5°C).

I used to believe that innovation would solve the climate issue, that battery electric vehicles, cheap solar and wind, and an ever-elusive price on carbon would stop fossil extraction through market forces. But now that technologies are here which can compete and attract investors, I have yet to see the big shift that was promised. Because we’ve adopted an ethic of expediency, agreeing to stop the actions which kill only when it becomes economically expedient to do so, we’ve lost our moral heading and we’re not equipped to with the morals needed to deal with the fallout.

This is the moral pressure of the century, our call to love with heart, soul, strength and mind, to love the neighbor we do not know. This is it, our deeds in the next few years shall our memorial be. If you’re looking for a market solution to the climate crisis, this is it: phase in a total ban on the burning of fossils within 10 years. This will spur investment into existing technologies that today can transition us away from burning fossils. The transition won’t be painless, there will be many bankruptcies and a financial crisis as financed infrastructure is defaulted on, but the market will provide and at least we’ll stop contributing to the heating, to the climate crises. If that seems radical then look into the science until you realize that it’s not.

A unit price on carbon is a regressive tax; the failed roll-out in France shows how politically flawed it is. It has no moral authority, like a ban would, because it serves as an absolution, a mea culpa, a permissive licence for those who can afford the penance to commit the sin. A carbon fee and dividend is more popular but still serves as a permissive licence, offering no aid to those countries least responsible for and most affected by CO2 heating. On top of that, the fees typically are not high enough and the legislation typically includes a loosening of regulations (the opposite of a ban) to gain bipartisan support. The plan shuffles money around the economy from those who burn more to those who burn less, has a limited effect on demand, and almost no effect of the profits earned from each tonne of carbon extracted.

“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” Edward Abbey

What is the path forward for those who, a) recognize how fundamental fossil burning is to our economies, b) recognize the (reversible) effect these fossil burning economies have had on global economic poverty, c) recognize the irreversible effect of burning fossils, d) recognize the emergent efficiency of markets vis-à-vis command economies, and e) reasonably fear unchecked power of large bureaucracies?

Since deciding to run for U.S. Congress on the inspiration of the Green New Deal (H. RES. 109), I have thought about this extensively. Here are the first outlines of my plan:

Fossil Extraction Profits Threaten Action and are Immoral

Given what we know about green house gases, how much we’ve already heated the biosphere (1°C), how fast the rate of change is changing (dT/dt), and the consequences of heating, it is unethical today to profit from the extraction of fossils for burning. At the same time, acting in favor of humanity threatens these profits; that incents profiteers to act against humanity’s interests.

Large Corporations can Help or Hinder

ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Saudi Aramco like to believe (or cause others to believe) that they are on board with sustainability. For example, on Saudi Aramco’s website it says, “For some, the idea of an oil and gas company positively contributing to the climate challenge is a contradiction. We don’t think so. As a world-leading energy business, we are uniquely qualified to make effective contributions to the overall solution.” Staking out a similar position, ExxonMobil claims, “ExxonMobil is conducting scientific research to discover innovative approaches to developing existing and next-generation energy sources, while at the same time developing products that can enable more efficient energy consumption.” These corporations can contribute the the public good or work against it, they cannot do both, and these corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profits for their shareholders.

A Corporate–Carbon Tax Plan

A carbon tax increases the commodity cost to the consumer without affecting the profit margin of the corporation. Rather than a unit price of carbon, I propose a steep corporate tax rate on companies involved in the financing, extracting, or importing of fossil commodities (oil, gas, coal), on companies building and operating infrastructure and products which burn fossils, and on importers of carbon-intensive products. Companies would be under a steep and escalating tax on earnings before taxes and interest (EBIT), with the tax in some sectors (e.g. fossil extraction) escalating to 100% within 5 years. This would not effect wages, executive compensation, or a company’s fiscal sustainability, simply the profits of owners and shareholders. Deductions would be offered for research and development of products and services to replace the actions placing the company in this tax regime, but until a company divests from the actions completely the tax would apply to all profits. Executives would then have a fiduciary responsibility which aligns with the public good rather than against it.

Your Support is Needed

I am running for Congress with no support from the political machines of party or lobbied interests. Whether you live in my district (UT-03), the state of Utah, or somewhere else in the U.S., I ask for your financial support. Please chip in $20 today for so that I can continue to develop and run on this legislation. Share this idea and this article on social media with #FossilCarbonsAreNotFuel. If you live in Utah, or can contribute skills remotely, please consider joining my campaign team. My district is R+25 (Republican), but I know I can win on the moral argument and the majority of this district’s votes if your support and dollars can give me the platform to present it among this constituency. Please, help flip this district to act on climate, embrace the principles of the Green New Deal, and lead this country.

Russ Fugal