Top Obama Energy Official Says Administration Rejects “Keep It In The Ground” As Climate Strategy

Read time: 4 mins

We’re certainly not advocating any strategy for reducing hydrocarbon emissions by keeping oil in the ground…that’s not a position.” 

This was the response of Christopher A. Smith when he was asked what he thought of the “growing movement of keeping oil in the ground” at the 2016 Columbia Global Energy Summit in April.

Since Chris Smith worked for more than a decade for Chevron and Texaco, this answer should not surprise anyone. 

However, Chris Smith now works for President Obama as assistant secretary of fossil energy, so when he says “we’re certainly not advocating” he is referring to the fact that the Obama Administration’s Department of Energy does not support any strategy to keep oil in the ground. 

And if you think Mr. Smith isn’t in a position of authority in the Obama administration when it comes to oil policy, you might want to consider how he was introduced at the event by moderator Antoine Halff:

[Smith is] Assistant secretary of energy for fossil fuels since 2014 but really at the heart of R&D and policy development issues since the beginning of the first Obama administration. And Chris has had a huge role in the government’s embrace of tight oil and shale, their benefits and the opportunities they represent…after perhaps a somewhat lukewarm start early in the first Obama administration.”

So according to Halff, who came to Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy from a position as chief oil analyst at the International Energy Agency, Chris Smith was instrumental in getting the Obama administration to “embrace” fracking for oil. And Smith is now saying that same administration certainly does not advocate keeping any oil in the ground.  

Meanwhile, the science is clear that without keeping upwards of 80 percent of the current proved reserves in the ground, the planet is headed beyond 2C of warming — climate disaster. 

Just this week, Inside Climate News reported on the latest findings that carbon dioxide and methane levels are on the rise and “going completely in the wrong direction” according to Kevin Trenberth, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The levels aren’t just rising but are accelerating: “Methane levels jumped 11 parts per billion from 2014 to 2015, nearly double the rate they were increasing from 2007 to 2013.”

Of course, the fracking that Smith and the Obama administration have embraced is a major contributor to methane pollution — a Harvard study has shown that the US is the biggest methane polluter in the world. 

Meanwhile a new study by the University of Victoria alarmingly concludes that if all known fossil fuel reserves are burned we could face “average global temperature increases between 6.4 degrees and 9.5 degrees Celsius.”

That's somewhat higher than the 1.5C goal of COP21

But Chris Smith is clear that keeping oil in the ground is “not a position” of the Obama administration. So apparently 1.5C also is “not a position” of the Obama administration. 

As previously noted on DeSmog, Columbia’s Center for Global Energy Policy is an oil friendly organization, so it wasn’t surprising that much of the 2016 annual conference focused on oil and gas. The keynote speaker was the CEO of oil and gas giant Total. 

However the summit did include one session on the climate — a panel that featured former US special envoy for climate change Todd Stern along with others directly involved in the Paris climate talks. Most of the panel discussion consisted of talking about the Paris Agreement and what a great accomplishment it was in the effort to combat climate change. 

At the end of the panel there was time for questions, but the audience and press were only allowed to submit questions via comment cards.

DeSmog submitted a question to the panel asking their thoughts on how COP21 goals could be achieved if the Obama administration didn’t support any strategy to keep oil in the ground — as evidenced by Smith’s earlier comments. The moderator did not pose the question to the panel.

We all now understand that Exxon knew and did nothing. In fact, the company actively denied the science to evade responsibility for its own pollution-based prosperity.

What we are seeing play out now is that the Obama administration knows — and is on record as committed to doing nothing to keep oil in the ground — despite the scientific consensus. 

Blog image credit: Justin Mikulka

Get DeSmog News and Alerts