Big Oil’s Bet On Plastic Is Gambling With Our Future

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CC BY 2.0, Dying Regime / Flickr
by Mia DiFelice

Update (October 25, 2023): This week, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) reintroduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. This bill would be a massive first step to reducing plastic pollution and stopping the fossil fuel industry from locking us into more oil, gas, and plastic production.

The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would ban many single-use, non-recyclable plastic products (like single-use carry out bags) nationwide. It would also require makers of packaging, containers, and food service products to create waste management programs. 

Help us build a safer, healthier, more sustainable future by calling on your representative to support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act!


Although we have a long fight ahead of us to transition off fossil fuels, the tide is turning. Consumers around the world are demanding greener power and more action on climate change. 

Big Oil has read the writing on the wall and has added a new tool to its arsenal — plastics. While public opinion turns against dirty energy, corporations are pushing petrochemicals to keep us hooked on fossil fuels.

Big Oil Is Betting Billions On Plastic

In the 2010s, the fracking boom created such a glut of natural gas that the industry scrambled to find new markets for it. Petrochemical companies were happy to step in. Ethane, a main raw material in many plastics, has doubled production in the U.S. from 2013 to 2021. Desperate to offload the surplus, U.S. companies send it around the world, often at bargain-bin prices. Ethane exported from the U.S. has gone from nonexistent to 300,000 barrels a day. The result — an explosion of plastic. Now, experts expect plastic production and consumption to triple by 2060.

The construction planned to expand the industry needs to stay in the blueprints. From cracker plants to pipelines, this infrastructure is expensive and dangerous. If all the planned projects are completed, emissions from plastics will double by 2050. These projects include 350 chemical plants that would introduce health risks to nearby communities. But since 2010, petrochemical companies have already spent $200 billion to expand plastics manufacturing infrastructure. 

At the same time, public opinion is getting hip to our plastic problem. Cities and states across America are banning certain kinds of single-use plastic. On a global level, Canada, India, France, and many other countries have placed their own bans just this year. Such measures predict shifting prices and future failure. Big Oil’s bet on the industry will entrench billions of dollars into infrastructure that will likely become unprofitable in a few years. 

Plastic Pose Growing Public Health Problems

If allowed to grow, the plastics industry stands to harm our families and communities in so many ways. For one, plastics release toxic chemicals all throughout their life cycle. From volatile organic compounds emitted during fracking, to heavy metals released during recycling, we absorb these toxins by breathing, eating or simply touching them.

Then, there are the pipelines. To make plastics, companies first extract ethane from natural gas liquids. Moving those NGLs requires miles of new pipelines. But NGLs are volatile and flammable, meaning pipelines have a host of health, safety and environmental risks. Yet, most of these lines aren’t regulated, sited or permitted by the federal government. Many states don’t step in, so miles and miles of hazardous pipelines have no oversight at all.

On top of that, the petrochemical industry has a long history of environmental racism. Companies have often cited polluting plants near low-income communities and communities of color. In Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” dozens of petrochemical plants dapple the shores of the Mississippi for 80 miles. The emissions from those plants rain yellow droplets of pollution and kill birds mid-flight. The mostly black and brown residents in the region have some of the greatest risks for cancer in the country.

Despite What Big Oil Tells Us, Recycling Doesn’t Work

For decades, petrochemical companies — often owned by the same oil and gas giants — touted ad campaigns (to the tune of $50 million a year) to keep us buying more plastic. They funded projects and created regulations, signaling that we could solve our plastic problem with some blue bins. But most of what we throw in those blue bins will never see a recycling facility. Only 1 in 10 plastics made from 1950 to 2015 have been recycled. In 2021, that number dropped to 1 in 20. 

Even the plastics that make it to a recycling center can’t be properly recycled. Instead, they’re downcycled, or turned into a lower-quality plastic. After that, they can only be downcycled once or twice more before they have to be tossed into a landfill. 

The newest flavor of the recycling myth goes by “advanced recycling,” which uses chemicals and high heat to break down plastics. The process, which is expensive and emissions-intensive, usually just results in a low-grade fossil fuel. Advanced recycling actually creates more greenhouse gasses than sending the plastic to a landfill or incinerating it. 

Yet, the plastics industry has pushed several states to loosen advanced recycling regulations, or even subsidize them. Taxpayers are funding Big Oil’s schemes to make plastic socially acceptable — when in fact, they’ll just create more problems and worsen climate change. 

We Can’t Let Big Oil Get Away With Plastics

Plastics are a danger to human health and climate. While they have a few important uses, Big Oil is pushing way more plastic than we need. The lie of consumer demand needs to be unraveled. In reality, packaging makes up 40% of produced plastics — which consumers have little say in.

The more Big Oil builds out its infrastructure and floods the market with plastics, the bigger the problem becomes. 

We can stop them in their tracks, starting with:

  1. Banning single-use plastics. These include water bottles, packaging and utensils, and they make up most of plastic waste. They end up in landfills, incinerators and our waterways. Like all plastics, they break down into microplastics, where they move much more easily and stealthily. Now, we find plastic in our sea salt, seafood, beer, honey, sugar and so much more.
  2. Banning fracking and new petrochemical facilities. We’ve known for years that fracking does irreparable damage to our environment and our communities. Petrochemical facilities are just as harmful. They’re also feeding the plastic problem, and stand to make it much, much worse. 

Help us stop Big Oil’s Plan B. Tell your members of Congress to support the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act!

Drilling Won’t Lower Gas Prices. Here’s What Will.

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by Mia DiFelice

It’s the hallmark experience of summer 2022. You’re rolling down your local street, heat waves shimmering off the asphalt, breeze blowing through open car windows. But when you stop at the light, an impossible number catches your eye. Huge and stark, the sign proclaims “REGULAR: $4.95.” It was $4.70 just last week!

Gas prices have been rising for months. Experts first pointed to an unexpected, rapid demand as global COVID lockdowns lifted. Oil and gas corporations saw bankruptcies and negative gas prices in the worst months of the pandemic. But rather than respond to returned demand, industry titans doubled down on profits.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, countries around the world began sanctioning Russian oil. Eye-watering gas prices have piled onto a seemingly endless list of crises and pain points for consumers. 

So of course, gas has become a political tool that Republicans use to condemn the climate policies of the Biden administration. Pointing at the president is a convenient pretense as they defend the interests of fossil fuel corporations.

But media coverage of gas prices swings between incomplete, misleading and downright false. The truth is, gas prices have little to do with White House decisions, and there are few quick fixes.

Consumers — especially the most vulnerable — need relief. But that won’t come from more drilling, as many politicians are demanding. In fact, more drilling would keep us at the mercy of future oil shocks. And it would attach our economic and environmental health to an industry with a long history of volatility and corporate greed.

Let’s break it down. 

White hand pumps gas into a white car.

More Drilling Is Not A Quick Fix For Gas Prices

Citing economic principles of supply and demand, political pundits call for Biden to increase the U.S. oil supply — that is, to drill more. We need more gas than we’ve got, the logic goes. Prices have risen. If supply grows to meet demand, prices will drop.

This argument misses key facts. First, Biden is not blocking the flow of American oil. In fact, he’s opened the tap more than Trump. The current administration issued more than 3,500 drilling permits in 2020 alone; that’s a third more than during Trump’s first year. And under Biden, U.S. oil production has grown from 9.7 million barrels a day to 11.6 million.

Yet oil and gas corporations are staying away from new drilling projects. Currently, 4,400 approved and drilled wells have yet to produce oil. Oil and gas executives show no sign of ramping up production. 

High Gas Prices Are A Boon For Investors

Oil executives themselves have revealed the reason for their inaction — profits. The oil and gas industry is seeing record cash flow. In the first quarter of 2022, the five biggest fossil fuel companies made their highest profits in more than a decade. Last year, four major companies (Shell, BP, Chevron and Exxon) made $75 billion. 

Their investors are demanding more of that windfall. So, instead of investing record profits in more drilling infrastructure, oil corporations are sending money back to investors through stock buybacks and payouts. In a March poll, 59% of oil executives admitted that investor pressure for profit, not government regulation, is the real reason they’re not drilling.

But blabber about drilling misses the mark. And it’s not like we usually use lots of Russian oil that we’re now missing. Of all the petroleum products used in the U.S. in the last decade, only 2% were Russian imports. So how do Russian sanctions affect U.S. gas prices?

The Oil Market Is A Complex Rollercoaster

Oil is a global market, which means prices are set by global supply and demand. The market could be rocked by tons of factors outside of U.S. control. Factors like natural disasters near production centers, the whims of oil-producing states and war. Such events create uncertainty about the future of supply and demand, which leads to more volatile prices. On top of that, speculators and their fleet of AI routinely bet on the future of the oil market. When prices go up, investors see dollar signs — and the more money they put down, the higher prices fly. 

In 2021, the U.S. exported more oil than it imported for the first time. Our crude oil production is soaring to record highs. Yet the price we pay for oil has still fluctuated wildly over the past few years. We are still vulnerable to oil price shocks.

The additional drilling pundits have proposed are a drop in the bucket of global supply. Far more influential are international disasters that clog supply chains, worry investors and prevent new development. Domestic production won’t insulate the U.S. from the global oil market. In fact, if more of our economy ran on fossil fuels, it would make us even more vulnerable to turbulent markets.

Price Controls and Renewables Are Real Solutions to Rising Gas Prices 

In the short-term, our government can help consumers with two tools. First, price controls would keep gas prices low, especially for those who need it most. Our country’s dirty oil addiction should not hurt workers and families. Second, we need an export ban on gasoline and other fuels. Despite the current crisis, U.S. exports on gasoline and diesel are nearing record-highs. With such exports, corporations send our domestic supply to the highest bidder. This ramps up market prices for everyone — including those of us who depend on gas for daily life and work.

Looking ahead, we need long-term solutions that will get us off the oil market rollercoaster. That means ramping up renewable energy. Renewables will insulate us from global oil shocks much more than domestic drilling ever could.

But we have to pick up the pace of development while stopping new oil and gas. Our infrastructure and investment decisions today will have ripple effects for decades. More drilling won’t help struggling Americans tomorrow or even this year. But it will lock us into a future of dangerous emissions, climate disasters and high prices. 

In April, Rep. Cori Bush, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Jason Crow introduced the Energy Security and Independence Act. This legislation will send $100 billion to the renewable energy sector and to programs that lower utility bills for consumers. It will give the sector the boost it needs to help us transition off fossil fuels — a vital step toward real independence from the oil market’s rollercoaster.

Tell Congress to pass the Energy Security and Independence Act.

Pandemic Profiteering: How Corporations Are Capitalizing on the Crisis

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by Peter Hart and Mia DiFelice

From the beginning of the COVID crisis, corporate oligarchs manipulated markets to maximize profits. The giants that control the meat industry stoked bogus fears of a shortage to jack up prices on consumers — with lies so egregious that we filed suit against one of the worst offenders, pork giant Smithfield.

Of course, the problems mounted. Inflation spiked across the economy. Shops swung between long waits and huge shortages. Big companies blamed supply chain shocks and increasing production costs, which were certainly part of it.

But when a handful of corporations control markets, they can essentially name their price — and shovel obscene profits to CEOs and Wall Street speculators.

Oil Companies Are Winning

The squeeze on working families intensified with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Suddenly, global dependence on fossil fuels reached a breaking point. U.S. gasoline prices soared while gas supplies to Europe plunged into chaos. 

In response, politicians and their media enablers demanded a dramatic increase in fracking. But energy giants quietly rebuffed these drilling demands. Not for any new concern for the environment — but rather because they are pulling in billions in record profits. Twisted market logic meant that limiting supply would pay off for their Wall Street investors.

From January to March this year, CEOs of eight fossil fuel corporations saw their share values grow by nearly $100 million. Windfall profits have not resulted in lower prices or better conditions for workers. Instead, these CEOs sold their shares for millions of personal profit.

The horror in Ukraine has created a new global energy crisis. Unfortunately, too many political leaders are clinging to the wrong solution. They want to “fix” a fossil fuel crisis by pushing more fossil fuels. That political support has given frackers a license to spring for long-term gas export terminals. American company EQT even called their mega-polluting gas export scheme “the Largest Green Initiative On the Planet.”

As a result, 25 new LNG projects are currently underway in our country. Fossil fuel companies are not only profiteering from today’s misery — they’re locking us into decades of pollution and emissions. We can’t let this continue. The International Energy Agency warned just last year that fossil fuel production must stop growing immediately if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change. 

Cornering The Market At The Supermarket

At the start of the pandemic, broadcasts and news feeds were fixated on one recurring image: empty grocery store shelves. Periodic shortages kept some consumers on our toes, while many were simply forced to go without.

As with oil and gas, we face giant corporations that would rather gobble profits than prioritize the needs of families. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve seen the cost of meat rise while small farmers’ and ranchers’ profits fell. While COVID ran rampant, we saw corporations limit hazard pay for workers, while investing in stock buybacks to line the pockets of executives.

The meat industry is one of the core players in this problem. A mere four corporations process 85% of all beef and 70% of pork in the U.S. This extreme concentration gives these companies the power to control supply chains, prices and wages. Experts suspect they’re using inflation and supply chain problems as a cover to boost profits. In fact, net profit margins for those top four companies are up over 300%.

Plus, lean supply chains in any industry are dangerous for crises. With one disaster, a few broken links send huge ripples throughout a system without the backups and resilience to recover. For example, a COVID outbreak in a single Smithfield hog plant took out 5 percent of the nation’s hog processing capacity. 

Corporations Are Selling Us Misery

It’s never been clearer: When the essentials for life itself are controlled by corporate cartels, the future of our communities, our families and our planet are at their mercy. For decades, corporate America has told us that bigger is better, that consolidation would lower prices and eliminate inefficiencies. 

We know this is a lie. 

The latest heartbreaking example: the wealthiest nation on Earth is running out of baby formula because of problems at a single factory, thanks to a market controlled by four corporations.

At Food & Water Action, we know that these problems have solutions. That’s why we’re fighting to break up the grocery cartels and stop corporate water profiteers. It’s why we’re demanding an end to the polluting factory farms that harm communities and farmers. Why we fight on the ground across the country to stop the fossil fuel projects driving the climate emergency. In an era of compounding crises, we must fight to transform the present and protect the future.

We can’t fight Corporate America without you.