Would breaking up monopolies—the “too big to fails”—significantly help to catalyze real action on climate change?

Daniel Raimi, a senior research associate at Resources for the Future and a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, doesn’t think that breaking up major fossil fuel companies using anti-monopoly power is likely to make a big difference. 

Though Standard Oil, which in 1911 broke up after a federal lawsuit brought under the Sherman Antitrust Act, represented a textbook example of monopoly power, Raimi said, the fossil fuel industry looks very different today. 

Most oil and gas in the world is produced by government-owned and controlled companies. For that reason, Raimi said, “just breaking up the big oil companies we’ve all heard of,” like BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil, “might diminish their political power,” but it wouldn’t affect the global demand for oil and gas. That demand results in the fossil fuel production that largely drives global greenhouse gas emissions and, as a result, climate change. 

Raimi also distinguished breaking up large oil and gas companies from reducing the political influence of those companies. “There’s a real concern that energy companies have an outsized influence on shaping climate policy,” he said. Fossil fuel interests have outspent environmental advocates 10 to one lobbying on climate change legislation, according to an analysis by Robert J. Brulle, published in Climatic Change in 2018. 

But in Raimi’s mind, it’s not necessarily the size of energy companies that’s responsible for their influence. A company’s size “does not necessarily tell you anything about the likelihood of that company’s supporting climate policy,” he said.

While Raimi said that the solutions to addressing the obstruction of climate policy by fossil fuel interests were not in his area of expertise, the use of anti-monopoly power against fossil fuel companies was probably not a major solution to accelerating climate action. 

Ilana Cohen

Ask Us a Question

Is there a climate science question that’s been bouncing around in your head? Submit your question to Climate 101 and we may be able to answer it for you.