By Ulf Jarnefjord
On Monday, September 28, 2020, Sweden’s largest oil refinery, Preem, decided to withdraw its application for an expansion of its refinery in Lysekil on the Swedish west coast.
After massive protests from the climate and environmental movement for several years, Preem announced that they had withdrawn their application to expand the oil refinery in Lysekil. This is a great benefit for the climate, for democracy, for the environmental movement, and for everyone’s future. The message is that activism pays off.
It would have been completely irresponsible to further expand fossil fuels when we are in a climate emergency, and time is running out quickly for the small carbon budget that remains. We have just 7 years to limit emissions in line with the 1.5-degree target.
In the days before the announcement, Greenpeace had blocked the port of Lysekil with its ship Rainbow Warrior, to prevent an oil tanker from entering the port and unloading its cargo. Climate activists from Greenpeace also climbed and chained themselves to the cranes at the crude oil terminal.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg has Tweeted that Preem’s decision to suspend the expansion of the oil refinery in Lysekil is a “huge victory for the climate and the environmental movement,” since otherwise it would have been impossible to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The youth organization Fridays For Future emphasizes that it is not time to pay tribute to the oil giant: “This decision is not because Preem has suddenly acquired a moral compass. Preem is still an oil company and we should not allow them to use this decision as a way to paint themselves green and appear responsible. We will ensure that this becomes a turning point for the fossil fuel industry in Sweden and serves as an example when Preem starts planning new environmental crimes.”
If we are to succeed in reducing emissions and meet our commitments in accordance with the Paris Agreement as quickly as necessary, there is also no choice between “better” and “worse” fossil fuels. We must invest all our resources in completely dismantling the entire fossil fuel economy, quickly. It is not possible to consider heavy oil as a useful residual product when we know that the oil must remain in the ground.
Company Background and How We Got Here
Preem has been owned since 1994 by Saudi-Ethiopian businessman Mohammed al-Amoudi. He subsequently acquired the Swedish state oil company OK, which was partly owned by consumers and the trade union movement through the Cooperative Union KF.
According to Preem, the company’s carbon dioxide emissions are projected to double, increasing from 1.7 million tonnes to 3.4 million tonnes per year. An expansion would increase carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent, meaning that Preem would be Sweden’s largest single carbon dioxide source. Emissions of several environmentally and health hazardous substances will also increase, including sulfur and benzene, which are also carcinogenic. Even before the planned expansion, a study of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that the incidence of leukemia around Preem increased by 40 percent compared with the expected outcome. Prior to Preem’s establishment, there was no increased incidence of leukemia in the area.
Among other reasons, Preem’s planned expansion of the refinery in Lysekil is intended to allow increased use of heavy oil, a residual product from the production of petrol and diesel, which is currently partly sold as marine fuel. The company claims that the increased carbon dioxide emissions from the refinery in Sweden would thus by partly offset by lower emissions globally through a more energy-rich marine fuel. The vessels that previously burned bunker oil from Preem’s refinery would in the future emit less carbon dioxide per nautical mile with the new fuels. Preem themselves claim that they will produce better fuels with this expansion and that no other country makes such fuel as efficiently. Preem wants not only to refine heavy oil for shipping fuel but also as diesel and petrol for cars and trucks.
IF Metall, the industrial union that organizes the workers at the refinery and the trade union central organization LO in western Sweden, has always supported Preem’s expansion and the company management’s argumentation for better quality and reduced emissions globally. The fact that the expansion would create about 300 new jobs in Lysekil and some surrounding work has probably been a major driving factor behind the decision. LO Central and other unions in Sweden have been completely silent and have been low on the issue.
I myself was invited by the climate and environmental movement in early March to during a demonstration in Lysekil against Preem’s expansion, talk about fair conversion and the need to phase out fossil energy, and instead invest in 100 percent renewable energy solutions (unfortunately I could not participate). We must create a sustainable fossil-free production of energy under state and democratic control, solutions that could also create many more jobs than those offered by dirty fossil capital.
Preem thinks and talks like many other companies and governments about completely switching to forest raw materials for the transport sector, with cars, trucks, ships and aircraft powered by “clean biofuels.” But for those who can count it is clear that the volumes of biomass required would be disastrous for our forests and are far beyond what forestry can produce. It would require that all trees felled in Sweden and Norway each year be sent to Preem, and would mean a total depletion of forests and biodiversity. It also risks leading to further increases in carbon dioxide emissions. The idea of green climate-neutral biofuels is based on the idea that the combustion of biomass should be compensated by newly planted trees. When burning biomass from a spruce, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere that the spruce has taken up during its lifetime is released. It takes the same amount of time for a new spruce to absorb the corresponding amount of carbon dioxide, i.e., 60-80 years, or 100 years for a pine. It is only in this time perspective that forest biomass can become “climate neutral”. Given that the world’s carbon dioxide emissions according to the UN’s climate panel IPCC must be halved by 2030 and erased by 2050, or in Sweden’s case 2045, the forest’s future uptake of carbon dioxide is not of much use here and now.
Preem had initially received legal permission to expand the oil refinery in Lysekil; the permit would have been valid indefinitely. Several environmental organizations appealed to the Land and Environmental Court. The main hearing in the Supreme Land and Environmental Court was held in the spring of 2020. Climate researcher Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change, at the University of Manchester (UK) and at the Center for Sustainability and the Environment (CEMUS) at Uppsala University Sweden, testified in court and presented the following: “Doubling emissions and using a more effective technique than its competitors does not make it a sound or climate smart investment. Quite the contrary – it paves a route to climate emergency. The climate does not care about efficiency, it only cares about the total amount of carbon dioxide.” If the expansion were allowed, it would also violate Sweden’s new climate law, which commits the country to net-zero emissions by 2045. Sweden would also not be able to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement.
The court concluded that the permit could not be stopped on the basis of Swedish environmental legislation and cannot be applied to an activity that is part of the EU ETS. The Swedish legislation that is intended to counteract climate problems is now used to increase emissions with reference to the EU’s emissions trading system. The matter was referred to the government for a decision.
At the same time as the appeal process was ongoing in court, environmental organizations and thousands of individuals had written to the Government and pointed out that in addition to the Environmental Code, they have an obligation to take into account the new climate law and the goals that Sweden’s emissions must be reduced. The Swedish government, which consists of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, is completely dependent on support from the Liberals and the Center Party to be able to govern, and there is also a majority in the Parliament for an expansion. The Government’s decision on the issue could have risked a parliamentary crisis. Now Government got in under the wire just before and needed to make a decision, when Preem themselves decided to withdraw their application for expansion of the refinery.
According to Preem, this is only due to new market balances with regard to global demand for products and the Corona pandemic.
A Victory — But the Battle is Not Over
We are now celebrating the victory, but the battle is far from won. Fossil capitalism may be weakened but their dominant promise of infinite freedom of choice, constant development and eternal growth still dominates. The example with Preem shows that the neoliberal market forces will never solve the environmental and climate emergency we are in the middle of before it is too late, the short-term economic gain is always prioritized before the health of nature and people. Therefore, the fight for a just and sustainable world must continue, and one way could be to include Ecocide in the Rome Statute. The UN Rome Statute regulates the activities of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which prosecutes genocide, war crimes, aggression crimes and crimes against humanity. It is one of the world’s most important legal documents. Including Ecocide as a fifth crime within the Rome Statute and equating it with crime against humanity could help us prevent the mass destruction of all of Earth’s living systems that is obvious today.
If we are to succeed in getting the workers involved in the much-needed transition to an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable society (which must take place now and not in 10-15 years), in order for them to become co-creators instead of opponents or delays in the process, we in the trade union movement must dare to take the match also in Sweden, in the way that many progressive unions have already done around the world. With a few small exceptions, the Swedish trade union movement has unfortunately not been particularly active during the almost 15 years that environmental / climate issues and fair transition have been discussed internationally within the trade union movement.
One thing is clear after the Preem case, we cannot rely on the oil companies, the market, or the environmental movement to solve the climate emergency for us. We need a structural change in the entire energy sector in which the workers and the trade union movement participate. A new green renewable energy sector must also be publicly owned, under democratic control and serve the people, not the profits of transnational corporations.
Ulf Jarnefjord handles and coordinates the international standardization work at The Swedish Trade Union Confederation, LO. He was previously responsible for climate change issues for the Swedish Transport Workers’ Federation and member of the ITF and TUED climate network.
This article represents the views of the author The opinions expressed here may or may not be consistent with the policies and positions of unions participating in TUED. The article is offered for discussion and debate.