Updated Dec 9, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Exclusive: Dem senators, ministers bash OPEC letter rattling COP28 summit

Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, speaks during a news conference on the Right to Contraception Act outside the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., US, za

Sen. Ed Markey speaks during a news conference on July 26. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. lawmakers and ministers from around the world blasted a letter that emerged Friday night, warning OPEC member states to resist calls at the COP28 climate summit for a fossil fuel phase-out.

Why it matters: The letter has shaken up the climate talks in a critical phase, as nations spar over whether to include historic language in an emerging climate agreement that calls for a phase-out of fossil fuels.

Zoom in: In an exclusive interview with Axios, Democratic senators pushed back against the power of the fossil fuel industry. "OPEC's letter is outrageous. OPEC wants to talk about emissions, but not the source of the emissions," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who is visiting COP28 as part of a congressional delegation.

  • "It would be like the tobacco industry saying you can talk about lung cancer, but you can't talk about cigarettes. It's outrageous, it's preposterous," he told Axios.
  • "The extent to which they had the nerve to write such a preposterous letter, just shows you how much in denial they still are."

The big picture: The letter, reportedly sent by the OPEC secretary general to all 13 member nations and 10 members of the larger OPEC+ coalition on Dec. 6, warned of the possibility of a tipping point toward a COP28 outcome containing language calling for a phase-out of fossil fuels.

  • Studies show the burning of fossil fuels has already heated the climate to a dangerous degree, with devastating consequences including extreme weather events and sea level rise.
  • "We live in an environment in the United States Senate in which the fossil fuel industry essentially has a veto on what public elected officials do with regards to pollution," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), about the fossil fuel industry overall.
  • "So it should come as no surprise that want to exercise some form of a veto here," he said. "They've got that kind of habit of feeling that they own that kind of clout and democratic policies and outcomes don't apply to them."

What they're saying: The letter has spurred strong reactions abroad as well. In an interview with Axios, Colombia Environment Minister Susana Muhamad compared the letter to something "out of a science fiction movie."

  • "Why don't they come and speak up here and tell the truth that they want to prevail, even if the planet goes to, or two-thirds of humanity go to hell," she told Axios.
  • Ministers from the Marshall Islands and other countries also criticized the OPEC move.

OPEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

  • "We need realistic approaches to tackle emissions - one that enables economic growth, helps eradicate poverty and increases resilience at the same time," OPEC Secretary-General Haitham Al Ghais said in comments read to delegates by an official at COP28 on Saturday, Reuters reported.

What's next: Negotiators are expected to go through the night Saturday local time to debate the text of portions of a draft Dubai agreement.

Go deeper: Young people at COP28 call on world to "do better" to address climate change

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the OPEC secretary-general's comments.

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