WW0 Investigates: Big Oil Talks Sustainability, But is it All Smoke?
Much has been written and debated about the sincerity of the oil and gas (O&G) industry and the role they might play in the clean energy revolution. There's an unfolding debate in boardrooms and courtrooms alike about whether and how the fossil fuel industry could or would be part of the decarbonization of the world's economy -- and whether the biggest legacy energy companies are sincere about being part of the solution, or whether their claims are at best aspirational, and at worst cynical greenwashing.
"...there are very legitimate policy-related reasons to want to see the fossil fuel industry at the vanguard of the biggest energy transition the world has ever needed."
Certainly, skepticism is understandable. We know that fossil fuel dollars funded some of the worst attacks on climate science -- such as those depicted in the Merchants of Doubt, and about which Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote so powerfully. Recent stories have raised the question of just how much companies have changed their posture, with much discussion of one lobbyist's seeming admission that his company only endorsed a carbon tax because they were confident it couldn't pass Congress.
"Today's O&G companies have extraordinary research arms -- they invest immense amounts of money in technology -- and are incredibly well-situated to develop the newest needed technologies..."
Still, there are very legitimate policy-related reasons to want to see the fossil fuel industry at the vanguard of the biggest energy transition the world has ever needed.
Why? First, most of the biggest O&G companies are publicly traded. That means they're accountable and legally responsible for being transparent -- to both shareholders and regulators. That's a better outcome for activism than seeing O&G giants merely sell off their dirtiest assets to private companies, where transparency and accountability can evaporate, which Bloomberg News has already written may be happening in some high-profile cases. As Bloomberg reported about BP's "exit" from Alaska oil exploration, Hilcorp Energy Co., the buyer of the Alaska assets, plans to pour more money to boost production there than BP would have, according to Dudley. That could end up making the carbon problem worse than it was.
Second, according to the IEA's recent report, by 2050, over half of the reductions in CO2 will come from technologies that are still in the demonstration or prototype phase. That means the world needs massive investments in research and development -- now. Willie Sutton said he robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Today's O&G companies have extraordinary research arms -- they invest immense amounts of money in technology -- and are incredibly well-situated to develop the newest needed technologies if they so choose.
"It took about 23 years to fully replace the buggy, starting in 1916, when the Model T was first made in volume ... Cars were unstoppable then -- just as clean energy is today -- even if initially embraced begrudgingly."
Third, innovative companies always embrace opportunity, even if they do so grudgingly. At the turn of the 19th century, the carriage and buggy industry didn't have to look too hard to find politicians willing to challenge the new auto industry and kill it in the cradle. Newspapers of the day recorded the ways politicians passed regulations that forbade tax money from being used for the infrastructure required by cars and trucks; celebrated the horse as a quiet, agrarian ideal; lamented automobiles as elitist; and passed zoning and other regulations that favored carriages. It took about 23 years to fully replace the buggy, starting in 1916, when the Model T was first made in volume, to the end of the Great Depression in 1939. But interestingly, the one horse-drawn carriage business that survived didn't try to stop cars -- it became a car company: Studebaker Brothers began as a blacksmith shop in 1852, and by 1913, its automobile production was second only to that of Ford Motor.
"...there are many reasons why the best-case scenario for the planet is for the biggest O&G companies to make their words about being part of the solution a reality."
Cars were unstoppable then -- just as clean energy is today -- even if initially embraced begrudgingly. But which of today's fossil fuel behemoths will make the clean energy transition in earnest? Doing so would mobilize their workforce, supply chains, and massive budgets at the speed and scale the world needs -- and before it's too late.
That's the long way of saying: there are many reasons why the best-case scenario for the planet is for the biggest O&G companies to make their words about being part of the solution a reality.
But what would that look like and what could we trust as meaningful action?
"O&G companies need to significantly adjust overall capital allocation from what has been their core business areas to new, non-core areas ... stop exploring and developing new reserves and commit to cutting O&G output..."
Experts whom World War Zero spoke with suggested the following:
First and foremost, O&G companies need to significantly adjust overall capital allocation from what has been their core business areas to new, non-core areas.
- So far, average investments by O&G companies in non-core areas have been less than 1% of total capital spending. Leading individual companies spend an average 5% on projects outside O&G supply, mostly in solar PV and wind. A much more significant change in overall capital allocation would make a profound difference.
- O&G needs to increase investment in fuels that can deliver energy without carbon emissions (e.g., hydrogen, biomethane, advanced biofuels). By 2030, these fuels would need to account for 15% of overall investment in fuel supply.
Second, to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which scientists tell us is critical. This means companies would need to stop exploring and developing new reserves and commit to cutting O&G output by a specific date.
- Production from existing wells is enough to meet demand in a 1.5 degrees scenario.
- Currently, most commitments of O&G companies focus only on reducing downstream emissions intensity without plans to lower absolute emissions or to reduce exploration and production activities.
- O&G companies need to present comprehensive strategic plans on how their current intensity targets will impact absolute emissions and how they will align their upstream businesses and capital expenditure accordingly.
Third, O&G companies need to significantly reduce the footprint of their operations.
- Currently, around 15% of global energy-related GHG emissions come from extracting O&G and delivering it to consumers. These emissions levels can be brought down quickly and easily.
- Reducing methane leaks in the production process is one of the most important and cost-effective ways to reduce these emissions.
- Other opportunities include eliminating routine flaring and integrating renewables and low-carbon electricity into upstream processes and liquefied natural gas developments.
Fourth, take heed of the words in the IEA Report we mentioned earlier: by 2050, over half of the reductions in CO2 will come from technologies that are still in the demonstration or prototype phase. Companies can contribute their significant financial resources and expertise to accelerating the development of clean energy technologies.
- O&G companies have the resources and skills to help accelerate the development of carbon capture storage and utilization (CCUS), low-carbon hydrogen, offshore wind, and biofuels. Large-scale engineering and project management capabilities are needed for these efforts.
- As the 2020 IEA report suggests: "For CCUS, three-quarters of the CO2 captured today in large-scale facilities is from O&G operations, and the industry accounts for more than one-third of overall spending on CCUS projects. If the industry can partner with governments and other stakeholders to create viable business models for large-scale investment, this could provide a major boost to deployment."
"Can we find even one legacy O&G company really willing to embrace the opportunity to become the diversified energy company of the future? Today, no pledges by big oil companies align with the goal of limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius."
Lastly, we should all ask the tough, fact-based questions -- and check the fine print. There are already some notable red flags contained in even the most ambitious industry-led climate strategies.
- Many O&G companies cite reforestation as a major part of their "carbon removal" pledges. Scientists and experts worry the massive reforestation needed to offset O&G emissions is likely unfeasible and could do unintended environmental damage to agriculture and ecosystems.
- The O&G industry is increasing natural gas production and advertising it as "clean" energy, which is misleading. Increased natural gas production is becoming a large obstacle to climate progress -- the world is on track to produce 70% more natural gas in 2030 than is compatible with the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal.
- Many companies do not address reducing scope 3 emissions, which account for 70-90% of lifecycle emissions from oil products and 60-85% of those from natural gas.
Can we get there? Can we find even one legacy O&G company really willing to embrace the opportunity to become the diversified energy company of the future? Today, no pledges by big oil companies align with the goal of limiting warming to below 2 degrees Celsius.
But that doesn't mean they can't -- and the world certainly needs it, and needs it now.
Next month, World War Zero will return after analyzing and examining -- company by company -- the best commitments, reasons to beware, and room for improvement on the road ahead.