Activists want to punish the petroleum industry, but it has the technological chops to tackle climate change.
Energy Blog: The Oil Industry is Part of the Solution
Feb 4, 2020
by Michael E. Webber
Take climate change: When scientists and environmental activists take stock of the mess we are in, the oil and gas sector is a handy villain. For people tapping into their instinct for retribution, the petroleum industry ought to be punished for the damage it has caused and cut out from any opportunity to participate in the upcoming transition to a clean energy economy. To activists who have made climate change a top priority, anything less feels like inviting an arsonist to help put out the fire.
As with everything, however, the truth is more nuanced.
If tackling climate change is something we want to do quickly and with as little social disruption as possible, then the oil and gas industry is, in fact, a critical partner. Petroleum companies have some of the deepest pockets and most technically capable workforces around.
Is there a way to work with them, rather than against them, to promote a low-carbon future?
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Unquestionably, many oil and gas companies have been bad actors. At best, the petroleum industry has ignored the problem while making a profit off the products that worsened the situation. At worst, it actively worked to delay action by funding misinformation campaigns or lobbying to delay policy action.
But blaming the industry leaves out our own culpability for our consumptive, impactful lifestyles. Oil consumption is as much about demand as supply.
Rather than finding someone to blame, let’s look for who can help.
My friend Mark Brownstein, senior vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, once told me, “Sometimes people are afraid of solutions at the scale of the problem.” We latch onto easy, rinky-dink, boutique, niche solutions—reusable drinking straws come to mind—that don’t move the needle but make us feel better about ourselves. They are the policy equivalent of pet rocks.
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To make a real difference in battling climate change, we need solutions that work at scale. For instance, enhanced geothermal energy can draw industrial-scale heat from deep underground. Biogas can convert detritus such as manure and food waste into renewable methane at large scales. Perhaps the most critical carbon solution—and one that must be enacted at the largest scale—is CO2 capture, utilization, and sequestration.
Those solutions require companies with a particular set of expertise. Expertise found in abundance in the oil and gas sector.
Oil and gas companies have the drilling expertise we need to reach geothermal resources. And the infrastructure and capabilities for responsibly handling large volumes of CO2. The industry knows how to separate carbon dioxide from methane, which is useful in biogas purification.
In addition, petroleum companies have hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists with great capabilities and supply chains that span the globe. They have refineries and other petrochemical facilities that—like magic—can convert materials from one form to another. That capability will be needed to repurpose CO2 captured from smokestacks or the atmosphere into economically valuable products, fuels, or chemicals.
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But we need to get those companies on board. Today, there is little to no penalty for emitting greenhouse gases and precious little economic incentive for restraining them. Flipping the incentives to unleash the innovative spirit of this pioneering sector will require policy changes at the local, national, and global level. Even some oil and gas companies like Shell have admitted that they will only step up into a leadership role if they are given clear signals, such as bans on diesel engines or petroleum-powered cars altogether.
It may not seem fair, but we need every tool in the toolbox. Solving the climate crisis quickly and with the least amount of pain will require all hands on deck—especially those experienced, capable hands from the global oil and gas sector.
Michael E. Webber is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris.