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November 24, 2015

Fuels and Environmental Progress “Not Mutually Exclusive”

In a recent announcement ahead of the Paris climate talks, the president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), Jack Gerrard, declared that “fossil fuels and environmental progress are not and never have been mutually exclusive.” To a divestment proponent, this would obviously be far from the truth – to them, environmental progress cannot be achieved with fossil fuel companies in the picture.

But for the rest of us who see the transition to a lower carbon economy as just that – a transition and not an about-face – there are a number of known and not-so-known areas where oil and gas companies in particular are doing their part to reduce not only their own carbon footprints, but also those of industrial and developing countries that will be at the top of the agenda at COP21. In fact, according to a study by API:

“Since 2000, the oil and gas industry has invested more capital in carbon emission technologies than the automotive, electric utilities and agriculture processor sectors combined.”

If that’s not an intriguing enough figure, here are a number of clear ways the industry is part of the solution to leading a less carbon-intensive future:

Cleaning house

An industry can’t claim to be part of the climate solution without making its own operations more efficient, and oil and gas companies are doing just that. In the US alone, the oil and natural gas industry has decreased its own emissions by 374 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide from 2008-2014. According to API, among the factors contributing to the reduction is $90 billion (£60 billion) invested by the oil and natural gas industry in low-carbon technologies from 2000-2014.

These investments wouldn’t exist without targets being set and met within individual company board rooms. For example:

  • Statoil has effectively lowered its CO2 emissions per barrel of oil to half of the global average over the last 20 year span.
  • ExxonMobil’s combined emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) have decreased by more than 40 percent over the past 10 years across all operations.
  • ConocoPhillips has reduced its cumulative emissions by 6.2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent since 2009 when its first climate Change Action Plan was implemented.

Leading the natural gas transition

While renewable energy sources will no doubt be a priority topic of discussion in Paris, particularly for developed nations, climate activists often neglect to acknowledge that just as important to the conversation will be the transition from coal to another fossil fuel: natural gas.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) greenhouse gas emissions “can be reduced significantly” by increasing the use of gas-fired power plants, which will be particularly important in high-emitting countries such as China. This was certainly the case in the US, where, as the IEA reported that “one of the key reasons [for the decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in the US] has been the increased availability of natural gas.”

Bringing new technologies on board

Oil and gas companies are notorious for employing some of the best engineers and scientists in the world not only to safely and efficiently produce fossil fuels, but to also develop the technologies for the future. For example, the development of carbon capture and sequestration technology is being led by the oil and gas industry; ExxonMobil is a global leader in this space, as it collaborates in research and development to make CCS technology more affordable and commercially viable.

Shell has been a long-time advocate and researcher in advanced biofuels, and was one of the first energy companies to invest in such fuels from non-edible plants and crop waste. Research from the company is global, with teams in the UK, US, India and the Netherlands.

And as recently as 2014, ExxonMobil partnered with Saudi Aramco to complete a desulphurisation facility designed to cut sulphur levels in petrol and diesel by more than 98 percent. There are plenty more from here, but you get the idea.

Global Effort

Many industry initiatives are in place to tackle emissions reductions. The Climate & Clean Air Coalition Oil & Gas Methane Partnership, for example, was created in September 2014 at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit. Member companies including BG-Group, ENI, Pemex, PTT, Southwestern Energy, Statoil and Total have agreed to report emissions reductions and seek even more effective solutions for the future. Companies such as ExxonMobil also openly work with international organisations such as the IPCC and leading research institutions like MIT, Stanford and Princeton on ways to expand climate science knowledge more generally.

There is even more crossover between renewables and fossil fuel extraction than is often portrayed. The aptly named WIN WIN, for example, is a DNV GL-led joint industry project using wind power for offshore oil and gas applications, with the participation of ExxonMobil, ENI, Nexen, Statoil, VNG, PG Flow Solutions and ORE Catapult.

What this means for divestment

A common theme throughout these examples is engagement – oil and gas companies engaging with everyone from peers to academic institutions and government-supported entities to not only improve their current operations, but to secure the environment for the future. If engagement on a global scale is producing results, then there is a strong enough argument for individual investors and even local councils to maintain their seats at the table by continuing to invest their assets in energy companies. Open dialogue has clearly produced tangible results; can divestment campaigners argue the same?