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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Big Oil’s Carbon Capture Push Is All Talk And No Substance

Big Oil has cleaved into two factions. On the Eastern side of the Atlantic, supermajor oil companies in Europe have majorly divested from oil and gas. Reading the writing on the wall, Big Oil in the European Union has made a concerted effort to place itself at the forefront of the green energy transition, pivoting to rebrand itself as Big Energy. Across the pond in the United States, Big Oil has taken an entirely different approach. Instead of accepting the inevitable and imperative move away from fossil fuels, U.S. supermajors have doubled down on oil and gas and turned to carbon capture as a means of offsetting their environmental impact. 

As the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sound the alarm bells about the fast-approaching threat of catastrophic climate change, the United States seems as deadset as ever on finding a way to get on board with the fight against global warming and rebrand itself as climate-conscious without letting go of its sizeable oil and gas industry. Even President Joe Biden, who featured climate change as a central tenet of his platform, has recently sparked the ire of environmentalist and climate activists with what some see as a toothless effort at curbing emissions through the $1 trillion dollar infrastructure bill. 

Critics have argued that the bill itself seems co-opted by the oil industry, as efforts like carbon capture continue to receive major government support. Carbon capture has largely functioned as a means of allowing the oil industry to produce barrels of oil with a low(er) carbon footprint, or even net-zero barrels, without encouraging the industry to actually produce less oil and gas. In some cases, carbon capture is merely a means of ramping up oil production via a process known as enhanced oil recovery (EOR). EOR entails capturing natural gas that would otherwise be vented into the atmosphere as a byproduct of oil extraction and then pumping that gas back into the ground to force more oil to the surface. 

While a net-zero barrel of oil might sound like a great advance, the reality is that we don’t need to merely offset the emissions of the energy industry. The reality of climate change is so dire that we must offset carbon at the same time that we phase out fossil fuels entirely. We need to be taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, not merely limiting the amount that we continue to release. Related: Why The U.S. Is So Vulnerable To Rising Oil Prices

Carbon capture is not the only strategy being employed by the oil and gas industry that critics decry as blatant greenwashing. Oil and gas companies in the United States have also begun to invest in solar and to power their own operations with a higher mix of renewable energy. This approach, while great for PR, is not going to do much to move the needle on the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions, however. Part of the problem is that the fossil fuel industry continues to aim for low-hanging fruit when it comes to curbing emissions instead of aiming for the more challenging, and more important, sources of emissions. 

The sector has primarily opted to tackle scope 1 and 2 emissions -- those that are directly produced by a company and the goods and energy it consumes -- but the vast majority of emissions occur either upstream or downstream in the value chain and outside of the company’s direct purview. Scope 3 emissions -- such as the exhaust coming out of your tailpipe -- are not technically an oil company’s emissions, but they are a direct result of an oil and gas company’s operations. They are also the most significant source of emissions in the oil and gas value chain.

While U.S. fossil fuel companies are certainly making some headway on climate change -- they’re acknowledging its importance and beginning to take some concrete actions -- it’s all too little too late unless they pivot away from extraction in a very serious way. Justifying continued production with carbon offsetting will not be enough to keep the world on track to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Hopefully, with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) becoming the mainstream, oil companies will have to compete with each other to be more green than ever before in order to stay in investor’s good favor.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Bill Mal on August 17 2021 said:
    And in the end what really acts the toothless fairy are the -0- carbon energy activists that have been unable to present any reasonable solution that does not involve significant environmental impacts, unimaginable resources, bankrupts nations, and leaves developing countries in the despair.

    Carbon capture seems to be the only route that will offset the damage done and will be done. Maybe industries other than the fossil business should be investing in that in a very big way. The big techs responsible for epic carbon emissions talk carbon neutral PR when what they really mean is, export carbon emissions overseas or subcontract so it doesn't show on their books.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on August 17 2021 said:
    Oil and gas are here to stay because the global economy comes to a standstill without them. It follows that oil and gas will remain the core business of the global oil industry as long as there is demand for them. It also means that the notion of net-zero emissions is an illusion.

    The job of the oil industry is, therefore, to help combat climate change by reducing emissions during the production of oil and gas whether by carbon capture or whatever method it employs. When other emitting companies do their job as well, there will be a huge overall reduction in global emissions.

    The story of energy transitions through history has been a constant move toward fuels that are more energy-dense and convenient to use than the fuels they replaced. A case in point is the transition from wood to fossil fuels.

    Fossil fuels are simply more energy dense than other energy sources. At 53.1 MJ/kg, natural gas boasts the highest energy density of any fossil fuel, followed by gasoline at 45.8MJ/kg and coal at 30.2MJ/kg. By comparison, Lithium-ion batteries, one of the most effective ways to store renewable energy, can only afford an energy density of 0.50 MJ/kg.

    Now the world faces a real dilemma. It can’t transit out of oil because there will never be an alternative as versatile and practicable as oil well into the future if ever. When it comes to natural gas, the same logic applies since no energy transition can succeed without huge contributions of natural gas.

    Unfortunately, these rational arguments aren’t finding their way into the brains of the environmental activists and divestment campaigners because they are blinded by dogmatism and also the IEA because it lives on a different plant.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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