When it comes to mitigating climate change, says Adam Sieminski, senior adviser for the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
Reducing emissions is not enough, the former administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration told those gathered in Houston recently for the SPE Energy Transition Symposium.
“You can’t just concentrate on one of those things at the exclusion of the other two,” he said, referring to energy security, energy economics and the environment. “It has to be a balanced approach.”
The task calls for not only reducing emissions but also for removal, reuse and recycling coupled with a robust measurement, reporting and verification system.
Global emissions continue to dominate conversations as parts of the world aim to keep global warming at no more than 1.5 C, pushing to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions—such as CO2—by 45% by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050. The lofty goals have encouraged the use of more lower-carbon energy sources and renewables, while also pushing energy industry innovators to find ways to lower carbon intensity and reduce emissions from oil and gas—which experts say will still be needed to meet energy needs, including in developing countries.
“Carbon is not the enemy. It’s emissions, and mitigating emissions are the problem,” Sieminski added.
Technology, innovation, costs
The pace of emissions reduction can be influenced by the energy industry—particularly when it comes to strengthening the business case, according to Katharina Beumelburg, chief stategy and sustainability officer for SLB.
“I think the whole energy transition and everything that we look at when we talk about sustainability can only be technology and innovation driven,” she said.
Referencing International Energy Agency data, Beumelburg noted that much of the technology needed to reduce emissions already exists. However, costs for some technologies must get cheaper.
Falling costs seen in the wind sector in the past few years show that’s possible.
“I have high hopes that a lot of the business cases that we need and a lot of the cost reduction that we need can really come out of technology and innovation [from] the industry,” she said.
Policy is needed for support, whether in the form of carbon taxes or an alternative, she said. But the wait could be long—and change too slow—to meet the global climate challenge.
“We need to make sure that the investment we take as an industry is really focused on efficiency of new technologies [to bring] costs down,” she said.
Others agreed that getting costs down is key to transitioning to lower carbon energy, and the Inflation Reduction Act was a good start.
From a company perspective, “the industry can’t afford to pay for solutions that are more costly than current market prices,” Sieminski said. “That either requires government support or investment in R&D that drives prices down.
Investment in technology
Consider coal, he said. While the percentage of coal has decreased in the energy mix, he said, the world is burning more tons of coal than ever. “I have this nagging suspicion that we’re going to continue to use more oil, more gas,” he said, stressing the importance of finding technological solutions to manage emissions.
Given that the world will most likely continue emitting CO2, the importance of technologies such as direct air capture and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), which remove carbon from the air, is accentuated.
However, efforts shouldn’t stop there. Other, effective nature-based solutions exist including mangroves—tropical plants, scrubs and trees that store excess carbon in soil and roots.
Located along the U.S. Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida, mangrove restoration projects have helped mitigate coastline erosion as well as also sequester CO2.
“So why aren’t we doing more of that: ocean-based solutions,” Sieminski asked. “Turns out that seaweed is a very effective way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and from the oceans. How do we do more of that? We need policies that encourage many different approaches to reduction, recycling, reuse and removal of carbon dioxide.”
Like fellow panelists, he agreed that the oil and gas sector is capable of leading change, considering its financial capital and technical knowhow.
“I think this industry will probably actually be the main provider of solutions, not the problem,” he said.
Driving change, meeting needs
Exxon is among the companies using skills gained from its core oil and chemical manufacturing business units to capture what it sees as a $6 trillion market built on abating carbon emissions.
“If you took the global telecom industry, multiply it by two and a half times today, that’s about $6 trillion. So, it will be a massive investment on a significant scale in a relatively short period of time,” said Matt Crocker, senior vice president of Exxon’s Low Carbon Solutions.
In the new energies space, Exxon is focusing on CCS, hydrogen and biofuels and targeting hard-to-abate sectors. While electrification of light-duty vehicles grabs headlines, Crocker said such efforts are a smaller piece of the pie compared to the harder to abate emissions sources. Those include power generation, industrial sources and commercial transportation sectors that together account for 80% of all industrial emissions.
In Baytown, Texas, Exxon is developing what is expected to be the largest low-carbon hydrogen project: a plant capable of producing 1 Bcf/d of hydrogen when operations start in 2028. The company is also developing CCS projects along the Gulf Coast. And Exxon is working on Canada’s largest renewable diesel facility, targeting 20,000 bbl/d of renewable diesel production. The projects are part of Exxon’s plans to invest about $17 billion on low-emission projects.
Oil and gas will still be part of the mix. Crocker pointed out that products such as cell phones are all byproducts of fossil fuels.
“The plastics: all those materials come from oil and gas,” he said.
Andrey Shuvalov, vice president of U.S. Energy Transition for Shell, referred to what has become known as the energy trilemma: the interdependency between energy security, energy affordability and carbon reduction. “It’s a journey, so we can have a better planet for ourselves and our children and the next generation,” he said.
While the company has made investment decisions to produce hydrogen, solar and wind energy and low-carbon fuels, it is also balancing those efforts with the need to provide secure and affordable energy to meet global demand.
Shuvalov sees more LNG use in the future.
“LNG is an amazing fuel because it can be transported to people around the world who need it the most. And when you do use it, it helps to reduce carbon emissions by more than 50% compared to using coal,” he said. Low-carbon solutions and new energies will continue to rise, he added, but not at an equal pace around the world. It depends on geography and government policies.
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