An Actionable Path for Oil and Gas in the Fight Against Climate Change
- Nansen G. Saleri (Quantum Reservoir Impact) | Christine Ehlig-Economides (University of Houston) | Howard J. Herzog (MIT)
- Document ID
- Society of Petroleum Engineers
- Journal of Petroleum Technology
- Publication Date
- March 2019
- Document Type
- Journal Paper
- 62 - 63
- 2019. Copyright is retained by the author. This document is distributed by SPE with the permission of the author. Contact the author for permission to use material from this document.
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Special Section: The Value and Future of Petroleum Engineering
Global climate concerns, amplified in the public consciousness by a steady stream of violent weather events such as hurricanes and California wildfires, are generating a new set of realities for the energy industry. The oil and gas upstream sector, accounting for approximately 60% of current world energy needs, faces existential threats to its market share—where inaction and/or insistence on marginal improvisations on past practices do not offer constructive and, ultimately, impactful solutions that the industry is most capable of delivering.
Central to the issues at hand are questions that demand unambiguous answers: What should be ambitious yet achievable goals for the upstream industry over the short and long term (e.g., by the year 2050) and what specific programs in the spirit of an Apollo project for oil and gas should be envisioned? The often-cited argument that upstream companies are “extractors and not emitters,” and thus its responsibility in climate matters confined only to the extraction process, is shortsighted and dilutes steps that could be taken to maintain the industry’s leading role and capacity in providing the world’s energy supplies.
Net GHG Emissions
As a basic premise, it is the net emissions of all greenhouse gases (GHG), not just CO2, that drive climate change. Hence, the upstream industry’s overriding goal should be reduction and eventual elimination of net GHG emissions. Here the key operative words are “net GHG emissions,” a distinction worth highlighting. This opens up numerous GHG management options, including CO2 capture and storage (CCS), utilization, and removal (CDR) pathways such as afforestation, reforestation, and bio-energy with CCS. This diverse portfolio enhances the ability of both market forces and new technologies to produce evergreen solutions for reducing net GHG emissions.
Equally flawed as the “upstream are only extractors” notion is the idea that the oil and gas industry should be accepting a carbon-free world energy model fueled 100% by renewable energy sources. While renewables are an important part of the solution in addressing climate change, they are nowhere nearly capable of replacing what oil and gas offers in support of the modern lifestyle. Substantive life-style sacrifices, however, are unlikely at a global scale and so should not constitute the underlying assumption for an ecofriendly energy future. As a further tenet for clean energy, electric vehicles, power grids (currently 85% fueled by fossil and nuclear), and battery manufacturing plants should also be judged on net emission standards.
There are no silver bullets in the fight against climate change. We need every bullet in our arsenal. Eliminating certain solution pathways, such as nuclear or fossil fuels, just makes a difficult task much more difficult and expensive. By the same token, the prospect of oil and gas playing an active role will only enhance the odds of achieving the ultimate goal—to have a positive, substantive impact on climate change.
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