The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month released its latest alarming report, warning that “there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” Few journalists read past this apocalyptic warning, especially those committed to the demonization of the oil industry as the ultimate villain in the battle to save the human race from … well, from itself, really, given that each and every one of us, including the hypocritical critics of that industry, benefit in multiple ways from the products generated by it.
As an opinion piece in the Guardian put it, the IPCC report had “drawn the battle lines” for the “crunch” COP28 climate negotiations to be held this November in Abu Dhabi. The choice, opined the writer, boiled down to this: “Oil profits or a livable future.” But this is, of course, a false choice, a one-or-the-other fallacy that limits the available options in a way that suits only headline writers and those committed to black-and-white, siloed thinking.
The truth of this is buried deep within the IPCC report, which recognizes that there are “multiple, feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change, and they are available now.” And guess what? Many of those options are in the hands of, and being developed by, the oil industry, thanks to research being funded by – whisper it – the much-resented profits from oil.
By now, the entire world acknowledges the need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. But the inescapable reality is that, in the absence of immediately available sustainable alternatives, capable of powering the world for 24 hours each and every day, oil and gas must continue to supply the global energy needs during the period of transition. The oil giants, fully aware that fossil fuel reserves will likely expire within the lifetime of a child born today, are already funding research and development into sustainable energy sources – wind, solar, large-scale energy storage options, and so on.
But less well known is the industry’s focus on developing carbon capture solutions, a vital technology that could reduce the impact of the need to continue using fossil fuels during the transition period. Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, for instance, began research into this in 2010. Quite simply, it says, “we believe carbon capture utilization and storage will play a key role in global efforts to reduce emissions, while ensuring the world can continue to thrive.”
Today, Aramco captures and processes up to 45 million cubic feet of carbon dioxide every day, pumping it 85 km from its plant at Hawiyah and storing it underground in the Uthmaniyah oil reservoir. In the UAE, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company has been operating and learning from its Al-Reyadah commercial-scale carbon capture, utilization and storage facility since 2016, processing the carbon dioxide captured from Emirates Steel Industries, which is then injected into and stored in onshore oilfields. Now, ADNOC is on course to expand its carbon dioxide capture capability by more than 500 percent and it plans to utilize the carbon captured from gas processing plants in the production of green hydrogen fuel. Other scientists and engineers around the world are also racing to develop carbon capture technologies that could dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from car exhausts, ships, aircraft engines, factories and so on. This would bring the world back from the climate change brink, while allowing all of us to continue benefiting from fossil fuels until supplies run out naturally and sustainable technologies are sufficiently mature to take up the slack. Days after the IPCC report, Britain’s Energy Secretary Grant Shapps unveiled the “Powering up Britain” strategy, at the heart of which are plans to balance the extraction of oil and gas from under the North Sea with the capture and storage of vast amounts of carbon in the huge caverns from which the fossil fuels are extracted.
The response from those baying for an immediate end to all new oil production was as depressing as it was predictable. Shapps countered that, “unless you can explain how we can transition to net zero without oil and gas, we need oil and gas.” He highlighted government plans to invest £20 billion (£24.7 billion) in technology, including capture and storage, to reduce the country’s carbon emissions. The evidence supporting carbon capture as a viable, if not vital, weapon in the battle against global warming can be found in the following sentence in the latest IPCC report. “In global modeled pathways that limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius or below, almost all electricity is supplied from zero or low-carbon sources in 2050, such as renewables, or” – and here is the punchline – “fossil fuels with carbon dioxide capture and storage.”
The IPCC goes further, pointing out that carbon dioxide capture and subsurface injection is already a mature technology used for enhanced oil recovery, estimating that the global geological storage capacity is in the order of 1,000 billion tons of carbon dioxide – “more than the carbon dioxide storage requirements through 2100 to limit global warming to 1.5 C.” So, what’s the problem? The IPCC has an answer for this, too. Implementation of carbon capture and storage, it says, “currently faces technological, economic, institutional, ecological, environmental and sociocultural barriers.” In other words, governments afraid of ill-informed but extremely vocal, vote-wielding protest groups are hesitating to invest in and make use of what could prove to be one of the best weapons we possess in the battle against climate change. Throwing ourselves utterly on the mercy of renewables right now would spell disaster – and doing so while turning a blind eye to better ways of using the fossil fuels the world still depends on would amount to criminal negligence.