By Chris Tomlinson
The Houston Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2023
My ears were burning the other night; luckily, reader Allan Berger was there to put out the fire.
Berger tells me the host of a Houston dinner party disparaged my columns for allegedly advocating the destruction of the oil and natural gas industry. But Berger correctly argued that my position is more nuanced, a fact my critics conveniently ignore.
For the record, I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil and natural gas abolitionist.
We will need to continue extracting oil and natural gas for centuries, possibly millennia. We need hydrocarbons for the building blocks of modern life: pharmaceuticals, building materials, chemicals and lubricants.
We also need petroleum products for wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, power generation and electricity transmission. Look around, and you will see hundreds, if not thousands, of things made from oil and natural gas.
We will poke holes in the ground to extract crude oil and natural gas for a long time; suggesting otherwise is foolish. But we will drill a lot less in the decades ahead, and there’s the rub.
Climate change presents the most significant challenge facing the world today. The more carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere, the greater the heat the earth retains. The easiest way to mitigate climate change is to burn less oil and natural gas.
Hydrocarbons are not the problem; combusting them is.
Some readers believe a Texas business columnist should cheerlead for the state’s most important industry. But I harp on climate change because oil and gas are major contributors to the Texas economy. Our state is also the largest carbon emitter in the country.
Our customers, though. are looking for alternatives to oil and gas. Texans can deny climate change is happening, but the rest of the world doesn’t care what we think.
Clever business owners track consumer preferences and constantly change their product offerings. Texans in the energy business must do the same.
Most governments have announced plans to reduce emissions enough to slow global warming and constrain the average rise in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius. Reducing emissions will necessarily mean lower demand for oil and gas.
The world consumes about 101 million barrels of oil a day, less than the 104 million barrels a day forecasted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Energy Agency reports. In wealthy countries, most carbon emissions come from transportation, so getting to net zero requires dramatic changes.
Passenger cars will need to reduce oil demand by 24 million barrels a day to mitigate climate change, the IEA reports. Trucking will need to cut 14 million barrels a day. Aviation and shipping will need to replace 8 million barrels a day of fossil fuels with something else. Overall, oil demand will need to shrink by 50 percent in 2050.
Natural gas is a different story. Many producers tout gas as a bridge fuel, capable of quickly and inexpensively replacing coal-fired boilers and providing reliable electricity generation. Natural gas can also meet many industrial heating needs. If the world replaced all coal-fired power plants with natural gas, we would make a massive leap toward our emission reduction targets.
The IEA, though, says we will eventually need to double our reliance on wind and solar energy and slash our consumption of natural gas for electricity by half to meet international goals. The world will need a lot less gas if that comes to pass.
Texas businesses need to adapt.
New technology could make a difference. The world’s largest oil and gas companies are looking for ways to slash emissions or recapture the carbon released through combustion.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change currently predicted we’ll need extensive carbon capture projects around the world to avoid overheating the planet. Texas companies such as Occidental Petroleum are spending billions on developing cost-effective techniques that, if successful, could make a big difference.
Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, is working on internal combustion engines that capture carbon before it leaves the vehicle. The goal is a gas-fueled car that is no dirtier than an electric vehicle.
The Houston Energy Transition Initiative brings together dozens of companies to turn natural gas into clean-burning hydrogen and to sequester the carbon dioxide under the Gulf of Mexico.
None of these systems are proven or cheap. Critics are also concerned about oil and gas production leaks that could negate the technologies’ benefits. But I see nothing wrong with companies trying to innovate and potentially offering new paths forward.
Our priority, though, must be preventing climate change for future generations. Protecting a polluting industry, preserving jobs or guaranteeing shareholder returns must be secondary.
Chris Tomlinson, named 2021 columnist of the year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary about money, politics and life in Texas. Sign up for his “Tomlinson’s Take” newsletter at HoustonChronicle.com/TomlinsonNewsletter or Expressnews.com/TomlinsonNewsletter.