By Kelsey Grant
RealClear Energy, Jun. 22, 2022
There is a fierce, long-standing debate about what role — if any — oil and gas companies should play in the transition to a lower-carbon economy. This debate has since been amplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which catapulted the global energy market into a messy downward spiral and sparked a high-stakes game of geopolitical chess.
How can we loosen autocratic nations’ chokehold of the world without sacrificing our emission reduction needs? One side of the debate, often championed by broad swaths of the environmentalist community, argues that an all-renewable economy would free us from the puppet strings of fossil-rich autocracies, like Russia. In other words: Go fossil-free and don’t look back. Most proponents of this view see no future for the oil and gas industry.
This perspective, however, overlooks an essential point: The oil and gas industry must be a key ally in facilitating a structured and successful energy transition. It is worth considering what the energy leaders today have to offer a low-carbon world tomorrow.
One key avenue being explored by the industry as a way to participate in the energy transition is repurposing existing fossil-based infrastructure for low-carbon applications.
For example, the 2.6 million miles of pipelines in the United States, traditionally used for transporting natural gas and oil, could be used as a key link in a carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) system. These pipelines have the potential to transport CO2 from emission sources, such as industrial plants, to underground reservoirs where it is stored and kept out of our atmosphere. These pipelines could also be used to transport renewable natural gas (RNG), a low-carbon biogas substitute for natural gas which is often derived from livestock and landfill waste.
The oil and gas industry can also repurpose existing knowledge on building large-scale infrastructure projects for the development of low-carbon energy. Consider, for example, offshore wind.
Oil and gas companies have demonstrated a rapidly growing interest in developing and investing in offshore wind. European oil and gas giant TotalEnergy, for instance, has six offshore wind projects under construction that, when complete, would generate 6 GW of power. The oil and gas industry has invaluable knowledge on how to navigate marine construction projects, which will be especially important as offshore wind developers look to install in deeper seas.
Another key role the oil and gas industry can play is by supporting the development of emerging low-carbon technologies, such as CCS and hydrogen. While these technologies play an essential role in most major decarbonization scenarios, they also come with their own pressing challenges. CCS, for example, faces serious hurdles to broad deployment and commercialization. Luckily, the oil and gas industry can help with this, too.
In addition to its entrepreneurial spirit and can-do attitude, the industry can offer research facilities and partnerships, substantial capital, engineering know-how, and world-class experts, all of which could aid in the successful development of these up-and-coming low-carbon technologies.
Lastly, the oil and gas industry has an unparalleled proficiency in geopolitics and a fluency in all matters of global energy markets — at a time when it is needed the most. With energy caught in the middle of economic growth and international security, any leader of the energy transition will have to know how to navigate the challenges presented by a global, interwoven energy market and unpredictable geopolitical landscape. The oil and gas industry is no stranger to the task.
The industry’s savviness in all things political can also be useful right here at home. Industry leaders can posture themselves as effective bipartisan stewards working with lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle to achieve our low-carbon ambitions. The oil and gas industry could not only support a responsible energy transition through authentic, bipartisan engagement, but it could help mend a glaring political divide among Republicans and Democrats on an issue that is critical to our national security and economy.
Facilitating a strong, steady transformation of our energy system is both a generation-defining challenge and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We need every solution in our toolkit and every ally in our corner — and that includes the oil and gas industry.