Earth Day 2021 saw the release of major climate announcements from players seemingly on opposite sides of the greenhouse gas debate. ExxonMobil
Barely a few years removed from a science denying president and openly antagonistic Texas officials, the push by Exxon over the last week suggests a shift in tone at the energy giant. Competitors big and small, foreign and domestic have seen the writing on the wall for a few years now: BP has set a 2050 net-zero goal and has been active in shifting to renewable fuels. Royal Dutch Shell has a 2050 net zero goal of its own and a burgeoning portfolio of biofuels investments, including one that turns trash in to fuel. In Exxon’s backyard, Occidental Petroleum’s
It’s not yet clear if Exxon, which has no net-zero pledge despite growing shareholder pressure, has come to this realization. Their proposal last week read less as a change in strategic thinking and more as a trial balloon aimed at the new power brokers in Washington. Exxon seeks to enable carbon capture and sequestration on the gulf coast, but offers no upfront commitment and no further deployment plan while asking for significant amounts of public money. Reaction from the climate community, which has spent decades watching Exxon actively bury climate research and gaslight the public, ranged from anger to eye-rolls.
And yet the proposal has merit. The gulf coast is home to a concentrated collection of carbon intensive industries. The local geology is perfectly suited for long-duration carbon sequestration. ExxonMobil is well-positioned to enable carbon capture and sequestration given its personnel and expertise. And government action is needed to change the economic balance between clean and dirty energy.
It’s just one of many approaches needed to reach the ambitious goals laid out by President Biden, as a recent report from Energy Innovation demonstrates. A net-zero economy requires a little bit of everything: renewables, energy storage, electric vehicles, hydrogen, building efficiency standards, advanced nuclear, biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, and more. It’s hard to pick a winner when everybody needs to finish first. As a result, the Biden Administration’s announcement last week was heavy on ambition but light on details. That policy void allowed others to fill in the blanks, from Exxon’s aforementioned vision for carbon capture to a relaunching of the Green New Deal by progressives to a bad-faith effort by Biden opponents to use literal red meat issues to rile up their base.
The fact is that most, if not all, of the technologies and companies best positioned to enable a net-zero future have other environmental blemishes (or worse) on their records. It’s possible to find something to like and dislike about nearly every solution: Batteries require vast amounts of minerals unearthed in environmentally destructive mines; Biodiesel has led to mass deforestation in Asia; And with carbon capture, the list of companies that can enable the quick and effective deployment of the technology heavily overlaps with the list of companies most responsible for extracting fossil carbon from the ground to begin with. Giving money to enable a carbon capture and sequestration hub along the gulf coast may make for good climate policy, but the optics are poor when the companies most likely to benefit are Exxon, Schlumberger
Despite nearly all solutions to the climate crisis having trade-offs, only some are actively embraced by the climate community. That wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t need all options on the table to reach our goals, but its hard to see how we achieve a net-zero economy without carbon capture and sequestration as part of the portfolio of solutions. Getting the climate community to come to terms with the fact that the petrochemical majors have something of value to offer a low-carbon future is going to be difficult. Distrust rightfully abounds: Do these companies truly see a profitable and responsible future in climate-friendly business lines, or are they making a cynical calculation to avoid more drastic regulations that threaten their core business? We may not know the answer to that yet, but we do know that those most experienced with drilling wells and moving vast quantities of molecules are the best positioned to help enable the sector. They deserve a seat at the table, even if in the end we choose not to listen.