It may not be immediately obvious that significant change is underway in the energy sector. Heavily-capitalised and strongly-invested petroleum oil and gas companies stride the lands and seas, seeking what still fruitful part of the Earth’s lithosphere they may devour. Billions of overweight road and air vehicles incessantly burr and rattle, draining the carbon lifeblood from geological time. Yet, still, change is a-coming in.
You wouldn’t know it from the public discourse on energy futures that the debate has shifted anywhere away from the 1980s or the 1990s. Major oil and gas companies still tout the benefits of pricing negative emissions, as if ordinary people still believe what economists and financiers claim. Shell and BP still sell the merits of Carbon Capture and Storage, not that there’s much of this, nor will there be, principally because the technologies proposed are sub-sectoral, will cost a lot to deploy, and won’t capture all the carbon dioxide, anyway. The Laws of Thermodynamics mitigate against the effectiveness of Carbon Capture and Storage – in some cases it could take more energy to bury carbon than dig it up in the first place, and that’s not going to be a winner. But, even though the hydrocarbon hegemony hasn’t brought its arguments up-to-the-minute, change is still taking place.
There are maybe twenty good years to effect a transition out of fossil fuels into manufactured low carbon fuels. The reasons why this needs to happen are : climate change, air quality, Peak Sweet and Peak Easy. Climate change, caused by global warming, caused principally by the burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. Air quality is an issue of liveability, as the world’s population clusters ever more into urban environments, cities cannot support coal-burning for power, nor diesel-burning for transport. Peak Sweet is the geological fact : the major pools of hydrocarbons light in sulphur compounds are being depleted so rapidly, that it might come about that the only economic resources left to exploit are sour – with both high levels of sulphur and carbon dioxide. Peak Easy is also a geological fact : remaining hydrocarbon resources that are economic to mine, drill and pump are depleting, and so fossil fuel production is going to get increasingly complex and risky. The oil spills and accidental gas venting of the past could be dwarfed by spills and accidental venting of the future.
Of this list, Peak Sweet and Peak Easy are the reasons why the oil and gas industry will change, even though the position of Civil Society still rests in the territory of climate change and air quality. How to get these positions to marry, to build a unifying narrative ?
Let me propose Shell and BP a public relations pitch for free, no consultancy fees : big up your plans for the low carbon transition – tell the people that you are going to stop digging up climate-destroying carbon for a living, and you are going to focus on manufacturing low carbon gases and oils. I mean, Shell and BP are going to need to do this anyway if they want to stay in business – Peak Sweet and Peak Easy could finish off their rates of return – so why don’t they communicate the positive benefits of the low carbon transition and win friends and investors everywhere ?
What would I write if I wrote them a letter ? “Dear Shell and BP, stop alienating people with tired and failed narratives about carbon pricing and Carbon Capture and Storage. You know these strategies will fail to address the core problems of climate change and air quality. But you also know that these strategies will fail to address Peak Sweet and Peak Easy. It’s time to come clean and publish your strategies for decarbonising your energy products. No, it’s not your natural inclination to go massive on wind power or solar power, so why not go with Renewable Gas – Renewable Methane and Renewable Hydrogen ? This is within your core chemistry capabilities, and ramping up Renewable Gas will prevent you losing market share to third parties like Siemens, GE, Alstom and Schlumberger as they develop Renewable Gas options. You want to remain in business, don’t you ? All of your shareholders count on you. And they won’t accept living with the risk of a massive carbon bubble forever. You have maybe twenty years to prove you can really change, stop digging up ancient climate-disturbing carbon, and transition to low carbon energy products. If you use all your public relations skill, you could sell this transition as a truly valuable change (which it is), and keep friends and influence. The next generation could still respect you if you go public with your need to decarbonise. Shell and BP, save yourselves ! Yours sincerely, etc”
The thing is, Shell and BP can transition to low carbon energy gases and fuels. They can, and they will – they just need to crack on with it faster if they want to survive climate change, disinvestment, divestment and Peak Oil. The world will reinvest in energy : Shell and BP need to get on board the low carbon train or be left to shrink and sink.