Status-checking questions. I’m sure we all have them. I certainly do. Several times a week, or even day, I ask myself two little questions of portent : “What am I doing ?” and “Why am I here ?”. I ask myself these questions usually because my mind’s wandered off again, just out of reach, and I need to call myself to attention, and focus. I ask these little questions of myself when I do that thing we all do – I’ve set off with great purpose into another room, and then completely forgotten why I went there, or what I came to find or get. I also use these forms of enquiry when I’m at The Crossroads of Purpose – to determine what exactly it is I’m deciding to aim for. What are my goals this day, week, month, age ? Can I espy my aims, somewhere on the horizon ? Can I paddle labouriously towards them – against the tide – dodge/defeat the sharks ? Can I muster the will to carry this out – “longhauling it” ?
I’ve spent a long time writing a book, which I’m sure to bore everybody about for the next aeon. My intention in writing the book was to stimulate debate about what I consider to be the best direction for balanced energy systems – a combination of renewable electricity and Renewable Gas. I wanted to foster debate amongst the academics and engineers who may be my peers, certainly, hopefully providing a little seed for further research. Hopefully also having a small influence on energy policy, perhaps, or at least, getting myself and my ideas asked to various policy meetings for a little airing. But, if I could in some way, I also wanted to offer a bit of fizz to the internal conversations of companies in the energy sector. You see, it may be obvious, or it may not be, but action on climate change, which principally involves the reduction in the mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels, principally also involves the co-operation of the fossil fuel extraction companies. Their products are nearly history, and so it must be that inside the headquarters of every transnational energy giant, corporate heads are churning through their options with a very large what-if spoon.
You see, if the fossil fuel companies do not commit to a transition out of fossil fuels and into renewable energy, then they are toast, because four degrees Celsius added to the average surface temperature of the Earth does mean that a lot of things really are toast by around 2070 or so; and four degrees Celsius or more by 2070, or thereabouts, is exactly where we’re all heading, if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels and letting all that carbon dioxide waft up into the atmosphere. And if there is a serious international deal on climate in Paris at the end of this year, or not, the fossil fuel companies could well cease to exist within a few short decades, if they don’t change, both because of climate change stringencies, but also because of problems with the resourcing of good quality hydrocarbons with which to fill our economic tank.
So, wouldn’t it be in the best interests of BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and the rest, and their shareholders, to have a secret plan to change, to transition themselves, to show us the chrysalis of transformation that they will struggle to emerge from, luminscent and triumphant, and on dainty goassamer wings, fly into the new daylight of the zero carbon future ? Those plans must exist. And I believe they shouldn’t be so secret. I think that if the oil and gas companies go very public about their low carbon transition plans, I think this will create a wave of confidence, sufficient to buoy up the economic productivity necessary to get the whole of our civilisation transitioned to low carbon. Nothing stops a good thing, and renewable energy is making great strides, but without the participation of the oil and gas companies in the low carbon transition, it will take longer to achieve, added to which the oil and gas companies could well fold and fail, and no bailout could ever rescue them.
Call me revolutionary, which I’m not, but anyway, I think it’s time for BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and the rest to put their Low Carbon Transition cards on the table. I already know some of the elements of the gameplan. Step one, start transitioning transport by adopting Natural Gas (and its compressed form, LNG or Liquefied Natural Gas) for all forms of road vehicle and oceangoing craft. Step two, an orderly reduction in the production of crude petroleum oils. This step is going to be easy, by the way, because oil and gas prospecting, discovery and drilling is going deeper and deeper into the Earth’s crust. At greater depths, the greater the likelihood of finding hydrocarbon gases instead of oils. Essentially, at deeper locations, the temperature of the hydrocarbon reservoirs is higher, and this leads to greater cracking of more complex hydrocarbons to more simple hydrocarbons, which means progressively lighter hydrocarbons, which will be gases or very light oils on the Earth’s surface. Not all of these can be refined into motor oils : heavy fuel oil, diesel, jet fuel and gasoline. Demand for the products that still come out of the ground could fall away. Demand for products that are not coming out of the ground could be unmet.
Step three is for oil and gas companies to admit that petrorefinery has an increasing demand for hydrogen in processing the remaining crude oils, as they are heavier and more sour/acid than previously, and that Natural Gas is too valuable to be used to make that hydrogen, so Renewable Hydrogen production will be commenced. Step four for the oil and gas companies will be to admit that petrorefinery is now so complex that all crude oil needs to be chemically modified before being sold as vehicle fuel. This means that industrial chemistry of refinery is sufficiently advanced to be able to swap crude oil for biomass-derived feedstocks. Oil refineries should be obliged to show they can replace petroleum oil inputs with bio-oils and other biomass-derived substances. Step six will be for oil and gas companies to admit that the Natural Gas that they are drilling for at great depth has increased levels of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide, and that this is degrading the quality of the raw Natural Gas, and recognise that the carbon dioxide should not be vented to the atmosphere, instead being methanated to become Renewable Methane, to increase the amounts and quality of Natural Gas. There may come a time when the remaining Natural Gas has such high levels of sulphur compounds in it, that it will be too costly to chemically remove them. This leads automatically to step seven, the complete replacement of Natural Gas by biomass-derived and renewable electricity-derived gas.
Well, that’s what the oil and gas companies should be doing. But what am I supposed to be doing ? How can I get their Low Carbon Transition discussed in public if they won’t open up about it ? How can the oil and gas companies be encouraged to come out of purdah, and speak about their Low Carbon plans, and stop being carbon pariahs ? From my research so far, it seems clear to me that a transition to Renewable Gas and renewably-sourced refined oil products (where gas cannot be used) is the way forward to save both the climate and the oil and gas companies. Why aren’t BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and the rest not talking about it ? How on Earth could I encourage them to do so ? At the moment, I’m standing in front of an inpenetrable, incomprehensible wall of silence on this issue. The oil and gas companies cannot assume that they are “too big to fail”. They cannot assume that society will bail them out. They cannot keep slicing capital investment in order to keep paying dividends to their shareholders. It’s getting more and more costly to explore for and discover hydrocarbon resources. If they divert capital to profit-seekers, they will hollow themselves out and implode. The next bust in the bust-bust-bust economic cycle could well be energy. And it could be permanent. If we want to avoid a truly broken economy, we need the oil and gas companies to come up with a plan for their own futures, self-sustaining and low carbon. And it’s got to have a large component of Renewable Gas in it – Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane – because fossil fuels cannot be relied upon.
I can see inklings that step one has already been initiated – there is more and more talk about the crud we are filling our collective lungs with from the continued use of diesel fuel – and how technology hasn’t helped to prevent this. There are also moves to launch hydrogen and methane vehicle filling stations, and gas-drive and electric-drive vehicles are being chosen for fleet and personal use. But there’s no hint of a stronger narrative here. Gas and electric cars are nice-to-haves in public relations broadcasts, but there’s no message of this being a stage in a journey to a low carbon, low particulates, low emissions fuel future. Where’s step two ? It’s still stuck on arguments about the geological reality of peak oil, and hasn’t moved on to how the world intends to deal with a peak in oil consumption – whether that’s driven by peak demand or peak supply. With crude oil commodity prices currently taking the impetus completely out of prospecting for complex or inaccessible oils, peak supply could be driven by a sheer economic rate-of-return cut-off, even before geology has its inevitable terminating way. Life on Earth of the kind that can fossilise into fuels may have been around for 3.4 billion years, but it was only during the major extinction events that enough biological material was laid down to fossilise into fuels, and the first one of those was only 443 million years ago. We are consuming fossil fuels at such a rate we have been burning something like a million ancient years of fossilisation every modern year, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, which means that time is nearly up on this energy resource.
The low carbon transition of the energy industry is such a big problem, and I am such a small and disconnected voice – as I have to retain my independence. What could I set out to do that could be in any way relevant, useful and enabling ? I need to adopt a role that has the potential to achieve something in the Low Carbon Transition. There is nothing more important to attempt to do. Some may say that I’m being too serious – that I’m taking this too personally. Well, since climate change threatens everything and everyone I hold dear, of course I’m taking it seriously and personally. I’m at a bit of a crossroads, though, as I’m still asking : what am I doing ? And why am I here ?