Where Does Big Oil Fit Into Biden’s Plan For Net-Zero Emissions By 2050?

Originally published on Forbes.com on December 29, 2020

“Ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050” is a cornerstone of President-Elect Biden’s climate plan.

One of the biggest challenges facing Biden is the fossil fuel industry. Oil and gas has brought in the shale gas revolution in the past 20 years, with benefits ranging from cheap gas to the US becoming energy-independent for the first time since 1947. And along the way lifting many millions of people across the world into the middle class.

Why is oil and gas the elephant? Close to 70% of greenhouse gases (GHG) is produced by burning (CO2) or leakage (methane) of fossil fuels in transportation, electricity generation, industry, buildings and homes.

In cutting emissions from oil and gas, Biden has an advantage that Obama didn’t have when he came into office. The US is faced with four crises, Biden emphasizes, and one of these is climate change. There is a groundswell of support from the populace for climate change, and increasing movement by financial banks and other institutions, as well as by European oil companies such as BP and Shell.

There are three distinct ways to lower CO2 emissions from the oil and gas industry. First, we can stop extracting oil. Second, we can stop using oil.  Third, we can capture and bury CO2 emissions. We’ll look at each alternative, but all will be needed.

First approach: cutting oil and gas at the source.

One way to do this is the infamous cry to “ban fracking” or the same thing – ban drilling, because nearly all wells are fracked to improve the oil or gas flowrate.

The discrepancies between countries’ production plans and production needed to keep global warming between 1.5°C and 2°C.

Figure 1. The discrepancies between countries’ production plans and production needed to keep global warming between 1.5°C and 2°C. Source: SEI, IISD, ODI, Climate Analytics, CICERO, and UNEP.

Climate-sensitive people cry “ban fracking” when they see Figure 1 which illustrates the production gap – how oil and gas production plans exceed the goals of the Paris Agreement. After studying plans and projections for fossil fuel companies in ten different nations, it was found that fossil fuel production will be 50% higher than the 2°C pathway agreed on in the Paris Agreement.

The discrepancy will be 120% higher than the 1.5°C pathway, the more desirable scenario from Paris. Crucially, these numbers have counted all the fossil fuel that will be burned to CO2 and this is included in the study.

The US has a large production gap, probably greater than the average in Figure 1, which isn’t too surprising since the US is the largest oil producer and the second largest coal producer in the world. The message of Figure 1 is that this has got to change!

To accentuate this production gap, it was estimated that ExxonMobil could have contributed 528 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2019, which amounts to 1.4 percent of global emissions – from just one company in the USA!

Given the many benefits provided by the shale revolution this century it can seem thankless to the oil and gas industry to be asked or told to cut back on drilling.

Some countries like France and New Zealand have successfully restricted oil and gas production. Another way to cut is to retract subsidies for oil and gas wells which by one estimate amounted in the US to $18 billion per year (federal and states subsidies). At least half of new oil resources in the US are not viable without government subsidies.

Denmark is not usually thought of as an oil country. But it’s the largest producer in the EU with 55 offshore rigs pumping away in the North Sea. But Denmark, who is a leader in renewable energies, wants to stop all new exploration now and end oil production by 2050.  They plan to focus instead on offshore winds and carbon capture and storage which would allow many of the 4,000 jobs to be transferred, not lost.  Denmark’s target of net-zero by 2050 has been made into law.

Second approach: stop using oil and gas products.  

Electricity generation and transportation are the main energy-usage sectors, and these have been assessed before. Its anticipated Biden will accelerate these as he moves toward net-zero by 2050. Meanwhile here are some other targets that Biden will want to take aim at: 

  • Manufacturing and construction: For example, steel-making and cement-making create a lot of CO2. But GHG emissions from such plants are not regulated and Biden may want to monitor greenhouse gas emissions across all such US industries.
  • Fugitive emissions: This includes methane leaks from wells, pipelines, and refineries, as well as flaring and venting. Its a big deal because methane has 21 times the climate warming effect of CO2. The industry has done quite well in reducing methane leaks but flaring (burning of gas from wells) is still a black eye.

In December, Pioneer Natural Resources put forward a goal to lower GHG emissions 25% and methane emissions 40% by 2040. In addition, they aim to reduce well flaring emissions to 1% of their total gas production. 1% is about the national average for flaring, but some parts of Pioneer have been above 5%.

  • Buildings: Another part of Biden’s Climate Plan says, Biden’s proposal is to spend $2 trillion in his first period in office to upgrade four million commercial buildings and two million homes to make them more energy efficient.”

The target here is to install LED lighting, electric appliances, heat pumps, solar panels or passive solar.

But such a large amount of money, and so few homes in a US population of 330 million. Does this seem like overkill? Well… Heat from furnaces, water heaters and stoves in commercial buildings and houses across the USA contributes over 1.5% of the world’s total CO2 emissions.  

California recognizes the significance of this. Thirty-nine cities in California have changed building codes to reduce gas usage and increase electric (some are outright bans on gas usage.) San Francisco and San Jose, third largest city in California, recently voted on banning natural gas in new buildings.

Third approach: capture CO2 where it is.

The changeover from fossil fuels will take decades, with its massive systems and infrastructure ($87 trillion’s worth says Daniel Yergin). But there is a backup that is likely to play a big part in net-zero 2050: capturing CO2 and burying it.   

CO2 is in the exhaust whenever fossil fuels are burned in cars and power plants. But it’s also emitted from cement and steel manufacturing, gas processors, and ethanol plants. In CO2 scrubbers, chemicals (often amines) absorb some of the CO2 in power plant chimneys — but are expensive. Wherever its captured, the CO2 can then be injected and locked in deep underground — permanently. The process is called CCS (for carbon capture and storage). Ten large-scale CCS operations exist in the USA.

One offshoot is called CCUS with U standing for utilization. This has been used for decades by oil and gas companies to recover residual oil in depleted reservoirs. The CO2 is injected into the reservoir where it softens up the oil so it flows more easily. Typically, 40% of the CO2 is trapped in the rock layers while the rest is dissolved in the oil and can be recycled when the oil is produced. CCS/CCUS is the most realistic method to get rid of GHG at the scale needed by the Paris Agreement.

BP, the oil major, has an interesting twist on this. By 2050, they think natural gas will still be needed by power plants and transportation that hasn’t yet changed over to renewables. Half of this natural gas would come from CCUS projects that inject CO2 into natural gas reservoirs (a process called Enhanced Gas Recovery). The produced natural gas would be classified as net-zero gas because its carbon content would be offset by the portion of injected CO2 that is stored underground permanently in this process.

A longer target is to split shale-gas molecules of methane, CH4, using electricity and water, into hydrogen, called green hydrogen that could be used as a sustainable fuel for planes and ships. The other product, CO2, could be injected underground and buried.

BP have thought about transition to renewables more than most oil and gas companies have. They insist that carbon pricing schemes (about $200/tonne in their aggressive scenarios) will have to be set up to incentivize the enormous reductions in GHG emissions needed to meet a net-zero 2050 goal.

The three different approaches above are not separate options. They will all be needed to address the gargantuan task of a clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.

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