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Climate chasm on display at Houston energy conference CERAWeek

Illustration of hand in suit holding tiny wind turbine
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

HOUSTON — A huge gathering of oil industry titans underscores the gulf between their blueprint for the transition to cleaner energy sources and the demands of activists wielding new influence in Democratic politics and European debates.

Where it stands: Major executives at the big CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference here acknowledge the industry has to change with the times. Executives are talking up their investments in carbon-capture tech, renewables, and steps to cut methane leakage.

Yes, but: Alternative energy remains a very small part of their business.

What they're saying:

  • Equinor CEO Eldar Saetre said in a speech that the sector is facing a "crisis of confidence" and a "lack of trust" that will "increasingly reduce our ability to influence and shape our own future." "It is, in fact, a real threat to our license to operate, unless we proactively and collectively address it," he added.
  • BP CEO Bob Dudley is expected to give a speech tonight that will "call for the industry to do more to respond to new demands for climate action, even as energy use continues to rise," per the Wall Street Journal.

The other side: The sentiment here is a sharp contrast to the activism that's on display from youth-led movements in Europe to the Democratic primaries in the U.S.

  • Motivated by scientific reports showing the urgency of steep emissions cuts to avoid runaway warming, they argue the time for incrementalism has long passed.
  • In the U.S., that's evident in the prominence of the Green New Deal on the left, which has attracted support from several major Democratic presidential candidates.
  • It's all very different from the gestalt in Houston, where discussion centers on the evolution of business models that still rely on huge investments in oil and gas for decades.

The intrigue: Several moments captured the divide between the conference and where the energy is on the left.

  • For instance, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the Democratic lawmaker who addressed the conference. He's a coal advocate and one of his party's most conservative members.

I chatted with Maarten Wetselaar, a senior Shell exec, about whether they will increase the $1 billion to $2 billion per year they're investing until 2020 in low-carbon efforts.

  • Shell's out front among majors, but it was a reminder that the industry sees the transition happening on their terms.
  • "We're hoping to increase it. That is the base plan. But we need to prove to ourselves and to our shareholders that it is commercially attractive enough to do it," he said.

The bottom line: I asked former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz about the tenor of the conference compared to where things stand on the left.

  • "One discussion does not have the urgency attached that it needs to have to the carbon transition. On the other side, sometimes there are solutions offered that ... are impractical, and in my view that does not help advance the conversation," Moniz said.

My thought bubble: Despite the chasm between activists and the industry, both groups stand well apart from President Trump on climate change. A tweet this morning displayed, again, Trump's rejection of the scientific consensus on human-caused warming.

Go deeper: Geopolitics, oil collide at energy confab