Oct 10, 2018

The oil industry's next climate moves

Ben Geman, author of Generate

A Shell oil rig off the coast of Brazil. Photo: Scott Heppell/AFP/Getty Images

ExxonMobil's pledge Tuesday to put $1 million into carbon tax lobbying is the latest of several industry moves lately — including Exxon and Chevron joining the wider Oil and Gas Climate Initiative and more low-carbon energy investments by some big players.

Reality check: With the big UN report highlighting the unprecedented global energy transition needed to limit the extent of global warming — something far more seismic than the changes occurring today — now is a good time to explore what further steps the industry could take in the near(ish) term.

What to watch: Among other topics, we are keeping an eye on the following questions:

  • Lobbying and advocacy: Will more U.S. companies — including Chevron — be willing to join Exxon and several European majors pushing for U.S. carbon pricing?
  • Low-CO2 energy: Europe-based majors — Shell, BP, Total and Equinor — have been making a series of moves in the renewable power and electric vehicle charging space. "All of us know we have to help renewables push coal out of the power sector," BP CEO Bob Dudley said at a London conference today. As Bloomberg NEF discusses here, will U.S. counterparts eventually follow?
  • Scale: Consider last year's pledge by Shell, one of the more aggressive players, to spend $1 billion–$2 billion annually on its new energies division through 2020. That's a very small fraction over their overall budget, so keep an eye out for whether the majors increase their scale.
  • Lobbying and advocacy, part 2: Another sign that the majors are getting more serious about climate would be if they put pressure on powerful K Street trade groups to reverse opposition to climate regulations.
  • States: As Axios' Amy Harder writes here, Shell is sitting out the Washington State ballot fight over a CO2 tax, while BP and other oil companies are opposing the proposed tax. Let's see how the industry plays things in similar fights that could surface in other states in the future.

Meanwhile, another important dynamic is the disconnect over the role of natural gas in the future.

  • This Reuters piece gets into how the industry is bullish on expanding demand for natural gas for decades. As one executive puts it, it's not a transition fuel but a "destination fuel."

Yes, but: The new UN analysis of what's likely needed to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5ºC above preindustrial levels shows that steep reductions in fossil fuels are needed.

  • That includes natural gas, even though it emits less CO2 when burned than coal or oil.
  • Check out this UN comparison of "pathways" for staying within 1.5ºC (or this explainer from Carbon Brief).
  • In a nutshell, steep cuts in the share of gas in the global energy mix will be needed by mid-century absent major deployment of carbon-trapping technologies.

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