How the Fossil Fuel Industry Could Help Drive Decarbonization

A Net Zero-Emissions Society Will Need Drills, Pipelines, and Refineries

The concept of justice has possessed a remarkably consistent symbology since antiquity: a set of scales.

After all, justice seeks to restore balance. Over the past half-century, criminal justice scholars have increasingly renounced retributive justice, which balances the scales through punitive harm proportional to the crime, in favor of restorative justice. Under restorative justice models, the community offers wrongdoers an opportunity for reconciliation if they accept responsibility for harm and take action to remedy it.

By contrast, ongoing discussion of the oil and gas industry’s role in climate misinformation and political obstruction has often adopted an explicitly retributive framing. Commentators responding to the Exxon Knew campaign have called for oil executives to be handcuffed, tried for crimes against humanity, and jailed. Yet arguably, such sentiments overlook a potential for restoration — for the oil and gas sector to make up for its political misdeeds by leveraging its vast resources to help solve the climate challenge.

The path to a zero-carbon world will demand expanded clean energy services and infrastructure that the petrochemical industry is uniquely suited to provide: surveys for geothermal energy, refinery infrastructure for next-gen biofuels, or drilling expertise to reach carbon sequestering features belowground (Figure 1). The paramount goal of the climate movement is not to exact retribution against oil and gas interests, but to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The climate community should therefore consider a vision of justice that harnesses the sector to provide climate mitigation services.

But to fully carry out the terms of justice, oil and gas companies must genuinely, seriously restructure toward prioritizing clean technologies and investments. They already possess an arsenal of tools that could help drive significant progress.

Figure 1: Schematic diagram of selected processes and applications with the potential to drive deep decarbonization of the power, transportation, and industrial sectors. Processes utilizing oil and gas sector infrastructure and expertise are outlined in red. Note that the oil and gas industry is also well-positioned to assist in developing the pipeline infrastructure necessary to transport liquid and gaseous low-carbon fuels as well as captured carbon. Diagram not intended to be exhaustive.

Nobody, clearly, is better than the petrochemical industry at drilling, and drilling has important applications for clean energy and carbon sequestration. For instance, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is anticipated to play a role in decarbonizing both the energy sector and, crucially, global heavy industry. Direct air carbon capture at large scales can also draw down atmospheric CO2 directly, repairing climate damages by reducing impacts and lowering risks associated with long-term climate feedbacks. However, scaling carbon capture will require developing secure reservoirs in which to store captured carbon. The oil and gas industry possesses some of the best geology talent and the most detailed geological surveys in the world. Few entities are better-equipped to map and access promising underground features for carbon storage.

Carbon sequestration is not the only application for which deep knowledge of geology and drilling techniques may be crucial for significant decarbonization. The same surveying expertise can identify suitable geologic features for generating geothermal electricity. The shale fossil gas revolution, which itself owed a debt to geothermal research, has improved horizontal drilling techniques that could substantially expand the regions globally in which geothermal electricity and heat are viable. This could be a game-changer for the world’s future energy landscape, providing steady baseload electricity that would complement variable renewables.

"Green" hydrogen produced by nuclear power or renewables can provide fuel for vehicles, cargo vessels, and industrial processes and is another area that may benefit from drilling technology. Given the difficulty of storing hydrogen, some have also proposed maintaining hydrogen stocks underground within suitable rock formations.

Aboveground, the task at which hydrocarbon companies excel is the processing, refining, and transportation of vast quantities of liquids and gases. In the future, these will consist of a growing share of biofuels, biomethane, hydrogen, and synthetic fuels — synthetic hydrocarbons produced from captured carbon. The existing, sizable, industry-wide network of refineries, processing plants, and pipelines could thus considerably accelerate the adoption of such energy sources (Figure 1).

Indeed, biofuels and synthetic fuels represent among the most promising means by which to reduce emissions from the aviation sector, particularly for long-haul passenger and cargo flights for which battery power would be prohibitively heavy. They have also been proposed as low-carbon fuels for ocean shipping, as propulsion from wind, solar, and electricity are not viable for large vessels outside of short routes and specific regions.

Nothing could change the trajectory of global climate more than if some of the major oil and gas players were to undertake strategic shifts toward low-carbon business models.

Low-carbon fuels could also conceivably provide clean energy for heavy industry use. While air transportation and cargo ships produce approximately 5% of global emissions, heavy industry accounts for a whopping 22%.

The oil and gas industry itself could even help develop and improve these low-carbon fuels, provided that companies expand their currently insignificant, thoroughly-greenwashed biofuels, synthfuels, hydrogen, and biomethane research efforts into genuine priority programs, with commensurate planning toward production.

Lastly, a possibility even exists for rather imaginative uses for natural gas within a net-zero carbon society. For example, the recently-developed Allam Cycle process produces electricity from natural gas with total carbon capture — and at a cost potentially comparable to that of a conventional fossil gas plant. This innovative design has no smokestack — supercritical CO2 produced from burning the gas is concentrated and used to drive a turbine, generating electricity and producing a compressed, contained stream of CO2 that is fully captured and easily piped away.

The Allam Cycle remains in a prototype stage, and its promise as a clean power source will hinge upon our development of networked infrastructure for significant carbon sequestration,as my colleague Lauren Anderson highlighted recently. But should the technology fulfill its potential, a future pathway emerges in which natural gas — including even fossil-sourced methane — could play a continued role in a fully decarbonized society.

Nothing could change the trajectory of global climate more than if some of the major oil and gas players were to undertake strategic shifts toward low-carbon business models. Yet for the time being, the oil and gas industry largely continues to resist a clean energy transition.

This must change. Climate advocates are right that fossil fuel decisionmakers remain unwilling to give up the unrealized revenue within unexploited reserves. Some oil and gas actors still tout pilot carbon capture projects and exploratory biofuels research on the one hand even while opposing emissions regulations or carbon pricing that could help make such technologies more viable on the other. While a growing number of companies — Repsol, Equinor, Shell, Total, and most recently BP — have pledged to reduce "Scope 3" emissions associated with the burning of their fossil products post-sale, some commitments still allow continued fossil fuel extraction at current rates, provided that greater clean energy investments reduce overall carbon intensity.

Yet the very fact that oil and gas actors are beginning to make climate commitments highlights the opportunity for greater climate ambitions within the sector. Corporation-wide reform with a clean energy focus undoubtedly comes with financial risks, but so too does the status quo of committing the industry and its employees to an all-or-nothing regulatory struggle, in an era of intensifying litigation and public distaste, while neglecting technologies that could facilitate the sector’s survival and address climate grievances.

For its part, the climate community should not neglect the opportunity to promote a vision for the low-carbon transition that emphasizes the ability of oil and gas actors to powerfully advance solutions, even while maintaining intense public pressure upon the industry to act.

Having helped get us into this climate mess, the oil and gas sector now possesses a golden opportunity to leverage its tools and resources to help make climate amends.