Statoil, Total, Shell prove precocious in weaning from oil

Oil companies are responding in different ways to growing pressure to cut the carbon output of their operations and products.
ShutterstockMakhnach S
Oil companies are responding in different ways to growing pressure to cut the carbon output of their operations and products.

When it comes to addressing climate change, oil companies are all over the map.

Meeting this week in Houston at CERAWeek, the world’s biggest oil and gas conference, the world’s biggest oil companies talked about oil and climate change — sometimes in the same sentence.

But while European oil majors such as Statoil and Total spoke about their long-term plans to shift their focus away from oil, toward natural gas and renewable energy, in line with the global transition to a low-carbon economy, their American counterparts appeared less convinced that demand for oil will diminish in future decades.

Amid growing international concerns about climate change and extreme weather events, such as destructive hurricanes, wildfires and droughts that scientists have started linking to global warming, the oil industry is under increasing pressure from investors to take action by adding low-carbon products and services to their businesses.

"The big debate in the industry and among investors is: Is there a role for the (oil) industry to play in a low-carbon transition?" said Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas at Ceres. "Do they bring anything other than cash to the table? That’s very much an open question."

Total plans to shift its focus from oil to natural gas and to expand into electricity, including renewables such as solar power and battery storage, which the company is already invested in, said Patrick Pouyanné, the company’s chairman and chief executive.

"If we’re able to shift all the coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants, we would be immediately on the 2-degree roadmap that the Paris Agreement is calling for," he added, speaking at CERAWeek in a session that was webcast. "In 20 years, Total will be first a gas and oil company, with some assets in alternative energies."

Statoil plans to shift as much as 20 percent of its capital investments into renewables and low-carbon products by 2030. The company has invested about $2.6 billion in renewables in the last several years, particularly in offshore wind farms.

Royal Dutch Shell plans to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2050 by expanding into renewable energy and scaling back growth in oil and gas.

Shell has the right idea, climate mitigation experts say.

Oil and gas companies must cut the carbon emissions intensity of their products by 40 percent to 60 percent by 2050, Cynthia Cummins, a climate expert at the World Resources Institute, wrote in February. The world can afford a limited amount of emissions to avoid a global temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius, she added. That means that absolute carbon emissions from all global energy use needs to fall by 63 percent, and absolute emissions from oil and gas products must fall by 35 percent to 60 percent.

Some U.S. oil company executives who appeared at CERAWeek seemed skeptical of this scenario.

In ConocoPhillips' climate plan,  the company describes plans to cut emissions from its operations, by boosting efficiency, plugging leaks and cutting back on gas flaring. But there is little mention of boosting investment in renewable energy, scaling back oil operations or taking other actions that would reduce the company's exposure to oil and petroleum products. 

"We’ve never denied the science; we want to debate the policy," Ryan Lance, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said during an appearance at CERAWeek that was webcast. He added that the company plans to reduce its greenhouse-gas intensity over the next 15 to 20 years. 

ExxonMobil in February acknowledged the threat of climate change, but predicted that global greenhouse-gas emissions will continue rising until 2040, as oil and natural gas is produced to meet more than half the world’s energy demand, with oil providing the largest share, due to strong demand from the commercial transportation and chemical industries.

Exxon released the information as part of a report on energy and carbon, in response to a shareholder resolution that sought climate disclosures about how technology advances and global climate change policies would affect the company. 

Meanwhile, the pressure to change continues. Exxon and other oil companies are defending themselves in lawsuits brought by local and state governments that are making their way through the courts. 

New York City, San Francisco and other cities are suing Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Shell and BP to recover the costs of protecting their cities from climate change impacts such as rising sea levels that the cities argue are the result of decades of greenhouse gases from making and burning petroleum fuels. 

New York state is separately suing Exxon over accusations that the company misled investors about how it accounts for climate change impacts on its business.

It’s unclear what effect the lawsuits might have. But policy changes in other parts of the world are sending a clear message.

Among the clearest was an announcement the World Bank made in December that it won’t finance any upstream oil and gas projects after 2019. Instead, the bank plans to focus on providing financing in "transformational areas" such as energy efficiency, solar power and resilience, as part of efforts to help countries meet their climate goals under the Paris Agreement.