Despite ‘Energy Transition’ Theme, Petroleum Congress Rejected Climate Action

Panelists argued that even modest targets would threaten global energy stability and security.
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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith attends the 24th annual World Petroleum Congress
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith attends the 24th annual World Petroleum Congress in Calgary. Photo by Chris Schwarz (Flickr CC)

At the conclusion of the 24th edition of the World Petroleum Congress, which was ambitiously titled Energy Transition: The Path to Net Zero, little progress appears to have been made on advancing the cause of energy transition or of accelerating on the road to net zero.

Rather, a consistent theme of the congress was the idea that international commitments to achieve net zero by 2050, or to attain even modest Paris Agreement targets, were unrealistic, arbitrary, or threatened global energy stability and security.

“Phasing out conventional energy prematurely could put energy security and affordability priorities at risk,” warned Saudi Aramco president and CEO Amin Nasser on receiving the WPC’s Dewhurst leadership award. Nasser said that doing so could generate “an even more serious energy crisis where countries and people, not just assets, are stranded.”

Nasser went on to make an argument that would be repeated often throughout the convention, that the Global South is in “survival mode, not energy transition mode.”

Nasser and other panelists neglected to mention that climate change is already driving social, economic, and environmental destruction in the developing world. Indeed, small nations such as Tuvalu, Palau, and Barbados have been vocal in recent years, as climate change threatens to erase these nations from the map permanently. The leaders of those nations have been trying to convince world leaders at the United Nations to take action for some time.

Moreover, climate change is already a root cause of an affordability crisis across much of the Global North. Increased oil production is unlikely to make the world any more affordable, irrespective of which hemisphere one lives in, but it is guaranteed to have far reaching and devastating economic impacts.

Smith tours the Saudi exhibit at WPC 2023. Photo by Chris Schwarz (Flickr CC)

Rather than discussing the negative impact of continued oil production on the Global South, at least two speakers brought up the apparent death toll associated with discontinuing oil production. Kuwait Petroleum’s Shaikh Nawaf Saud Al-Sabah made the startling claim that one billion people would die if oil production is terminated “prematurely.” Adam Waterous of the Waterous Energy Fund echoed this unsubstantiated idea by telling an audience at a session about financing Canada’s energy transition that energy poverty, by his estimate, already kills nine million people annually either due to cold or from respiratory diseases related to inhaling so-called “dirty fuels” for home heating.

Delegates rejected reports from the International Energy Agency that suggest peak global oil demand may be reached before the end of this decade. Many repeated the industry-friendly argument that oil and gas production will be needed for many decades to come. The IEA has been categorical in their prediction that global peak oil and coal demand will occur by 2030

Though the congress’ theme was the energy transition to net zero, speakers only addressed production related emissions. Potential solutions were limited to those already preferred by industry specifically because they’ll allow for continued production. Carbon capture, still unproven by any objective measure, was talked about by delegates as though it were already sucking massive quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

A DeSmog analysis of carbon capture projects around the world revealed a consistent pattern of cost-overruns, missed targets, and increased emissions. As climate and energy analyst Ketan Joshi put it, carbon capture causes the problem it fails to solve

Despite frequently chiding environmentalists for apparently unrealistic goals, industry leaders like Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobil, frequently made statements indicating their belief production could continue with emissions reductions. This idea — that production can continue while reducing emissions — was made recently by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, though they deliberately omitted emissions from tar sands production.

“There seems to be wishful thinking that we’re going to flip a switch from where we’re at today to where it will be tomorrow,” Woods told the WPC’s opening session.

Another solution preferred by Big Oil is reforestation to create carbon sinks, and the conservation of old growth forests for the same purpose. The idea that simply conserving old growth forests will preserve massive carbon sinks has been debunked, but was nonetheless advocated by both Aramco’s Nasser and Nawaf Al-Sabah (who argued Kuwait is seeking to build mangrove swamps as part of its emissions mitigation strategy). While old growth forests are vital for biodiversity, their oft-cited abilities in carbon dioxide storage have been consistently and grossly overestimated.

Moreover, as the climate crisis worsens, so too does the possibility of ever greater and more destructive forest fires, such as those that ripped across Canada this year. When forests are destroyed by fires, they not only lose whatever carbon capturing ability they once had, they further release massive quantities of potent greenhouse gasses, including methane, which is even more destructive.

There was little in the way of major declarations made at the congress, though the government of Alberta announced it would supply Canadian oil giant Cenovus with $7 million to study the use of small, modular, nuclear reactors (SMRs). The nuclear reactors would theoretically be employed to decarbonize the method used to extract oil from Canada’s tar sands. It is in fact a type of enhanced oil recovery technique, not dissimilar from carbon capture, which has also historically been used principally for extractive, rather than sequestration, purposes. While Alberta environment minister Rebecca Shultz claimed the use of SMRs would help lower emissions, a representative from Cenovus was quick to point out that this only applied to emissions related to production. 

Cenovus reported full year net earnings of $6.5 billion CAD in 2022.

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Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian.

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