Discussion paper

From climate pariah to climate saviour? Transforming the petroleum industry

Climate change Climate change mitigation Petrol Carbon capture and storage Carbon emissions Carbon pricing

This paper addresses the question: what things can the petroleum industry do in pursuit of its economic interests that will also help to reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere?

The industry has accepted that climate change is real and human-induced, and has even accepted in principle that a price on carbon is desirable. However, as a whole the industry is not lobbying for such a price. The first thing it should do is lobby for a significant price on carbon. This will obviously be beneficial in combatting climate change. It will also be advantageous to the petroleum industry, because it will impact more heavily on coal and assist in bringing coal fired power to an end, leaving the way open for gas, at least in the short term.

Gas is only preferable to coal, from an emissions point of view, if methane emissions from all the links in the gas supply chain are curbed. Controlling these emissions will not only benefit the environment; it will also be cost effective for the industry. Even if we get to zero human emissions, climate change has already triggered an increase in the rate of methane release from the Arctic permafrost. The petroleum industry is well placed to capture this methane and either burn it, thereby reducing its greenhouse potential, or better still transport it to market. Appropriate financial incentives could make this worthwhile for the industry.

Finally, even if emissions can be stopped, we need to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it long term. One of the processes by which biofuels are made can be modified to maximise the production of biochar which can then be stored for a thousand years. The industry is well placed to do this, provided there are appropriate financial incentives.

These last two processes - capturing Arctic methane emissions and drawing down carbon from the atmosphere - if they can be done on a large scale, have the potential to transform the industry into a climate saviour.

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