COP21 and the Yorkshireman

Neil McNaughton contrasts the ’success’ of the 21st Conference of the Parties with pontifications captured during the ’sustainability’ session of the SPE ATCE. Will carbon capture and storage save the fossil fuels business? Will it be oil, or electricity, that saves the African villagers? Has COP21 reset the ‘frack baby frack’ zeitgeist?

I left you last month with a recommendation to read what Kevin Anderson wrote in Nature about the outcome of the COP21* international conference on global warming (GW) held last month in Paris. For those of you who have not done their homework, Anderson seems to have looked more assiduously at the COP21 deliverables than most. Where others report on COP21’s universally acclaimed ‘success’ it is hard to see exactly what has been achieved apart from kicking the CO2 can down the road. Participants agreed to ‘ask all countries to review their contributions to global warming every five years from 2020 on.’

Anderson dug deeper and has found some actual strategy (as opposed to the top level entreaties) for lowering the worlds CO2 output. One significant outcome of COP21 was that ‘Governments, prompted by their advisers, have plumped for Beccs (biomass energy carbon capture and storage) as the most promising negative-emissions technology.’ The idea here is that at some time in the second half of the century, the world will be producing ‘green’ energy from biomass. Of course this has the downside that biomass when burned produces CO2 just like fossil fuels. No matter. This will simply be pumped away into underground storage.

You may find this ‘solution’ somewhat unlikely. Anderson certainly does. He reported on briefings from senior figures ‘desperate to maintain order’ against those who dared to speak out against the ‘consensus’ and concluded that it is ‘pantomime season’ and the world has just gambled its future on the appearance ‘carbon-sucking fairy godmother.’

One of the less savory aspects of the energy debate is the way that all of a sudden, the fate of the poor African villager has become a prime concern for all, or at least, good fodder for a debating point. Speaking at a post COP21 briefing at the IEA this month, UK special representative for climate change, David King lamented the fact that African villagers are ‘burning kerosene and shortening their lives.’ Wait a minute, I have heard this one before. At last year’s SPE ATCE in fact where SPE president Hove Haldorsen, arguing the ‘moral case’ for fossil fuels lamented the fact that African villagers are dying because they are cooking with dung! The implication presumably being that they should upgrade to kerosene asap!

In fact Haldorsen’s warm up to the SPE opening plenary session on ‘sustainability’ was a masterpiece of sophistry, providing something for all. Along with the ‘moral case,’ skeptics went away happy with the thought that ‘we don’t want to shut down the world. Without oil and gas we will go back to the stone age.’ Believers in global warming were reassured that ‘if we are not sustainable we will go belly up.’ Cynics were advised to ‘get a great reputational profile and your stock price will follow.’ And for practical folks, ‘Replace coal with gas, sequester the CO2 and co-generate along with wind and solar.’ Haldorsen just might have over-egged his case in claiming that ‘migrants are moving to a place where they have access to energy.’

Some of you may be wondering what I think of the GW debate. This is when my instinct for flight kicks in. I would much rather report on what other folks are saying and, even better on what is happening, than face this issue head on. What can a 40 year plus oil and gas veteran possibly think of this existential threat to our industry but a gut reaction of denial?

With regard to COP21 and GW in general I would say two things. First, as the bumper sticker has it, ‘you can always tell a Yorkshireman, but you cannot tell ‘im much.’ Which being translated means that my background and training has made me an inveterate skeptic to the extent that rooms full of scientists bearing consensus or politicians claiming success have little effect on me. Having said that, I realize that denial is a strong psychological phenomenon that, I guess, helps people fight and win battles as they think ‘no I’m not the one who will catch the bullet.’ But that also propels lemmings over the cliff.

Despite my natural leanings towards denial, when I hear industry folks with no relevant qualifications railing against global warming I think, as a famous British lady of leisure said a long time ago, ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he.’ Geoscientists pitching in to the debate with their personal take on climate science is just a bit too obvious somehow.

My other observation is just that, observation. Look out of the window, what do you see? Folks still drive around in diesel or gasoline powered cars and airplanes crisscross the skies burning kerosene. Even hybrids, perceived as ‘green,’ get 100% of their energy from gasoline. And, as I learned at last year’s CATO2 symposium, CCS is having a very hard time achieving even a demonstrator these days let alone any at-scale deployment. But not all observations support the skeptical view. I was surprised to learn that Denmark produced 42% of its electricity from wind in 2015. This is a rather different picture to that which was being presented quite recently which had renewables making an insignificant contribution for decades ahead.

Some small comfort for the industry if not for the world comes from the fact that today’s low prices are putting the breaks on investment, in both oil and gas projects and in renewables. The industry likes to believe that this means a return to normal in the mid term. But somehow COP21 has reset the zeitgeist and it seems hard to imagine a return to ‘frack baby frack.’

* COP21 - the 21st conference of the parties to the united nations framework convention on climate change.


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