• Ian Sutton

Imagination and the Oil Companies

It often seems as if problems to do with climate change are intractable. Reports and best-selling books such as Six Degrees tell us that we are on an unsustainable journey that is taking us toward some type of doomsday. Moreover, these pessimistic forecasts often seem to make sense, as we saw in last week’s post, Alternative Energy Reality, which featured the following chart.

The chart shows that renewables (solar and wind power) have gained market share, but only slowly. They started at around 0% in the year 1965, and are now at about 5%. This is a useful increase, and every effort should be made to support their continued growth. But, if we are to replace fossil fuels by the year 2050 — a date that is frequently put forward as our deadline — then the pace at which we adopt renewables will have to accelerate — a lot. Renewables will have to move from 5% of the market to at least 80% within just three decades. So far there is no evidence that we, as a society, are willing to make the necessary financial and social commitment to such a radical change in our lifestyle.

Environmental activists frequently say that those who create pollution should be the ones who should pay for the clean up. Using the same reasoning, they say that fossil fuels create global warming and climate change. Therefore those companies that extract, process and market fossil fuels, i.e., oil companies, should be held responsible for cleaning up the situation that they have created. Most people who work for the oil industry regard this complaint as being totally unfair — we are all responsible for creating carbon dioxide and other climate changing emissions. But it could be that industry, and the oil companies in particular, may indeed be able to help address the predicaments that we face if they are able to create new and imaginative technologies.

The poet Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972) talked about,

Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

That is exactly what the climate change discussion needs right now. The “toads” are real: the wrenching and scary changes that we face if we don’t change our trajectory. Therefore, we need “imaginary gardens”; we need to think of new ways of living. Maybe we are indeed heading into very serious trouble if we assume that we have identified all possible solutions. But maybe we are not being imaginative enough.

Different Solutions

One reason that a wholesale switch to renewables seems to be so unworkable is that renewables supply a different type of energy from fossil fuels. Therefore, virtually all the vehicles that we use now — cars, trucks and buses — would have to be scrapped and replaced with electrically-powered vehicles (EVs). Currently there are close to 300 million registered vehicles in the United States alone. The prospect of replacing all of these vehicles within just 30 years is a bridge too far for all but the most committed environmentalists.

Following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tom Friedman of the New York Times said,

The World Trade Center is not the place where our intelligence agencies failed. It is the place where our imaginations failed.

That insight may well apply to our current climate change discussions. What is needed are responses to our crises that not only address the fundamental climate change issues, but that also take into account current realities. We need fresh ideas that and gets us away from binary thinking. For example, is there a way in which we can switch from fossil to fuels to renewable energy without having to change out the entire vehicular inventory in just 30 years? This is where the technical community, particularly the oil companies, may be able to provide an important contribution.

For example, many people in the process industries have participated in process safety management programs — a profession that helps companies identify and pre-emptively manage catastrophic incidents. Given that such incidents occur only very rarely, we have had to develop techniques, such as Process Hazards Analysis, that encourage us to “think the unthinkable”. In other words, imaginative thinking is part of the culture for companies in the energy and process industries.


This line of thought was triggered by my reading of the work being done by the company Carbon Engineering in British Columbia, Canada, and by the Swiss-based Climeworks. These companies are developing Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies that remove CO2 directly from the atmosphere.

DAC is new, but it is not experimental. For example, Carbon Engineering have built a pilot facility that annually removes around 1 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. (The nation of Canada emits 560 million tons of CO2 each year, so there’s a way to go.) The following process sketch is taken from the company’s web site. It is not complicated.

But, having removed CO2 from the air, we then have to decide what to do with it. It could be compressed and sent into a depleted oil well for long-term storage. This approach does remove CO2 from the atmosphere, but it is expensive and it does not generate revenue. Nor does it address the transition problems to do with fossil fuels just discussed.

A more imaginative solution, and one that both Carbon Engineering and Climeworks allude to, is to use the CO2 as the feedstock in a modified modified Fischer-Tropsch process in order to manufacture synthetic fuels. The CO2 is reacted with hydrogen generated by electrolysis. The end product is a liquid fuel that could by used in existing vehicles. The whole process could be operated using energy from wind or solar — it would not require fossil fuels for its success.

This approach does not reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations, but it is a closed loop — there is no net change in the concentration of CO2 (depending on the efficiency of the process). But this approach does mean that change over from fossil fuel vehicles to EVs can be accomplished over a longer and more realistic time frame. An energy transition can be achieved without simultaneously creating an economic depression.

Not only does a slower transition give society more time to achieve goals of being totally free of fossil fuels, it gives the Direct Air Capture companies a revenue base from which they can develop new and more effective processes.

Oil Companies

Referring once more to the Alternative Energy Reality post, in it we considered the role of traditional oil companies in a new world of decarbonized energy. Their core business is built around the extraction and processing of crude oil and natural gas. Were they to move into the electricity generation space using wind and solar power they would enter an unfamiliar business environment to which they are not suited. They are not set up to be regulated public utilities, with low margins and millions of small customers. But a transition to technical activities such as carbon capture and modified Fischer-Tropsch processes makes a lot more sense. The oil companies are skilled at the management and engineering of large, hydrocarbon-based projects — projects that are high risk/high reward. They are also useful at managing mega projects — a skill that will be invaluable as carbon capture technology is scaled up.

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