Kerry challenges oil industry to prove its promised tech rescue for climate-wrecking emissions


WASHINGTON (AP) — Oil and gas producers are talking about technological breakthroughs they say the world will soon be allowed to drill and burn fossil fuels without worsening global warming. US climate envoy John Kerry says the time is here for industry to prove it can make the technology happen — at scale, affordably and quickly — to avert climate disaster.

And Kerry says he has “serious questions” about whether it can be done.

Kerry’s comments came in an interview with The Associated Press on one of the most crucial topics in the fight to slow global warming: the argument of oil and gas producers that they will soon have technology in place to extract the climate-harmful gases that make fossil fuels the main culprit in climate change, allowing companies to pump crude and natural gas without worry.

Kerry said that the ideal solution is a rapid global transition to renewable energy, but oil and gas states and companies have the right to try their claim to technological rescue.

“If you can reduce emissions, capture them,” Kerry said this past week at the offices of his climate team at the State Department. “But we don’t have that at scale yet. And we can’t sit here and just act like we automatically have something that we don’t have today. Because we might not. It might not work.”

Globally, the point matters as oil and gas companies point to the hope of technology that could one day shake off most of the climate-wrecking carbon to avoid public and government pressure for the world to move faster away from fossil fuels and towards solar, wind and other cleaner energy.

“What they’re banking on is that they can absorb the emissions,” Kerry said of oil and gas companies. He ticked off the stages of operations that would be involved.

“If you can do​​​​these things, you can make it economically competitive,” he said, adding: “I have some serious questions about whether it will be price competitive.”

Especially since 2015, when the United States and nearly 200 other governments committed to reducing emissions to avoid the most disastrous scenarios of global warming, oil producers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on public campaigns portraying themselves as climate friendly. Industry advertisements and social media campaigns often suggest that the technology to clean carbon is already on the job, extracting the climate-damaging gases from oil and gas facilities’ around the world.

“CO2 capture and transport technologies have been operating safely around the world and in the US for many years,” says oil giant BP’s website.

“Technologies capture CO2 emissions at source or directly from the air,” says Saudi state oil giant Aramco, describing the carbon that is then safely stored underground or turned into “useful products.”

In reality, the technology to capture one major climate-harmful gas is methane, of oil and gas operations exists, and is waiting for investment to roll out at scale. But the technology to capture the biggest climate agent, carbon dioxide, remains limited in scale and costly, and often energy-intensive in itself.

The International Energy Agency, some national governments worldwide, and many climate scientists and advocates are adamant that while carbon capture technology will play a role, oil and gas production itself must be phased out.

“Real experience has been that commercial scale carbon capture projects have fallen far, far short of the claims,” ​​said David Schlissel of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis research group.

“I just think it’s foolish to think that we can pump the stuff, CO2, methane, into the atmosphere, and that we can capture it at some point,” Schlissel said.

The American Petroleum Institute trade group declined to comment on whether the industry could demonstrate it was ready to bring carbon capture technology fully online quickly enough and affordably enough.

In a statement, the group said “API supports federal policies to achieve” commercial carbon capture efforts and bring them fully online. It pointed to a 2019 report by the industry calling for heavy government funding to capture a quarter of current greenhouse gas emissions within 15 years.

The battle – rapid production cuts versus technological rescue – promises to come to a head this year.

Annual UN-sponsored climate talks intended to help keep countries on track to meet their pledges to reduce emissions are being held this year in the United Arab Emirates.

The talks will be hosted by Sultan al-Jaber, the chief executive of the state oil company of the Emirates. Like the US and several other countries, the Gulf nation is expanding drilling even as it avoids the climate issue.

In November’s climate talks, al-Jaber calls for a phase-out of ‘fossil fuel emissions’, leaving it unclear whether he means a phase-out of technology or is open to some production cuts.

At the 2021 UN climate talks in Scotland, countries have agreed for the first time to phase out the global use of coal. Talks the following year in Egypt saw a major push for a commitment to export oil and gas, but it failed.

Although not binding, any agreement from this year’s climate talks that the world should begin phasing out oil and gas production would be a first. It would put governments and industry on the spot to comply.

Kerry rejected the idea of ​​setting a deadline for phasing out oil and gas production. How quickly that can happen depends in part on how quickly the world moves to electric cars and renewable fuel energy grids, he said.

Instead, he said, this year’s climate talks will “quite possibly” produce an international agreement to phase out the use of “unabated” oil and natural gas, meaning oil and gas where the carbon emissions are not captured. This may disappoint those calling for rapid cuts in oil and gas production.

Kerry said the deadline to watch is 2030. By then, the UN’s top climate panel says, the world will have to nearly halve climate-damaging emissions to avoid the more devastating scenarios of global warming.

“We can’t lead the wish or the hope here to common sense,” Kerry said. “If we know we can get the job done by deploying more renewable energy and current technology, we should do that.”


This story was first published on May 14, 2023. It was updated on May 17, 2023, to correct the position of a clarifying note that clarified that the American Petroleum Institute declined to comment on how quickly carbon capture technology would be ready and to clarify their position on supporting federal policy.

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