HOUSTON (CN) — A villain most responsible for climate change? Or a catalyst needed to raise the living standards of millions of people in developing countries? The World Petroleum Congress this week in Houston highlighted the oil and gas industry’s complexities and challenges.
Members of the congress from 65 countries — executives, technocrats and energy ministers — came to Houston, the so-called Energy Capital of the World due to its concentration of oil company headquarters, for three days of forums and exhibitions at a downtown convention center.
The energy transition needed to meet the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, set by heads of state last month at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, was front of mind for the participants.
But they stressed it will take decades for renewable energy to supplant oil and gas, with some calling it a mistake to lean heavily into wind and solar power.
“The parameters of the public discourse seem reduced to the question are you for or against fossil fuels,” said Mohammad Barkindo, secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, appearing remotely from Austria for a panel titled “Energy Transition: Scenarios for the Future."
“It is perhaps the ultimate false dichotomy. It erroneously constrains what options are available. It should not be a question about one or the other. The complexity of the challenge calls for an inclusive approach,” he continued.
Though Barkindo said OPEC embraces the development of renewables as “vital to quench the world’s growing thirst for energy,” he noted the group’s latest World Oil Outlook projects by 2045 they will make up only 24% of the global energy mix, while oil (28%) and gas (24%) will still supply more than 50% of the world’s energy needs.
“In our outlook, the share of EVs [electric vehicles] in the total world transportation fleet is projected to expand to close to 20% in 2045. We support their development in a sustainable world. However, for many of the world’s population electric vehicles will not offer a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine, primarily due to cost,” Barkindo added.
Alex Epstein, author of “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” said the industry needs to do a better job of making the case oil and gas is superior to wind and solar in a panel dubbed “Perception of the Energy Industry: Creating a Future Vision.”
Epstein claims the conventional wisdom that use of fossil fuels is causing a climate catastrophe is demonstrably false, and they have actually created a “climate renaissance” in which fewer people are dying from extreme weather events because we have harnessed hydrocarbons to alleviate drought, heat and cool buildings and build sturdier infrastructure.
“We’ve never been safer from climate. And fossil fuels get the credit,” Epstein said.
John Beard, founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, has a different outlook.
From his home’s patio he can see the country’s largest oil refinery, owned by Motiva Enterprises, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, and he blames a cancer cluster among fellow Black residents of the far southeast Texas city on the area’s numerous petrochemical plants.
Beard, retired after a long career working at Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Beaumont, said he agrees the move away from oil and gas will take a long time.
“It’s going to take long because to have a transition means to stop where you are and go in the opposite direction,” Beard said Wednesday in a phone interview.
“We’re not doing that. We have petrochemical facilities that are expanding,” he added. “We have more pipelines being passed from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast. We are looking at building at least 29 LNG [liquid natural gas] and offshore oil port facilities. So it’s more like ‘Drill baby, drill’ and ‘Burn baby, burn’ instead of saying, ‘Let’s go clean and green.’ That’s because these people aren’t committed to actually making the effort.”