A fossil fuel company's take on climate change
MANILA, Philippines – Where does a carbon-emitting fossil fuel company stand in a world threatened by climate change?
Studies show that global warming is largely due to fossil fuel companies extracting and combusting oil, coal and natural gas to meet the world's energy demands.
Environmentalists demand that fossil fuel companies and industrialized companies drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they emit. Doing so gives humans a shot at curbing climate change, which if not stopped, can lead to catastrophic warming of global average temperatures. (READ: 6 ways climate change will affect PH cities)
Shell was identified by a study as one of the top 10 companies that have contributed more than 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. The study also named Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Gazprom. (READ: Groups to Aquino: Demand Haiyan redress from fossil fuel companies)
Rappler spoke to Shell Vice President for Business Environment to find out what steps fossil fuel companies are taking to address a phenomenon that has deadly implications for the entire planet.
How is Shell reducing carbon emissions?
One of the biggest things that has happened in our company over the last 15 to 20 years is that we're now a slightly [more of a] natural gas company than an oil company. You get less than half the emissions from natural gas compared to coal. Oil is midway, between coal and natural gas in terms of emissions.
Biofuels, if done well, can make a good contribution and so we have been part of setting up various international fora about sustainable biofuels. By mandate from various governments, we have to have biofuel components in a lot of our fuels.
We have developed a joint venture in Brazil for producing sustainable biofuels from rain-irrigated sugarcane which is the most friendly form of developing biofuels.
So does Shell see itself abandoning carbon-emitting, conventional fossil fuels in the future?
If you're in an industry that is developing something that is so important for the world, you're always looking for ways that it can be done efficiently. Liquid fuels are the most important and flexible carriers for many of the energy uses we take for granted like transport, like mobility. So in order to be part of the developments in transport, that means supplying liquid fuels and lubricants.
How is natural gas less carbon-emitting than other fossil fuel sources for energy?
Natural gas as a molecule is one carbon molecule with 4 hydrogen molecules around it. Coal is just the carbon. So when you're taking that and combusting the whole of that, for the same amount of energy, you emit far less carbon dioxide when you're combusting natural gas than when you're combusting coal. With coal, there are great worries about things like mercury emissions.
What natural gas projects does Shell have?
We have a major investment in Qatar that we call the Pearl Gas to Liquid Plant. It takes the availability of natural gas and transforms it into diesel fuels for cars. But these are diesel fuels with very low emissions.
So how can fossil fuel companies curb greenhouse gas emissions if they continue to use fossil fuels?
When you have a power station which is using coal or natural gas, you're getting some carbon dioxide emissions. You can actually capture those emissions and store them underground and so you're not letting emissions come into the atmosphere. You're effectively returning the carbon underground.
We're doing a number of pilot projects to show that it's feasible. But the question is how do you get from a few pilot projects in the world to large scale application?
To do that, you need to shift investment into that area and in order to have that happening, you need to have pricing of carbon dioxide to encourage investment. Shell is an advocate of having a good, transparent carbon dioxide price. Having a carbon dioxide price creates incentives for more investment in carbon capture and storage technology.
Environmentalists and some energy experts are looking at renewable energy as the cleanest, most sustainable future for energy. Shell also has renewable energy projects. Do you see it overtaking fossil fuel energy?
What we've learnt is that the most attractive energy future involves energy efficiency and cleaner fossil fuels, gas rather than coal growth, and the continuing revolution in the application of renewables.
Too often people take a narrow view and advocate just one. That slows down decision-making about all of them. It's much better to recognize that you're going to get a mix of efficient, clean and green, and then be part of encouraging all of those rather than arguing one against the other.
Why can't we choose just renewable energy given the clamor for green energy?
If you look at how far could you get renewables into the mix, one outlook sees solar and wind making up only 30% by 2060. Could it get to a 100%? We find it's It's really hard to get beyond past 70% for renewable energy in total. (READ: DOE to add more renewable energy in grid by 2014)
One reason is a mismatch between supply and demand. There's a lot of solar energy that can be produced in the Sahara Desert but there's not a lot of demand for it. In order to use it you'd have to think about having international cabling going across boundaries. A lot of these boundaries are politically turbulent areas. It will take a long time to create an infrastructure to use that.
How can fossil fuel companies help reduce air pollution and carbon emissions?
Clean-burning liquid fuels have an important role to play. We've put investments into more efficient fuels, cleaner fuels, in some cases helping to create different routes towards transport fueling. One route is creating lower emissions diesel like what we're doing in Qatar.
But don't underestimate the impact of efficiency in all this.
The average North American citizen uses 3 times as much energy for personal transport as the average European. That's 3 times the emissions. And it's not just because of big American cars.
The average North American drives twice as far as the average European and the reason they drive as far is largely because of the way their cities have developed.
They developed sprawling cities with poor public transport. Whereas in Europe, these cities developed basically before the car came. So you have much more compact cities and you have better public transport. That makes a huge difference. That lasts for decades and generations.
How can Metro Manila develop in a way that lessens air pollution and carbon emissions?
You've got Metro Manila here which is a developing city. But it's quite compact, it's quite densely populated and that's a good thing because in general, densely populated cities use less energy.
But that's associated with the infrastructures you put in so if you invest in good public transport, whether that's rail or bus rapid transit, that will make a big impact.
How would you advise the Philippine government on its investments in coal?
You're going to want to avoid taking short-term decisions that lead to a long-term regret. As a fuel, coal can be quite cheap. It's cheap for a reason. But the actual power station for developing coal costs 3 times as much as for a gas-powered power station.
You're then left with a power station that will probably run for 40 to 50 years with high carbon dioxide emissions all the way through. It is much better to have power than not to have it, but in 20 years time, you're probably going to regret it if you invested in coal and not in natural gas.
There will be [an energy] mix but if you can shape the mix more towards natural gas, you're developing a more sustainable mix for the longer term.
Jeremy Bentham is in the Philippines to speak at Shell's Powering Progress Together Forum to be held in Manila on Feb 6, 2014. The forum gathers experts and stakeholders from all over the world to talk about the connections between energy, water and food.