At the World Petroleum Congress
One of the panel discussions at the 24th World Petroleum Congress in Calgary last week was on ‘Social Responsibility: Earning a Licence to Operate’. ‘I get challenged by my children and grandchildren,’ the executive secretary of the Latin American energy association admitted. ‘We’re getting cancelled.’ He took a poll of the hundred-odd oil professionals in the audience. ‘Raise your hand if you believe you’re a fiendish villain.’ The crowd laughed. ‘I see very few hands,’ he joked – nobody had put their hand up. ‘No, I see none.’
The first WPC was held at the Science Museum in London in July 1933. This year, for the first time – nearly a century and more than a degree of global warming later – decarbonisation wasn’t only a spectre haunting the halls of the convention centre. Five thousand delegates, including oil executives, politicians and petro-dignitaries from around the world, had gathered to map out the industry’s future under the rubric ‘Energy Transition: The Path to Net Zero’. The week-long event – which I heard variously described as ‘a gathering of friends’ and ‘a celebration’ – started with a symbolic name change, from World Petroleum Congress to WPC Energy.
The path to net zero is paved with good intentions. Across the congress – the ministerial dialogues, the CEO strategic sessions, the technical forums – nobody cast doubt on the need for an energy transition. But questions of when, how and at what pace were hazier. In a dark conference hall on Monday morning I looked out across a sea of dark suits – the gender split was perhaps 85:15 – as ExxonMobil’s CEO, Darren Woods, addressed the crowd. He set the tone for the week when he warned the transition wouldn’t happen overnight. ‘There seems to be wishful thinking that we’re going to flip a switch from where we’re at today to where it will be tomorrow,’ Woods said.
At the congress, every solution was on the table except for the most obvious – to stop burning fossil fuels – which was conspicuously absent. The oil industry’s approach is narrow in scope, and in Calgary it came with some sleight of hand. Over and over speakers would say that the industry needs to transition, but to be realistic about the timeframe and costs; it needs to reduce emissions, but not production; it needs to keep burning fossil fuels as it transitions; and none of this can mean losing out on profits.
As ExxonMobil’s VP of low carbon solutions technology put it, ‘we have a job to do right now for our society as well as for our shareholders.’ But when I asked people if they believed the industry would meet the 2050 net-zero targets laid out by the International Energy Agency to keep warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels – which according to a new study would require global oil supply to decline by an average of 62 per cent – most would wordlessly shake their heads, roll their eyes or shrug.
Outside the conference centre, Calgary was lucky to be enjoying a run of clean air days after a summer choked by smoke. Canada had just been through its worst wildfire season in recorded history, but no one was talking about climate change or its effects. Instead, the conference app sent a weather notification every morning: ‘Bring a jacket!’ As I walked past the pancake breakfast and country band into the exhibition hall on Tuesday morning, I nearly tripped on the plush carpet. The hall was all dazzling lights, glossy pavilions and sparkling silver bullets: oil companies from around the world touted their carbon capture and storage, clean hydrogen projects or advances in LNG.
In 2021, 60 per cent of the public messages put out by the supermajors – BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Total and Chevron – contained green claims. But the same companies were forecast to allocate only 12 per cent of their capital expenditure to low-carbon investments in 2022, according to InfluenceMap, an independent think tank. Only 23 per cent of the majors’ public messaging contained claims about oil and gas, but all except one (BP) were expected to expand production until at least 2026.
At the Saudi pavilion I took a virtual reality tour of the kingdom’s oil and gas fields and the offshore wind farms of its future – Saudi Arabia is aiming to get half its power from renewables by 2050. At ExxonMobil, I watched as people lined up for a cup of coffee with an image of their face etched into the foam. At Canada’s Pathways Alliance, representing the oil sands producers, a school group was hearing about a plan to build a 400-kilometre carbon pipeline and storage hub. ‘How long does it stay there?’ a student asked. Before they had a chance to hear the answer, the teenagers were whisked back to their school bus. ‘Be sure to grab an ice cream on your way out!’ the Pathways representative said.
A Belgian delegate told me that people who work for oil companies are walking on eggshells in Europe as the climate movement gains momentum and makes it harder for them to operate – they could never say the things she’d heard people say in Calgary. I asked her how the North American and European contexts compare. ‘Here, they don't realise that they’re on the edge. And if society really turns it's going to be impossible to do business,’ she said. ‘Everybody here says you have to be part of the solution – but from where I stand, it’s more that we realise that it’s not a given that we will be part of the solution.’