At the World Petroleum Congress

Michaela Cavanagh

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.’


  • 4 October 2023 at 6:29pm
    Geoff Chambers says:
    "Every solution was on the table except for the most obvious – to stop burning fossil fuels."

    Good. Because if we stopped burning fossil fuels we'd all die - a simple point that seems to have escaped the entire intellectual élite of the Western world.

    Luckily the Chinese, Indians, Russians & the rest of the world haven't lost their minds.

    • 5 October 2023 at 11:03am
      Rory Allen says: @ Geoff Chambers
      Let's take this thought a little further. If we stopped using oil and gas tomorrow, our economies would shrink to some fraction of their present size: say half for the sake of argument. This would include a huge fall in agricultural production leading to mass starvation. But if we devoted the money we currently use to subsidise the oil corporations, to invest in renewable energy, we might be able to stop burning fossil fuels in, say, 25 years' time. Economies can run on other forms of energy than fossil fuels.

      I am not clear if you support net zero at some future date, or whether - as someone who has seen through the pretensions of the intellectuals of the Western world - you have worked out a proof that it is impossible even in principle? I'd love to hear your views on this.

      By the way, do you include climate scientists among 'intellectuals'? It is a weird habit of Western writers to assume all intellectuals have arts degrees.

  • 4 October 2023 at 8:58pm
    Mnestheus says:
    You might as well ask the Oracle of Delphi to stop huffing natural gas.

    Calgary is the locus classicus of capturing carbon from the air, and Carbon Enginnering's founders just sold a billion dollar tranche of shares.

    • 5 October 2023 at 11:06am
      Rory Allen says: @ Mnestheus
      The question to ask at any conference where carbon capture, blue hydrogen or some other fossil fuel-friendly solution to climate change is suggested, is: 'if the billions invested in this scheme were instead put into insulating homes, would this save more, or less, atmospheric CO2 than your scheme?'

      When I asked this question of a blue hydrogen salesman from Equinor, the result was long digression which avoided the point.

  • 4 October 2023 at 9:00pm
    Mnestheus says:
    "- a simple point that seems to have escaped the entire intellectual élite of the Western world."

    Not to mention the greatest minds of the Ice Age:

  • 5 October 2023 at 10:32am
    Robin Fox says:
    Try this Mnestheus:

    • 5 October 2023 at 11:13am
      Rory Allen says: @ Robin Fox
      I admit to not having the detailed engineering background to follow the pros and cons of CCS. But here is my suggestion. Whenever a business applies for a licence to open up a new field - Rosebank for example - with a promise to offset the carbon emissions with CCS at some future date, the government grants it subject to one proviso. Every ton of CO2 equivalent sold must be accompanied by a ton of CO2 actually sequestered, at the time of sale.

      I suspect we would see a dramatic fall in the number of new licenses.

  • 5 October 2023 at 2:04pm
    Graucho says:
    There is income and there is capital. When capital is gone, it's gone, so in sensibly run affairs capital is spent with great thought, caution and usually in order to reduce costs and or increase income. Income comes in 24/7 you can't get enough of it. In energy terms, the hydrocarbons in the ground. oil/coal/gas are capital and renewables are income. Over the past century the human race has been burning through its energy capital like drunken sailors. It's no way to run things. Climate arguments aside using our energy capital to maximise our energy income is simply good management. Wind, hydro, tidal, solar and so on. Just do it.

    • 5 October 2023 at 4:04pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Graucho
      Well put. I would add nuclear to your 'and so on' - in case you did not mentally include it. I know technically it counts as capital, but it is a very deep reservoir if one includes breeder reactors.

  • 13 October 2023 at 11:15am
    John Hackett says:
    "Net zero" is such a pernicious term. We blow the budget for a 50:50 chance of 1.5C in less than 8 years. 2C will be 13 years, because global emissions are *still* rising year on year.

    What net zero allows us to do is rationalise plans - including the IPCC's net zero 2050 plans - based on assumptions about the performance of technologies that don't exist yet.

    Some other commenters have said that we wouldn't survive if we cut fossil fuel use. That is an absurd argument: to the extent to which we need fossil fuels, we should use them until they can be replaced. Fertilisers are a reasonable example of this. Cars, oil and gas for heating, cement and concrete production, and plastics are generally good examples of things we needed to stop using fossil fuels for yesterday. There are viable, existent alternatives for all these things. Some may require fossil fuels in their production, but embodied emissions for the alternatives are usually a fraction of the operational emissions of business as usual.

    It is a terrible thing, being green - it is being Cassandra but knowing nobody's fate is sealed if enough people would just act.

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