Oil Companies Are Thinking About a Low-Carbon Future, but Aren’t Making Big Investments in It Yet
The global oil industry stands at a crossroads. Corporate leaders are weighing how closely to stay wedded to their legacy business – finding, extracting and refining fossil energy – versus preparing for an uncertain low-carbon future.
There are signs of an impending pivot. Most of the largest multinational oil companies have formally supported the Paris climate agreement. Total has purchased electric power company DirectEnergie and charging solutions provider G2Mobility. Shell has acquired e-mobility company NewMotion; its CEO, Ben van Beurden, has expressed support for a zero-carbon world target.
The companies least willing to shift focus today tend to be national companies and nationally owned firms, such as those in Kuwait and Venezuela. Such companies control nearly 90% of all the oil in the world. However, some, such as Saudi Aramco, are looking at a range of green projects including solar, carbon capture and hydrogen.
As transportation/energy scholars, we are most interested in decisions by major private oil companies that are subject to greater public pressure. What should shareholders expect from these companies? And what can policymakers do to encourage further investment in more sustainable options? Oil companies clearly are thinking about a low-carbon future, but many are still exploring ways to get there.
Opportunities in Transportation and Renewables
Discussions about Big Oil's interest in sustainability center on continued global demand for petroleum. Industry and independent scenarios anticipate rising oil use until at least 2040, though at a slowing pace.
These predictions contrast starkly with calls to limit climate change to a 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Farenheit) increase above pre-industrial levels. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other expert analyses have shown, to reach that goal, oil use will likely have to peak around 2030, then decline to much lower levels by 2050.
However, large oil companies also have a leg up on the competition when it comes to creating infrastructure for some low-carbon fuels. Since they are essentially massive engineering companies, they have an advantage in the areas of hydrogen fuels and carbon capture and sequestration, which offer new uses for existing fossil fuel infrastructure. For example, hydrogen can be made from natural gas and transported along traditional pipelines and shipping routes.
In contrast, solar generation, batteries, onshore wind and nuclear power do not offer oil companies the same structural or expertise advantages. Thus shifting into these new areas may be seen as problematic.
Any Pivot Will Take Time
Oil companies cannot change course overnight, even if policymakers want them to. They must be responsive to shareholders in making such moves.
An analysis by the Carbon Disclosure Project shows that investor-owned oil companies currently are spending 1% to 4% of their capital investment on low-carbon energy sources, while national oil companies average a mere 1%. These numbers must increase significantly for the industry to claim any real pivot is occurring.
Proportion of oil company capital expenditures invested in low-carbon energy from 2010 to the first quarter of 2018. Fletcher et al., Beyond the cycle (London: CDP, 2018)., CC BY-ND
Shareholders Speak Up
Numerous reports have described climate-related shareholder resolutions at oil and gas companies. But many such resolutions initiated in the last five years have failed a vote, and the number of actions declined from 2016 to 2018.
Still, these efforts led to increased discussion of climate-related concerns between shareholders and management. The recent uptick in corporate climate strategy and investments undoubtedly reflects investor interest, societal pressure, the public policy environment and the growing competitiveness of other technologies. The question is how much change can emerge without much stronger signals from one or more of these sources.
Action and Inaction Both Have Risks
Big Oil must consider not only the economic advantages of investing in clean energy, but also the financial risk of pursuing a fossil energy source strategy rather than diversifying.
Several scientific studies have shown that nearly 85% of remaining fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels. When the first peer-reviewed article making this case was published in a major journal in 2009, oil company stock values fell by more than 2% over the next two weeks. This amounted to a shareholder loss of $16.5 billion.
Fossil fuel companies have underperformed the broader S&P index in recent years. This trend is led by U.S. coal companies, which have lost 80% of their value since 2007.
Investors plan to triple fossil fuel divestment rates over the next decade https://t.co/cZsdFBZZ8y— Divest Ed (@divesteddotorg) October 16, 2019
Each oil company will address climate change pressures in its own way. Some with resources to develop in-house renewable energy expertise will do so. More likely, however, we expect that large companies like Total and Shell will continue to purchase smaller companies that have the strategic know-how to help them make the switch.
On a positive note, oil companies are increasing their low-carbon investments each year. While they are starting from a low baseline, rapid growth rates suggest that with sustained commitment, they could be quite large within a decade. For example, Total and BP each are prepared to spend $500 million per year on renewables over the next several decades. Total expects to grow its low-carbon business to 20% of its asset base over the next 20 years.
Ultimately, however, investment strategy will always be driven by expected returns. If available oil and gas investments have an expected return of 15% and low-carbon investments are only expected to make 7%, money will likely continue to flow towards fossil fuels. Changing this reality will require major market and pricing shifts, which may have to be driven by government policies such as carbon taxes.
A Pale-Green Forecast
Our discussions suggest that companies are interested and feel compelled to explore their options, but there is no clear road map for transforming them into low-carbon energy providers.
Some observers might conclude that oil and gas companies' limited investments to date in low-carbon technology and business ventures are hindering this transition. Others may view any such investments as a plus, so long as these investments grow and companies don't simultaneously advocate against policies to reduce emissions.
We believe it is vital for the energy industry and climate stakeholders to continue this conversation, and to identify policy changes that can make it economically advantageous for oil companies to pursue low-carbon futures.
Lewis Fulton is co-director of STEPS (Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways) at the University of California, Davis.
Daniel Spurling is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.
Disclosure statements: Lewis Fulton directs a research group that receives consortium funding from transportation and energy companies, government agencies that fund or regulate transportation agencies and companies, and private foundations engaged with mobility issues.
Daniel Sperling receives funding from government agencies that fund or regulate transportation agencies and companies, and private foundations engaged with mobility issues. He is a board member with the California Air Resources Board.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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