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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From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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