Oil and gas companies step into the spotlight at COP28

Senior Global Correspondent
An exterior photo of a giant exhibition hall in Dubai, with posters for COP28 outside.
COP28 attendees walk down one of the main pathways in the sprawling Expo City complex, which is larger than Central Park. Photo by Bill Spindle.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The fossil fuel industry took center stage during the first half of the United Nations climate conference, making pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in anticipation of a second half where the long-term viability of their core products will be questioned as never before.

The summit comes after a year of controversy over the host country, the United Arab Emirates, appointing the chief executive of its national oil and gas company to lead the world’s most prominent global conference to address climate change. And the conference, known this year as COP28, is taking place during what will be the hottest year on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

About 75% of greenhouse gases come from fossil fuels. The COP28 president, Sultan Al Jaber, who led the country’s renewable energy initiatives before becoming head of one of the world’s largest national oil companies, argued that is one of the reasons the oil and gas industry should have a more prominent voice in how to reduce emissions stemming from fossil fuel use.

Climate activists, environmental groups and countries pushing for major reductions in fossil fuel use have loudly objected to increased involvement from the oil and gas sector. They point to the industry’s history of downplaying, and before that even denying, the role fossil fuels play in creating the emissions that are causing the planet to warm.

With the UAE’s encouragement, more oil and gas companies and executives than ever before have joined the 100,000 delegates attending the conference. CEO Darren Woods became the first head of Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest private oil and gas company, to attend a COP meeting. National oil companies — the state-owned giants that produce the bulk of the world’s oil — attended en force.

Check out more of Cipher’s COP28 coverage here and here.

The conference avoided a major tussle between wealthy and poorer countries at the start when the two sides quickly agreed to compromise in launching a special fund to pay for damage from climate change impacts in the poorer countries. Wealthy countries pledged to put more than $700 million into the fund to start. That is a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars that will ultimately be needed, but the agreement launched the fund and allowed the conference to move on to other business.

From there, the oil and gas industry entered the limelight with several initiatives aimed at cleaning up the greenhouse gas emissions that come directly from the extraction and distribution of their products. As critics have pointed out, this set of emissions is far less than the emissions from the actual burning of the oil and gas after companies sell it.

Exxon and Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, the world’s largest state-owned oil and gas company, led a pledge by 50 producers to cut emissions from their own operations. More than half of the group were national oil companies, some of the most resistant to climate commitments in the past but also the hardest to police since they’re owned by governments that depend on their revenues.

Most significantly, the group set a goal of eliminating emissions of methane from their operations. Methane, the main component of natural gas and often a byproduct released during oil production, causes 80 times more warming effect than carbon dioxide and is responsible for about 30 percent of the current rise in global temperatures. But the gas — which is also emitted by cultivated rice fields, landfills and cattle burps — goes away in about two decades, compared to about a century for carbon dioxide.

Thus, rapid reductions in methane emissions are seen as one of the easiest, least expensive and most effective ways to address global warming in the near term. China, during a recent summit between its leader Xi Jinping and United States president Joe Biden, said it would include a methane reduction target in its next climate plan.

“This is such a moment for methane,” said TJ Conway, an analyst who follows the oil and gas industry for the climate advocacy group RMI. “It’s reinforced just how significant a role methane can play in reducing emissions, now, this decade.”

Many oil and gas companies around the world still deliberately release methane byproduct into the air directly or burn the gas as it comes out of the ground, releasing carbon dioxide, because that’s cheaper than containing it.

The gas also leaks from oil and gas pipelines and refineries — not only polluting the atmosphere but also depriving producers of potential revenue.

New tools have emerged to detect methane leaks, including satellite and hand-held detectors, and governments have started cracking down. The Biden administration this week said it would require oil and gas companies to find and seal leaks and penalize them for violations.

Environmental groups and climate activists worry oil and gas companies, especially those outside of the U.S. and Europe or with less cash than the super-majors, will fall short of their non-binding commitments at COP.

The flurry of announcements from the industry was at least partly aimed at blunting an unprecedented push for the eventual elimination of fossil fuel use. The drive has been led by the European Union group of nations and small island states, the latter of which are existentially threatened by sea level rise caused by global warming.

António Guterres, the secretary-general of the UN, told delegates on Saturday that the world must “phase out” fossil fuels. And a speech read on behalf of Pope Francis, who cancelled plans to attend COP28 on the eve of the conference due to illness, called for the “elimination” of fossil fuels. U.S. climate envoy Kerry has called for a phase out of “unabated” fossil fuels, meaning those where emissions are not removed at the time they are burned.

Many major fossil fuel producers say ending fossil fuels is unnecessary and phasing them out would cripple economic growth, especially in low and middle-income countries. China, the world’s largest consumer of oil and gas, has called the idea “unrealistic.” COP28 president Al Jaber told attendees at a meeting prior to COP that there was not scientific evidence to support phasing out fossil fuels as a climate solution. He has said elsewhere the eventual phasing down of fossil fuels is “inevitable” and even “desirable” as clean energy sources grow over time.

Al Jaber and the UAE have pushed for a global commitment to tripling renewable energy, a pledge at least 123 countries have signed.

A study by climate scientists released at COP concluded keeping global warming to the manageable levels the international community is targeting will require a “rapid and managed fossil fuel phase-out.”

The oil and gas industry also touts a technology known as carbon capture, which can separate greenhouse gases from fossil fuel emissions. The process is expensive and largely unproven at the scale where it would make a difference in addressing climate change. Nonetheless, oil and gas companies have a huge pipeline of these projects in development and governments from the U.S. to Japan are pouring huge subsidies into the technology.

Even some skeptics say the technology will be needed to pull residual carbon dioxide lingering in the atmosphere and to compensate for some industries and processes that are too costly and difficult to decarbonize. Experts stress, though, that the tech is not a license for oil and gas companies to continue status quo drilling for their products.

Much of the second half of the conference, which is scheduled to end on December 12, will be devoted to debating whether and how much fossil fuel use needs to be curtailed to try to stay below the 2 degree Celsius warming the global community set as an upper limit target at the 21st COP in Paris in 2015.

“What’s clear is there needs to be an outcome about fossil fuels for sure,” said Lisa Fischer, program lead for energy issues at the climate advocacy group E3G. “And there’s quite a lot of pressure on Al Jaber and others to do to this.”