HOUSTON—The past 12 months brought new climate extremes, with Pakistan’s devastating floods and record-melting of Antarctica’s sea ice as just two examples. But when the world’s top oil executives gathered for an annual conference in Houston this week, they were focused instead on the war in Ukraine and the painful reminder it delivered of the global economy’s persistent dependence on oil and gas.
Many global leaders and climate scientists have seen this stubborn “addiction” to fossil fuels as an urgent call to rapidly phase out their use. The message from many oil and gas executives in Houston was the opposite.
“I think the issue of how we best move toward a lower carbon energy system is getting reframed,” said Mike Wirth, chief executive of Chevron, which recorded a record-high $36.5 billion profit last year.
Wirth was the first executive to speak Monday at CERAWeek by S&P Global, the annual industry conference focused on energy markets, geopolitics and technology. Over the last year, he said, energy costs and security were finally getting proper attention, alongside climate change. “I think the discussion is moving to a more balanced state. I hope it is,” Wirth said.
Hours later, Mike Sommers, head of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top lobby group, referred to this same goal of delivering energy that is affordable, reliable and clean.
“For too long we’ve been talking about only one of those legs of the stool,” he said, referring to cutting emissions. “I think Washington has started to wake up to the fact that we need to talk about the other two as well.”
On Tuesday, Ryan Lance, chief executive of ConocoPhillips, which is awaiting a decision from the Biden administration on whether it can drill a major oil project in Alaska’s Arctic, continued the theme.
“It’s finally becoming reality after the Ukraine invasion, the need for energy security,” he said, speaking in front of more than a thousand people packed into a soaring ballroom, where heavy air conditioning removed any hints of the humid Houston air.
The war, Lance said, has “really balanced and tipped the equation back probably in a more appropriate proportion.”
The executives’ comments stood in stark contrast to recent calls from political leaders and activists. In January, former-Vice President Al Gore gave an impassioned speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he scolded the oil and gas industry for obstructing climate action and called on leaders to act faster, saying, “We are still failing badly.”
Last month, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres told the General Assembly that this “must be a year of game-changing climate action.” After a year of record oil profits, he called for “No more greenwashing. No more bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.”
Some executives at the conference struck different tones. Bernard Looney, chief executive of BP, discussed his company’s partnership with Hertz, the car rental company, to build an electric vehicle charging network. While the oil company recently scaled back its climate ambitions somewhat, it still stands apart from other major multinationals with its plan to reduce oil and gas production 25 percent below 2019 levels by 2030.
Darren Woods, ExxonMobil’s chief executive, warned against putting too high a priority on energy security, saying the world could cut climate emissions and address security at the same time. Woods spent much of his talk covering Exxon’s efforts to reduce its own emissions and to invest in technologies like carbon capture and storage and hydrogen. But he did not back away Exxon’s plans to increase oil and gas production.
Robert Schuwerk, North American executive director of the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a climate-focused financial think tank, said in an interview at the conference that while the oil industry finally recognizes the world is transitioning to cleaner energy, “the magnitude of the problem is not being fully ingested.”
Most oil companies remain focused on less proven technologies, Schuwerk said, like carbon capture and storage or clean hydrogen production, even as renewable energy and electrification are already upending their businesses. These ventures remain dogged by questions about their viability and effectiveness. Carbon capture has failed to catch on commercially due to high costs, for example, and even if global capacity were to increase by a factor of 10, it would still only cut the world’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 1 percent.
Woods, however, has used carbon capture technology to argue that his company need not reduce its fossil fuel production in order to cut emissions.
“We’ve got to stay focused on the fact that emissions is the issue the world needs to address,” Woods said, not oil and gas themselves. He said the company plans to spend about $17 billion through 2027 on this and other low-carbon technologies, like biofuels and hydrogen, out of total planned capital spending of $100-$125 billion over that period.
Others were more plain-spoken.
“Our strategy is to stay as oily as we can for as long as we can,” said Rick Muncrief, chief executive of Devon Energy.
Natural gas is “here to stay,” said Jack Fusco, the head of Cheniere Energy, the country’s largest producer of liquified natural gas.
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CERAWeek is like a giant reunion for the energy industry, where thousands of executives, analysts and others pay big money to spend five days listening to panels, mixing over meals and treating clients to excursions to the Houston Rodeo. Technology and clean energy have grown in prominence in recent years—a low carbon-focused wing of the conference featured models of hydrogen engines and methane-monitoring drones. But the main “plenary” events remain dominated by the incumbent industry.
And if the grand narrative from those plenary sessions was that the world needs more American oil and gas, the moral of the story was about permitting reform.
Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat, tried last year to pass legislation that would speed the nation’s permitting of pipelines, transmission lines and other energy projects, but the bill failed.
On Monday, John Podesta, the senior White House climate adviser, told the industry that permitting reform was a top issue for the Biden administration this year, adding that, “we’ll need your help to get it over the finish line.” His talk, however, focused largely on electric transmission and clean energy projects.
Hours later, the petroleum institute’s Sommers made clear that oil and gas would need to benefit, too.
“I think you’re going to continue to hear throughout this conference that there is a consensus that we need to get this done,” Sommers said, “and get it done soon.”
Permitting reform did come up in discussion after discussion, merging with the argument that oil and gas are not the problem, but can actually be part of the solution to climate change.
One of the boldest voices in that effort has been Toby Rice, the head of EQT, the nation’s largest gas producer. During one panel, Rice called his company’s goal to export more natural gas abroad the world’s “biggest green initiative,” arguing it would help lower global emissions by displacing coal burned in Asia for power generation. (While gas does burn cleaner than coal, it still emits carbon dioxide when burned, and its production and transmission also releases methane, which is about 85 times more powerful a climate pollutant than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.)
The gas industry doesn’t need government funding, he said. “The only thing we do need to make this happen is we need to build these pipes faster than we’ve ever built them before.”