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Oil Giants, Under Fire From Climate Activists and Investors, Mount a Defense

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Oil Giants, Under Fire From Climate Activists and Investors, Mount a Defense

From the deck of a boat in New York Harbor, Equinor's chief executive glanced sideways at a stretch of sea where his oil company would soon build a giant wind farm. "We are doing everything we can" to combat climate change, said executive Eldar Saetre.

Hours later, at a hotel where Saetre and fellow oil executives were gathering to defend their industry – a major contributor to global warming – climate protesters were not buying. Using lights, they projected “MAKE BIG OIL PAYMENT” on the facade.

On Monday, when world leaders met at the UN climate summit and discussed the urgency of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, 13 of the world's largest fossil fuel companies presented his defense in a forum across the city. But most of its proposals seemed designed to perpetuate oil and gas use in the coming decades rather than make the rapid transition to cleaner options.

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The companies have pledged a program to invest in technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the air, although there are still big questions about increasing this technology. They also pledged to reduce leaks from methane, a potent greenhouse gas from wells and pipelines, and reaffirmed support for an oil, gas and coal burning tax.

"The change that needs to take place – the trillions of dollars in investment – will only come from companies with resources and scale," said Ben van Beurden, chief executive of Shell.

“This is certainly a first step. It is an advance. But this is a time when we need a Hail Mary pass, not these modest steps, ”said Andrew Logan, senior director of oil and gas at Ceres, which works with investors to deal with the impact of climate change on their properties.

According to the United Nations, oil and gas production needs to fall by about 20 percent by 2030 and nearly 55 percent by 2050 to prevent Earth's temperature from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. This is the goal set by the 2015 Paris Accord, a historic agreement among most nations of the world to combat global warming.

Yet, carbon tracker think tank new data indicates that since 2018 major oil companies have invested at least $ 50 billion in fossil fuel projects – such as Shell's $ 13 billion liquefied natural gas project in Canada and BP, Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Equinor's $ 4.3 billion deepwater oil project in Azerbaijan – which would not invest to be financially viable if the world reaches the 1.5 degree target.

Meanwhile, the world's largest energy companies last year devoted only 1% of their capital investment to low carbon energy sources, a separate study from the Carbon Disclosure Project found. Equinor, among the best companies, invested only about 2% of its investment in renewable energy; Exxon Mobil's investment in renewable energy was one fifth of one percent.

With renewable energy prices such as wind and solar falling faster than the most optimistic projections, the thinking behind supporting new oil and gas exploration has begun to erode. "You may feel there was anguish in the room," said Jules Kortenhorst, chief executive of the Rocky Mountain Institute of Energy Thinking, which attended a Sunday cocktail for executives. "I think they are struggling to reconcile in their minds what that means for the industry."

Oil companies are not just facing protesters' questions. Investors are pushing them to make a faster transition to renewable energy, and some are divesting of oil and gas.

Fossil fuel companies face lawsuits that seek billions of dollars in compensation for the damage caused by climate change. Even the pope insisted, warning oil executives that energy use should not "destroy civilization." The recent attack on Saudi Arabia's largest oil refinery has highlighted the vulnerability of oil and gas to geopolitical shocks.

At the historic Morgan Library in New York City on Monday, the 13 oil companies announced a "billion dollar" investment in carbon capture technologies while refusing to be more specific. The idea behind this technology is to capture the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is a major contributor to global warming because, when it is in the atmosphere, it helps trap sunlight.

“Our industry has gone through transitions over the decades. I do not see this as a threat. It's an evolution, ”said Darren Woods, Exxon's chief executive. "We know from past experience that evolution is typically driven by technology," he said.

In practice, however, important questions remain about the scale, cost, speed, and energy requirements of the technology. In a report from last year, the European Academy's Science Advisory Board said carbon removal offers only "limited realistic potential" to make a climate impact, and its authors argue that the world should not rely on removal technologies to compensate for a reduction or elimination failure. emissions first, put.

Oil companies have also made a concerted effort to plug methane leaks. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the short term. But there are concerns that methane emissions are much higher than official estimates. The leaks undermine the energy industry's argument that natural gas burning should be encouraged because it is cleaner than coal and can serve as a "bridge fuel" between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

Industry support for a carbon tax raised hopes for a plan that could fight climate change by putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. A proposal to the United States would set an initial tax of $ 40 per tonne of carbon dioxide produced and raise the price over time.

Still, this plan also calls for climate change regulations in companies to be reversed, angering some climate activists.

Before the weather week, 200 big investors managing $ 6.5 trillion in assets also demanded that companies stop lobbying for climate-damaging policies, directly and through their business groups. For example, while major oil companies, such as Exxon Mobil and Shell, have publicly warned against a Trump government decision to end methane emissions regulations, powerful industry lobby groups still support the plan.

Similarly, while oil companies were largely silent about the Trump administration's plan to weaken car emission standards, an oil industry group lobbied behind the scenes in support.

Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief, told the assembled chief executives that they have the power "to preach the coffin of global efforts or to be the industry to provide the solution."

She added: “On January 1, 2051, I don't think you have a business unless you got one of two things,” she said: either a new “completely fossil-free” business model or a technology that makes the use of fossil fuels free of emissions.

Equinor may be among the closest to making an energy transformation. In recent months, it has won contracts for two of the world's largest wind energy projects – one off the coast of New York and one on the North Sea. By 2030, he says, up to 20% of his capital spending will be on renewable energy.

At the same time, however, Equinor intends to continue drilling oil.

"I think young people see that we are moving too slowly to deal with climate change," said Saetre, the company's chief executive. Although renewable sources and carbon capture are needed, he said: "We will need oil and gas for a long time. It has to be developed. We need to find more oil and gas."

For more climate and environmental news, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

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