Transformational potential for climate change mitigation

A broad review and some specific implications for the oil and gas sector.

Stephen B. Harrison

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Article Summary

Non-linear, non-reversible, unpredictable trajectory calls for widespread, urgent action. The pace of climate change is exponential and many of its effects will be irreversible. The thawing tundra in Siberia is generating a layer of dry combustible material on the forest floor — tinder for wild-fires that destroy beneficial trees and generate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions with no useful energy capture.

Due to climate change, flooding, drought, and starvation will be inevitable, as will increased levels of poverty in many locations. Both Madagascar and Zambia are reporting their worst droughts in over 40 years, with consequential food shortages, famine, and thousands of premature deaths. The finger of blame is clearly pointing at climate change and urgent action is required to reduce CO2, methane, and F-Gas emissions from many industrial sectors, including oil and gas processing.

There are enough solutions out there to create hope and enable the positive changes that are required. COP26 must be a platform to raise awareness of the issues, stimulate education about the solutions, and propose policy frameworks that stimulate implementation and international collaboration.

Price of prevention is less than the cost of catastrophe
The business case for prevention is clear at a conceptual level, and a myriad of technologies exists. Many can readily be implemented if there is enough inspirational corporate action, the right regulatory environment, and visionary political leadership. COP26 is the platform where the consequences of climate change must be presented impactfully and effectively. And the outcomes from the meeting must be transformative, collaborative, international solutions for immediate implementation. There is a price to be borne, but failure to act will cost the earth.

Policy leadership ahead of COP26 is coming from several directions. As an example, India could force oil refineries and urea fertiliser plants to use green hydrogen as a portion of their hydrogen production under draft plans sent for cabinet approval by the Indian Government’s Power and Renewable Energy minister, RK Singh. This is proposed as the first stage of a national plan to secure a leading role for green hydrogen in the energy transition.

Methane emissions reduction has also been in focus in the run up to COP26. On behalf of the European Union and the United States, European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and President Biden used the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) to announce the ‘Global Methane Pledge’ on the 18th of September. It will be launched at COP 26 in November, in Glasgow. Several other nations have already signalled their support, and countries joining the Global Methane Pledge will commit to a collective goal of reducing global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

To monitor and implement progress, countries that have committed to the pledge must move towards best available inventory methodologies to quantify methane emissions, with a particular focus on high emission sources. Delivering on the Pledge would reduce warming by at least 0.2°C by 2050. Major sources of methane emissions include oil and gas, coal, agriculture and landfills. Of these sectors, the greatest potential for short-term methane abatement by 2030 is within the energy sector.

Oil and gas sector can rise to the challenge
Energy usage in industrial, domestic and transportation is responsible for an overwhelming proportion of greenhouse gas emissions. The oil and gas sector is fundamentally an energy business, and it will therefore be integral to the transformation to climate neutral energy vectors and efforts to minimise the impact of fossil fuel usage.

Conversion of natural gas to blue hydrogen and low carbon ammonia or methanol is one value chain that the midstream and downstream sectors are in pole position to lead. But methane emissions must ruthlessly be eliminated. Additionally, CO2 released with methane from the reservoir and CO2 generated from the energy requirements of gas processing and liquefaction must also be mitigated.

Blue hydrogen relies on capturing the CO2 that is released from the reforming process chemistry and capturing the post-combustion CO2 emissions from the fired burner that is used to generate the heat energy, which is required to drive the reforming reactions forwards towards hydrogen production. Whether the CO2 is then utilised or sent for permanent underground storage or mineralisation is of secondary importance — the first stage of the process relies on carbon capture.

There may be latent concerns about classical CCS with underground CO2 storage, but the idea of CCS as 'Carbon Capture and Something' begins to turn the focus towards capturing the carbon, thus leaving the next steps open. At the very least that approach may get some traction behind carbon capture, whilst the debate about the long-term storage mechanism can take place in parallel to constructive action.

Displacement of coal fired power generation with pipeline natural gas or LNG is another area where the midstream sector will most likely be busy for the coming decades. LNG can connect energy producers and consumers. Through its transportability it creates international inter-dependence and stimulates trade. Amongst the range of clean energy vectors, such as low carbon hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol, all fall short of LNG when it comes to volumetric energy density, which is the important factor for long-distance shipping.

Whilst the CO2 emissions at the power plant from gas fired electricity generation are significantly less than coal, only a tiny amount of methane leakage would give the gas fired option an equally damaging greenhouse gas footprint. It is essential to consider the full lifecycle analysis of fuels production, distribution, and utilisation.

Going underground
CCS is also an established technology. In Europe, more than 20 years ago, Equinor commenced capture and sequestration of CO2 on the Sleipner West field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. The components of a CCS scheme, from the absorption tower to the multi-stage CO2 compressor with integrated drying system, are highly developed. Beyond Norway, CCS has also been used in Australia, Canada and the United States for many years.

The use of safe, permanent underground CO2 storage in saline aquifers, depleted oil and gas reserves for CCS schemes is an area where midstream and upstream operators can rise to the decarbonisation challenge. The expertise that has been used to explore and drill for oil and gas can be applied to developing CCS reservoirs. Furthermore, the associated pipeline transmission infrastructure is likely to be adaptable to become the backbone of a CO2 disposal network.

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