OPINION: The World Petroleum Congress highlighted the wide range of opinions that persist inside the oil and gas industry about how to approach the energy transition.
There are still those who argue there would be chaos without fossil fuels, along with others, such as BP, who accept production cuts must start immediately.
In between are most industry players, who believe the primary argument is over how rapidly oil and gas runs down and how much carbon capture and hydrogen can slow this trajectory.
At the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston last week there was greater focus on energy poverty than those countries fearing they could disappear underwater without massive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.
But then this was the 23rd WPC — not the United Nations’ COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, which last month ran through the different scenarios of not meeting the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
There was less talk of Paris in Texas, but the world’s oil and gas leaders did devote plenty of attention to the industry's energy transition.
Energy transition centre stage
The words “energy transition” were centre stage — in contrast to the previous WPC held in Istanbul four years ago, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was symbolic that on the first day of the Houston event, Darren Woods, chief executive of US industry leader ExxonMobil, called climate change “one of the most important conversations of our time”.
Woods then went on to claim that even under net-zero carbon scenarios, oil and gas would play a “significant role in meeting society’s needs.”
It was left to Saudi Aramco chief executive Amin Nasser to raise the real banner of fossil fuel defiance by warning that policymakers risked “energy insecurity, rampant inflation and social unrest” by trying to curb oil and gas prematurely.
Frustrations were expressed in the room that oil companies had been marginalised and officially kept out of the COP26 discussions in Glasgow.
US pivot criticised
The anger was particularly acute over US President Joe Biden's pivot away from the pro-oil position of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
US delegates at the Congress criticised US government refusal to sanction pipeline projects and some drilling permits only to now call for more oil and gas output to halt soaring energy prices.
Meanwhile, Mark Little, chief executive of Canada’s Suncor Energy, lamented that many people do not realise oil-based products are baked into the very fabric of modern life.
Surely, then, the oil industry has more work to do in educating the public.
Many WPC delegates argued the world needs the financial firepower, project experience and realistic thinking of oil companies if it is to execute a successful energy transition.
Yet for this sentiment to break out of the conference hall, it will take tactful communication as well as financial investment in green projects.
Aramco might have brought the red-meat message to Houston, but anger won’t open up access or win the public debate.
It is better to listen to Michael Wirth, chief executive of Chevron, who urged his fellow industrialists to bring “optimism” to the party.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)