The fossil fuel industry has a long history of malfeasance but their misapplication of carbon capture may be their most audacious disinformation ploy to date. As explained in an Energy Transitions Commission report, carbon technology is being ‘co-opted’ by fossil-fuel companies so they can keep extracting oil and gas.
While carbon capture is a critical part of a suite of climate solutions, petrostates, and the hydrocarbon industry are asking the technology to do the impossible. According to a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report, emissions need to fall by 60 percent in the coming years, and to do this we need a rapid and substantial change to the energy sector which is responsible for two-thirds of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs), most of which are attributable to fossil fuels. According to the report, to reach net zero emissions by 2050, oil and gas use must decline by 75 percent.
The carbon capture gambit
Carbon removal is being positioned as a justification to extract more hydrocarbons. Petrostates are banking on the technology to meet their 2050 carbon neutrality targets, this is particularly true for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the host country for the 2023 climate conference known as COP 28.
Early this year, Climate Change News quoted a speech that the UAE’s environment minister Mariam bint Mohammed Almheiri delivered at the Munich Security Conference. Almheiri made it clear that the UAE has no intention of reducing production, instead, he is calling for the decarbonization of oil and gas. Ahmed Al Jaber, an oil industry CEO and the COP 28 president, shares the dangerously erroneous view that carbon removal technologies justify increasing production.
As Ben Rubin, Executive Director of the Carbon Business Council said: “Carbon Removal is cemented as a crucial pillar of climate action.” While we need to massively scale carbon capture, the IPCC indicates that these technological solutions are required in addition to phasing out hydrocarbons. So, while carbon capture is an essential part of our efforts to reduce emissions, it is not a replacement for phasing out fossil fuels.
The oil industry’s support for carbon capture is self-serving. They are promoting carbon technologies as a climate solution to refurbish their image so that they can retain their social license to operate.
Malpractice and greed
To contextualize the fossil fuel industry’s cynical use of carbon capture, we need to understand the impacts hydrocarbons have on people and the planet. The burning of oil, gas, and coal kills millions every year and the emissions they generate are the primary cause of climate change, which if left unchecked will augur the collapse of civilization.
The fossil fuel industry raked in a record-breaking $4 trillion in 2022 and 2023 is on track to earn them even more. A recent study by Climate Analytics found that the world’s 12 biggest oil companies are reaping massive profits while causing immense planetary harm. They made $21 trillion in profits from their operations between 1985 and 2018 and they are responsible for $15 trillion in climate damages. Worse still, these costs are growing. Given our current trajectory, these damages will reach $1.7 trillion per year in 2025 and 30 trillion per year in 2075. The report also chronicles the fossil fuel majors’ lies and disinformation, as well as their toll on vulnerable communities and developing nations.
Methane flaring deception
The fossil fuel industry’s track record on methane illustrates its hypocrisy and duplicity. The industry is responsible for more than 60 percent of methane emissions which trap 87 times more heat than carbon. The industry has pledged to reduce flaring but these commitments do not comport with their action.
Many oil majors do not report methane and when they do it is commonly underreported. The UAE did not report its methane emissions for more than a decade, but independent reports indicate that the country has fallen far short of its promise to zero out routine methane flaring. According to a satellite data report prepared for the Guardian by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea), between 2018 and 2023, ADNOC, the UAE’s state-owned oil and gas company, released around 2.5 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere due to flaring. This is more than the UAE’s total carbon capture capacity which will be 2.3 million tons once it finishes building out planned carbon removal infrastructure.
The EOR and CCU scams
Big Oil played a decisive role in pioneering carbon removal technologies through its investments in both carbon capture and utilization (CCU) and carbon capture utilization and sequestration (CCUS). CCU makes fuel from captured carbon while CCUS is used in enhanced oil recovery (EOR) which injects captured carbon into existing wells to increase the amount of oil or gas that can be extracted.
According to an analysis by Michael Barnard, the chief strategist at TFIE Strategies, 74 percent of large CCS facilities (14 of 19) have used captured carbon for EOR. Tyndall Centre research indicates that 81 percent of carbon captured is used for EOR. Using captured carbon for EOR more than doubles the amount of oil or gas that can be extricated from an extraction site. CCU and EOR are touted as climate solutions, but these are examples of greenwashing designed to create the false impression of clean fuel.
Although oil produced from EOR sequesters small quantities of carbon and slightly reduces the CO2 emissions per barrel of oil, these numbers are dwarfed by the amount of GHGs generated from increased production. EOR emits CO2 in the extraction process, but the bulk of emissions come from the burning of fuel in power generation, heating, and vehicles. Barnard’s analysis reveals that synthetic fuels made from captured carbon have higher carbon emissions and are much more expensive than the alternatives.
Occidental wants to scale a form of carbon capture known as direct air capture (DAC). They plan to build 100 plants and use the captured carbon to make more fuel. To this end, Occidental purchased DAC firm Carbon Engineering. As Barnard explained in a Clean Technica article, pumping more oil has always been Carbon Engineering’s game plan. EOR remains the single biggest market for CO2 today. Occidental Petroleum CEO, Vicki Hollub explained she wants to use DAC to continue extracting fossil fuels for another ‘80 years’.
The UAE and other petrostates are talking a lot about carbon capture, what they are not saying is that they intend to use the captured carbon to increase production. As reported by Al-Monitor, a 2021 study by the UAE’s International Renewable Energy Agency, concluded that while CCUS has a role to play, it should not be used as a tool to justify extracting oil gas, and coal. Climate action is incompatible with ramping up fossil fuels, if we use captured carbon to extract more hydrocarbons it will push us past upper-temperature warming thresholds (1.5-2C above preindustrial norms).
The COP process and fossil fuel influence
Carbon capture has become increasingly prominent at the UN’s annual Conference of the Parties (COP) climate meetings in the last few years. At COP 26, Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) announced its mission and at COP 27, CDR unveiled the Launchpad sprint project. There were dozens of carbon removal events at COP 27 including the formal release of the 2030 Breakthroughs which includes carbon removals.
While COP 27 produced a historic agreement on Loss and Damage, delegates could not agree on a clear definition of carbon removal, so conference parties were invited to submit their views on Article VI of the Paris Agreement. Alongside renewables and climate finance, carbon removal has been moved to the top of the COP 28 agenda.
The fossil fuel industry is using its influence over the COP process to focus on carbon capture and move away from science-based efforts to phase out hydrocarbons. At COP 27 petrostates derailed an attempt by more than 80 countries to agree on a phase-down of oil and gas. The crowning achievement of the fossil fuel industry’s malfeasance is the brazen hijacking of COP 28. They have coopted the narrative with a craven misapplication of carbon capture to justify the unjustifiable.
Most insiders say It is exceedingly unlikely we will see a phase-down of oil and gas at COP 28, let alone planning for a phase-out. As described by Jean Su, from the Center for Biological Diversity, the fossil fuel industry has “outsized influence” adding, “the (COP) process is broken.”
The COP 28 decarbonization ruse
COP 28 is at the center of a multipronged campaign to switch the narrative from phasing out fossil fuels, to phasing out fossil fuel emissions. The hosts of COP 28 claim they want to decarbonize hydrocarbons by zeroing out emissions with carbon capture. The fact is they are unable to decarbonize the extraction and refining of oil and gas, let alone capture all the emissions that emanate from burning fossil fuels. The oil majors know that they are asking the impossible of carbon technologies, but they are using it to create a false pretext to justify their existence.
Decarbonizing the oil and gas industry is just the latest ruse. Although Al Jaber wants us to believe that oil companies are reliable partners, decades of lies and corruption make it impossible for thinking people to trust them. The fossil fuel industry has known that its core business activity is a threat to planetary health for decades, yet it unleashed wave after wave of sophisticated disinformation campaigns to deny climate change or delay climate action.
There is no reason to trust the UAE as the host nation for COP 28, their planned expansion of hydrocarbon extraction is in violation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Article 2, and their failure to report methane flaring violates Article 4. But their biggest crime may be the misapplication of carbon capture as part of a disinformation campaign designed to justify increased production.
The fossil fuel industry has proven to be very adept at countering facts and deceiving the public. Now they are using carbon capture to weave yet another web of lies. Even if they managed to install CCS throughout the industry, it would only capture a small percentage of total emissions generated by fossil fuels. It is the downstream use of oil, gas, and coal that contributes the bulk of emissions (scope 3). Their attempt to promote ‘clean fuel’ is an extreme example of greenwashing. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in June, this is not a solution, this only makes them “more efficient planet-wreckers.”
Fear is a key component of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long disinformation strategy which is designed to sell a narrative that prolongs the life of oil and gas. They would have us believe that ending fossil fuel production will spark a global catastrophe, while economists have countered that we can structure a phasedown that minimizes adverse impacts. Multiple cost-benefit analyses confirm that failure to curtail fossil fuels will augur a far greater economic catastrophe than energy supply shortfalls.
The hydrocarbon industry claims to be working to ensure energy security and they argue we should not phase out fossil fuels until we have a reliable and affordable alternative. However, due to their decades-long tactics of denial and delay, we are now at a point where the math and the physics of radiative forcing of atmospheric carbon precludes a protracted phase-out.
Despite clear science-based calls to end our reliance on fossil fuels, the industry is moving in the opposite direction. The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap says we need to speed up the energy transition not slow it down. The IEA also called out the oil and gas industry for its failure to address emissions and told them to “hasten the transition to clean energy rather than impeding it.”
Just before COP 28 convened on November 30th, OPEC Secretary General Haitham Al Ghais accused the IEA of vilifying the fossil fuel industry, but when you consider their long history of malfeasance, it is hard not to conclude that they brought this on themselves.
What the hydrocarbon industry has done and continues to do is unconscionable. As explained in the Production Gap Report, we cannot afford to keep extracting hydrocarbons at the current rate let alone ramp up production. As stated in the report: “Continued production and use of coal, oil, and gas are not compatible with a safe and livable future. Achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 requires governments to commit to, plan for, and implement global reductions in the production of all fossil fuels.”
Time for accountability
Skirting responsibility has been Big Oil’s strategy for decades and both figuratively and literally, people and our planet are paying the price. The fossil fuel industry already receives massive government subsidies and tax breaks, now Al Jaber and the oil majors want taxpayers to foot the bill to roll out carbon capture. They are lobbying governments to “incentivize private investment on an industrial scale.” But as the CCS senior policy adviser at climate think-tank E3G, Domien Vangenechten explained: “Ultimately, costs will have to be borne by polluters.”
The COP 28 decarbonization ruse is one of the most duplicitous subterfuge campaigns in the fossil fuel industry’s long history of malfeasance. Big Oil’s carbon capture evangelism is profoundly cynical. They invented carbon capture to extract more hydrocarbons, and now they are using it to feign support for climate action and as a pretext to justify more extraction. Increases in fossil fuel production will drive up emissions far more than any potential reductions from carbon capture. As stated by the IPCC AR6, “CDR cannot substitute for immediate and deep emissions reduction”.
On November 20th, Guterres succinctly stated what needs to be done when he said, “We need a clear and credible commitment to phase out fossil fuels on a time frame that aligns with the 1.5-degree limit.” Carbon capture is a dangerous distraction. As reported by the Guardian, Noronha Grant from Global Witness said: “Sultan Al Jaber’s Cop is shaping up to be the Cop of false solutions, inundated by fossil fuel lobbyists pushing empty promises.”
Big Oil’s track record decisively proves it will not voluntarily relinquish its interests or change its business model. The decarbonization of oil is yet another promise that is destined to be broken. The COP 28 carbon capture strategy is intended to buy time we don’t have so they can keep profiting from dirty energy. It is not too late to minimize the impacts of climate change, but it will be if we fall prey to the fossil fuel industry’s sinister ploy.
* Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil Co, ExxonMobil, Pemex, Shell, BP, Chevron, PetroChina, Abu Dhabi NOC, Petroleos de Venezuela and Kuwait Petroleum Corp.