A Realistic View on the Conflicting Issues of the Oil Industry and Climate Change

A view from Kay A. Modi, Jackson resident and former oil industry consultant

Working in the oil industry for more than 40 years to address environmental, health and safety issues at facilities and in the adjacent communities has been a great career. However, I am disheartened to have witnessed the arguments propounded by industrial representatives as to whether climate change is real, and how the public expects the industry to transition in order to address climate change initiatives. I find that too many people naively quote industrial, political or environmental leaders without any understanding of the science or economics of the issues. Uninformed and inaccurate comments made by each side of the issues may inflame the discussion and make progress more difficult. It is my intent to lower the temperature of the angry divide so progress can be made.

First, I will define the oil industry as oil and gas companies that support the production, processing and movement of petroleum-based products. People in the industry have made biased evaluations of climate change – or denied it altogether-- and they have been intentionally misleading the public and many politicians. Many pro-industry people proclaim that “pro-climate change politicians are trying to kill the oil industry.” Second, politicians have called for a ban on fracking (slang for hydraulic fracturing) that would eliminate new sources of oil and gas, but they have not assessed how to manage society without crude oil and natural gas.

I have observed that some of the oil industry conferences, which include associations that lobby for the oil industry, are biased and are a platform for misleading attendees about climate change without any credible scientific education of its members. These messages are purposefully political; they trickle down to politicians, workplaces and communities and result in large numbers of people echoing comments without any understanding of issues. Additionally, climate change scientists may feel harassed by members of the oil industry due to direct litigation of their research projects.

One of the largest industrial conferences sponsored by a chemical engineering institute presents studies on climate change impacts to coastal areas, along with technologies needed to address climate change and details on hydrogen-fueled engines for cars and trucks, as well as supply-related solutions of using natural gas pipelines to deliver hydrogen across the US. This conference also has sponsors and attendees from the oil industry.

In a recent conference presentation on Gulf Coast flooding predictions and modeling by a retired meteorologist from the US Navy, questions were asked about the Navy’s preparation for climate change. The presenter told the attendees that the Navy must live in the real world, adding that we must not confuse executive office policies with naval long-term plans. The Navy, he said, has been actively preparing for the impact of climate change on coastal facilities (naval bases) for more than twenty years.

It is not realistic that we can continue with our businesses and lives as we know them without oil. Petroleum processing is not the primary problem in addressing climate change. Burning fossil fuel, destruction of the carbon dioxide sink within vegetation, poorly managed lands losing organic matter, electric grid issues and poor mass transportation systems are parts of the problem, too. Each of us needs to take responsibility for buying a fossil-fueled vehicle and wanting a massive distribution system of fossil-fueled trucks and ships to bring fresh foods year-round and general goods to our community.

Petroleum products are more than fuel to burn, for they improve our lives with a large variety of resulting uses. Oil is a natural substance made of over 1000 chemical compounds with a large portion developed into fuels and another portion into non-fuel products. It is not a viable future goal to stop producing oil unless people want to reinvent the vehicle: tires – not possible to go back to rubber tree production; lube oil – synthetic lube oil is a highly processed oil product, plus, asphalt for roads. Do we no longer want to use plastics to make pipes that replaced copper and iron pipes in our homes and buildings; no longer use glues or plastics that replaced metals to make lighter cars and planes to reduce all fuel (electric or gasoline) consumption; and do we want to do away with most chemicals that are used to make pharmaceuticals, synthetic fabrics, foam, antifreeze, resins in plywood, hospital gloves or fertilizers for food production? To date, we do not have the demonstrated technology at scale to successfully fly airplanes without jet fossil fuel or power large cargo ships across oceans without heavy fossil fuel. We are probably a decade away or possibly longer for any prototypes.

For a green future, producing the products we need from oil or gas and not producing fossil fuels is highly problematic. Today’s oil refineries cannot make the petroleum products used for non-fuels without making gasoline. It may take billions of dollars to adjust for a change in products for large refineries of the future. Additionally, increasing the demand for metals to replace all carbon-based compounds will mean fewer metals for green energy alternatives, such as wind turbines, solar power and electrical transmission systems. The continual high demand for any type of metal will most likely be a huge environmental challenge in preventing damage to water systems and human health. Simply put, the driving force to transition to green fuels requires the public to stop buying gasoline and diesel. As long as the public buys, the oil companies will need to frack for oil, refine oil and distribute fuels. Mandating that automakers sell alternative fuel vehicles and trucks, or federal programs that tax fossil fuels so heavily that the public wants to buy alternatives, is going to be difficult unless bipartisan support is achieved.

Most people living in Jackson who own an electric vehicle may defer to the gasoline engine when traveling into challenging terrain or weather or when recharging stations are scarce. The launch of wind power systems, which were built in recent years with support of federal tax incentives from the Obama administration, and investments in electrical transmission to use the wind power indicate change in Wyoming’s approach to green energy investments. It is not well known that wind turbine blades must be filled with balsam wood (insufficient for demand) or products developed from oil. In developing technologies and infrastructure at the state and local levels, energy companies in states like Wyoming have changed focus as political administrations have changed.

Industry activities toward climate change initiatives and public perception are inconsistent. Executives of the oil industry have made renunciations about the science of climate change and political activities, while having in-house discussions and active projects on how to deal with the consequences of rising sea levels on refineries. They have hedged their bets on both sides of the argument and created delays in progress. Most coastal chemical and oil industries have already implemented “rising sea level and high rainfall protection” projects, which take more than a decade of design and construction. It is highly probable that their credibility is lost. Oil companies vary in their approaches, possibly because some of the largest oil companies have European headquarters.

The cost of making no or little progress to address climate change --or making preparations/investments to handle drastic weather conditions-- is not well explained to the public or broadcasted objectively. Some hidden costs may be increasing insurance rates for cities, industrial facilities and home owners; significant economic losses that cover large geographic regions during events, and severe land damage. It will take considerable time to bring the goals of the industry, consumers, and scientists and environmentalists into agreement. In the meantime, we will be using fossil fuels and attempting to phase them out proportionally with the growing development of climate change solutions. The oil industry needs a regulatory framework and incentive program that is consistent throughout changing political administrations.

With a better understanding that the various oil industries still need to be successful businesses as the US moves into green or non-fossil fuel energy, and with the public not being persuaded by the projections of the oil industry and its political representatives on the validity of climate change, the US may find a path forward that successfully addresses the many challenges ahead.

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