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Will oil companies save us from climate change?

oil rig at sea

The villains in the climate change drama are clearly the fossil fuel companies and their political minions. They are the Snidley Whiplash of the insane collapse of our environment. They have knowingly poured harmful billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere which will most likely kill our children and certainly our grandchildren. They have sowed disinformation with their millions to slow the transition to renewable energy solutions in order to squeeze out every last dime of profit. They have learned well from their tobacco company brothers.

We fight them tooth and nail with wind turbines and flat plat collectors. We hammer them with one science study after another. In the same way they suck oil from the earth we are sucking investment dollars from their coffers by rattling the ESG saber. Perhaps one day they will be pummeled into oblivion and the world will be freed of their scourge.

However, we must be careful what we wish for. Along with them may well go the knowledge and the money that could help save us. That’s right, oil companies may be in the perfect position to eradicate the carbon plague they have caused. They could become the Grinch of climate change with their heart expanding exponentially at the last moment to save us from catastrophe.

How so?

They know how to drill better than anyone in the world.

Oil companies know how to take a massive bit and drill deep into the earth; straight down, sidesway, upside down and inside out. They can do it 24/7. They are the dentists of the earth’s crust. Their x-rays scan the rock beds plotting every nook and cranny. They know what’s down there and how to get at it. So, what is down there besides the black gooey stuff that’s killing us? Heat. That’s right thermal heat. The earth’s core is molten rock, and that heat extends to within a few miles of the earth’s surface.

What’s the big deal with that? From heat comes steam and from steam comes energy

It’s enough heat to provide 50,000 times the energy we require. The potential of geothermal energy dwarfs solar, wind and hydroelectric energy. This is no pipedream. It’s already being done. There are geothermal power plants in 26 countries and geothermal heating in 70 countries. Oil companies are especially suited to tackle the advanced geothermal systems that would indeed be the holy grail of renewable energy.

While some parts of the earth are better suited for geothermal energy the United States has vast tracts of land especially out west that are more than suitable. It might even be possible that some existing oil wells could be transformed into geothermal springs.

They know how to sequester carbon.

It’s not enough for us to stop putting carbon into the air, we’ve gone too far. We must begin to take it out. Trees and agriculture are important players but may not be enough. Nature doesn’t have the capacity to remove the 1.5 trillion tons of carbon we have emitted since the 18th century and we can’t wait 500 years for it to fall back to earth. Mechanical sequestration and geoengineering may have to become players as well.

True, mechanical sequestration is a real long shot. Unlike planting trees, it requires thousands of massive machines positioned around the globe to make a dent in the blanket of carbon that envelops us. Still, the advance of this technology could produce astounding results over time. In the near future, countries will be begging for more of this technology. Oil companies know how to and are interested in doing the sequestration thing. It may be convoluted thinking on their part but if they can take it out of the air who would complain if they put it back in? That’s motivation.

In addition, you need to know where to put the carbon once removed from the air. One place is back in the ground. It takes similar technology to that used to take the carbon out in the form of oil. There is would be a degree of pleasurable irony to having oil companies put the stuff back where they got it from.

oil workers in fire suits

They have 140,000 skilled employees

Oil companies employ over 140,000 highly skilled employees. These are scientists and engineers of all types, drill and derrick operators, mining and safety engineers, hydrologists and geographers just to name a few. Indeed, this is a massive resource that could make an immediate impact on the future of the human community and biodiversity of the planet's environment. Should this high tech and highly skilled labor force ever be turned loose on the problems of climate change the impact would be enormous.

wind turbines at dusk
Unsplash - Ana Jimenez Calaf

Have they lost their opportunity?

Fossil fuel giants are reeling from the financial blows administered by the recent pandemic and the rise of renewables, but they are still a financial force to deal with. Sure, you say, they are already investing in renewables. Investing and committing are two different things. They need to get past the greenwashing. Maybe if we channel the billions in subsidies we give oil companies into incentives for advanced renewable strategies big oil will see the light.

There is no doubt that various types of geothermal energy and sequestration are expensive and complicated but in the long run it could be enormously profitable. So, why don’t they do it. Well, besides the enormous costs, in the short run there is little financial gain. Investing in new technologies kicks the profit can down the road and investors have become addicted to the quarterly kick back from oil profits. To convert to technology driven solutions would whither the take and ask investors to wait for a while and who wants to do that? What CEO could survive the drop in dividends?

However, the alternative isn’t much better. Staggering loses of revenue in a world devoted to shaking oil off their boot and using cheaper renewable alternatives are taking a toll. The question is how long fossil fuel companies can poo-poo climate change, squeeze profits and avoid financial collapse. Probably they can go a good long time and that’s bad news for us.

It’s a dangerous game they play. The engine of climate change is bearing down on us and it is no longer certain we can get off the tracks on time. So, when will oil giants get up off their golden 'arse', stop greenwashing and start moving their remaining and substantial assets into a serious quest for zero carbon energy?

All it will require is vision on their part, the willingness to lose money in the short term, bankers willing to bite their lip and shore them up, courageous resolve on the part of politicians who are dependent on oil money, patience on the part investors, and the trust of lefties who will be asked to get in bed with Exxon.

I can dream, can’t I?


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