How Oil and Gas Companies Can Fight Climate Change

In his first month in office, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels. Initiatives like these beg the question: is there a role for oil and gas companies in the fight against climate change?

Oil and gas production are crucial to society as we know it. From plastics used in personal protection equipment to gasoline used in combustion engines, oil and gas have made their way to the heart of both economic and social development. By working to eliminate oil and gas companies, we minimize their role in creating the climate crisis and in cleaning it up. Ending fossil subsidies is one way to disincentivize continued fossil fuel production, but how do we hold oil and gas companies accountable for the mess they helped create?

While many oil and gas companies are working to develop a portfolio of renewable energy options, they overlook a key resource: extensive ownership of carbon storage reservoirs, or geologic formations whose physical properties are suitable to store carbon dioxide over thousands of years. Instead of working to eliminate oil and gas companies, legislation should require they transition to carbon storage companies that assist in decarbonizing our global society.

How do oil and gas companies own extensive networks for carbon storage?

Geologic storage of carbon dioxide in oil and gas reservoirs is a common industrial practice. Oil and gas companies already inject roughly 65 million of tons of carbon dioxide into reservoirs each year to recover more oil from the ground (also known as carbon dioxide (CO2) enhanced oil recovery). No single industry has more global experience in injecting CO2 underground or in managing the exchange of billions of tonnes of gases and fluids between Earth’s subsystems than oil and gas.

Oil and gas companies have the infrastructure, personnel, and expertise to expand efforts and begin dedicated carbon dioxide storage tomorrow. Moving large volumes of carbon dioxide to storage locations requires pipelines, many of which already lead to oil and gas production sites. Building an injection well requires characterization of the reservoir and involved permitting processes. In the case of depleted oil and gas reservoirs, the reservoirs have been thoroughly characterized. Additionally, if they have not already received permits for carbon dioxide injection, oil and gas companies have the right resources, connections, and personnel to pursue those permits.

Geologic storage requires injection wells and operators to inject carbon dioxide into the Earth’s subsurface, which is crucial infrastructure for oil and gas companies whose businesses are built on injecting and recovering fluids from the Earth. Finally, carbon storage requires flow meters, pressure and temperature gauges, and other advanced techniques that monitor activity both on and below the Earth’s surface. These technologies, most of which are used in the oil and gas industry today, are used to detect losses and ensure reservoir integrity.

Dedicating infrastructure and suitable depleted oil and gas reservoirs to storing carbon is low-hanging fruit—an immediate solution for building out global carbon dioxide storage capabilities. However, legislation must support this effort by simultaneously halting production of carbon-heavy fuels.

By 2050, projections indicate roughly 6 to 7 billion tons of carbon storage per year will be required—more than 100 times current carbon dioxide injection—which could result in thousands of new jobs for operating storage infrastructure. Additional jobs would result from increased permitting, equipment manufacturing, construction, and engineering. Oil and gas companies have decades of experience training new personnel, constructing infrastructure, and managing similar projects.

However, this transition to carbon storage must include fail-safes to ensure oil and gas companies cannot play the system for personal gain, including the use carbon capture or direct air removal of carbon dioxide to justify continued production of fossil energy.

Some argue that policy fail-safes will not be enough to combat the corruption and misinformation that haunts the climate crisis to this day. These advocates say that oil and gas companies should be nationalized – they could then transitioned to carbon storage companies.

While nationalization is unlikely in the U.S., regulation can happen, and must happen rapidly. By transitioning oil and gas companies to carbon storage companies, society can capitalize on existing equipment, an existing workforce, and decades of detailed geologic records: while enabling the storage of billions of tons of carbon back into the Earth.

Noah McQueen

Doctoral Student
Noah McQueen is a Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. McQueen is also a Perry World House Graduate Associate.