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Maybe They’re Cleaning Up Their Act. Maybe It’s Greenwashing.

Last month we covered the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment. The report provides unequivocal evidence that humans have warmed the planet, with the U.N. calling it a “code red” for humanity and a “death knell for coal and fossil fuels.” Fossil fuel companies are some of the largest contributors to climate change and need to heed this warning. They are often accused of prioritizing profit over the common good. For example, the world’s largest oil company, ExxonMobil, knew about the connection between fossil fuels and climate more than forty years ago, yet for decades continued polluting and denying climate change. With the stakes now higher than ever, some large companies like BP and Shell have finally planned a retreat from fossil energy use and a move toward renewable options. But for others like Exxon and Chevron, it’s remained full steam ahead with oil and gas usage.

In the past month, Chevron Corporation announced Chevron New Energies, a new business centering on “lower carbon” energy strategies. According to their Vice President of Energy Transition, the company will use their “unique capabilities, assets and expertise to deliver progress toward the global net zero ambitions of the Paris agreement.” In light of these initiatives, one might assume they’ll be investing in reducing fossil fuels on the front end and expanding renewables like solar and wind. Right?

Wrong. It seems that Chevron’s pledges are out of line with their planned reality. Achieving net-zero carbon will require clean energy dominance—no new fossil infrastructure, sharply reducing/eliminating existing fossil-fueled power, and rapidly scaling clean technologies. But Chevron CEO Michael Wirth recently said that oil and gas “will still be a very big part” of their company over the next few decades, and that the company is not planning to move into the solar and wind industries. Instead, their New Energies programming will focus on hydrogen, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and biofuels (renewable natural gas).

As part of this initiative, Chevron this week reported that it has acquired stake in a green hydrogen joint venture between Mitsubishi Power Americas Inc. and Magnum Development LLC. The project, ACES Delta LLC., is intended to provide green hydrogen for power generation, transportation, and industrial applications in the western United States. Chevron announced this deal as a proud move toward a cleaner, greener future. But green hydrogen currently has a distinct set of shortcomings, as do CCS and biofuels. Let’s take a closer look:

Hydrogen (most commonly, “grey hydrogen”) is currently produced via a process involving methane from natural gas and high-temperature steam. This product is largely used as a feedstock for oil refining and fertilizer production. It may also be employed for energy storage and to power fuel cell vehicles. Green hydrogen is a cleaner option, produced by splitting hydrogen from water using electricity from renewable energy sources. Green hydrogen may eventually replace grey and assist in decarbonizing industrial sectors, but the technology is currently in its nascent stages. The fuel is extremely costly and lacks the necessary policy and infrastructure support to make it an effective, immediate climate solution.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial processes like fossil-fueled power generation. It is then compressed, transported, and stored (either through reuse or injection back into the earth). Carbon capture is contentious as a viable clean solution. Economically, CCS is expensive and energy intensive, requiring excess gas use (and emissions) simply to power the technology. In addition, given the state of our climate, simply capturing existing carbon is no longer enough. We need to directly reduce carbon on the front end, and then remove only what we can’t avoid.

Biofuels are alternative liquid fuels derived from biological materials like agricultural wastes, crops, trees, and grass. Some of these fuels do in fact burn cleaner and emit less carbon than fossils; however, emissions vary between different biofuel sources. For example, renewable natural gas involves capturing methane from landfills and agriculture for reuse as fuel. This “recycling” may reduce pollution somewhat, but its impact on overall emissions is negligible. The technology lacks regulation across sectors, is extremely costly, promotes further investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, and still ultimately poses the risks of regular natural gas.

At present, none of these options are as economical as other renewable options like solar, nor are they as effective at rapidly reducing new greenhouse gas emissions. If Chevron planned to reduce oil and gas, invest in solar and wind, and employ the above technologies, that would be a different story. But in the face of impending climate disaster, these initiatives on their own seem half-hearted—just another attempt to greenwash the company while they continue to expand dirty energy.

Do better, Chevron. It’s time for fossil fuel companies to clean up the mess that they’ve created.

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