Big oil is key part of energy transition: Houston mayor

Oil companies have a critical role to play in the fight against climate change, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner claimed Tuesday.

The mayor argued that the fossil fuel industry — whose products overwhelmingly drive planetary heating — plays a crucial role in keeping that heating in check. He delivered his comments at the Reuters Energy Transition Conference in Houston.

Houston occupies a unique role in the energy world. As a progressive stronghold in Republican-ruled Texas, the city government has emphasized the importance of slowing the pace of global warming — sponsoring initiatives that range from urban tree planting to backing rooftop solar panels and charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Turner emphasized the rapid growth of renewables in Houston, a city that has sought to recast itself as a hub of energy, in general.

“Houston is well-positioned as a leader in developing large-scale renewable energy projects,” Turner said, pointing to the city’s more than 190 wind and solar companies and more than 50 battery storage companies.

“Texas remains the number one state for installed wind capacity. And we’re number two, only to California for installed solar capacity — and I think that will change soon,” he said.

He also noted that all 550 public buildings in Houston are now powered by renewables. “And this city purchases more renewable power than any city in the United States.”

But even as it burnishes its renewable bona fides, Houston is also the heart of the U.S. oil and gas industry, a sector that produces the very carbon-based fuels that — barring the advent of transformational new technologies — must ultimately be phased out to keep the global climate within habitable levels.

The effects of this tension can be seen in the oil and gas industry’s role in framing the city’s planning to meet the threat of rising heat and rising seas.

Shell co-funded the city’s 2020 resilience plan, and gas utility CenterPoint Energy co-funded its 2020 climate plan.

Many of the goals in these documents are relatively uncontroversial in climate discourse: planting trees; building out bike lanes, mass transit and green spaces; and clearing floodplains of houses.

In addition to attracting more renewable energy to Houston, the CenterPoint-funded climate plan relies heavily on the idea that fossil fuels and plastics production can be rendered harmless.

Two still-speculative means of doing this stand out in that report: the embrace of a “circular economy” for mixed plastics and the drive to make Houston a world leader in carbon capture and storage.

This week, a report from Inside Climate News raised doubts about one hallmark of the Houston circular economy: a $100 million “chemical recycling” plant run by ExxonMobil outside Houston, which was supposed to recycle mixed plastics. But by placing Apple AirTags in bags of recycling, a local nongovernmental organization found that bags of plastic waste were getting dumped, rather than recycled.

Carbon capture, which traps carbon dioxide from industrial processes before it can warm the atmosphere, is a similarly fraught technology. It will be essential on a massive scale to meet climate goals, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This is a long-term and uncertain bet.

Even if current efforts by the oil and gas industry to accelerate carbon capture are successful, the industry will not be deployed at scale until 2035, Arshad Mansoor of the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit energy research and development institute, told The Hill.

Turner acknowledged the tension between fossil fuel companies and climate targets in his remarks. When he became chairman of the Global Resilient Cities Network — which seeks to help insulate its members from the threats of global heating — “some mayors were not too happy about that” because of the role of oil and gas in the city’s economy.

“But what we have learned is that we need everybody at the table,” he said. Without the oil and gas industry, “we can’t achieve goals we’re seeking to establish.”

Updated at 9:15 p.m.

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