Despite the current wave of anti-fossil fuel sentiment, many in the public would shift their attitudes if they realized what "keep it in the ground" actually entails, according to a managing partner of Blacklight Research LLC.
Colin Fenton, in a keynote presentation at the LDC Gas Forums Northeast conference in Boston this week, offered a harsh critique of the rhetoric used to attack the oil and gas industry amid the current policy debates over how to address climate change.
He quoted statements from the Rockefeller Family Fund asserting that companies should completely stop exploring for and developing hydrocarbons. The fund last year said it would divest from fossil fuels and eliminate holdings in ExxonMobil Corp., whose predecessor Standard Oil Co. Inc. was founded in 1870 by John D. Rockefeller Sr.
"I'm a fellow at Columbia University," Fenton said. "I can assure you that today there are living, breathing Ivy League students who firmly believe this as a matter of conscience, as a matter of morality, and if you do not agree with them, you are amoral, you do not have a conscience, according to them."
But while this no-more-fossil-fuels idea might have appeal in the current political discourse, particularly to younger people, the arguments don't hold up, especially when expanding to consider the prevalence of hydrocarbons in technology, medicine, agriculture, entertainment and more.
"You're going to find if you put the spotlight on the 20-year-old" arguing to halt all new fossil fuel development "they're going to feel very uncomfortable very quickly because their argument cannot be won. Let me repeat that. It is not possible to win their argument. It is not possible for it to be right. It's too extreme. It is too binary. It displays not even a rudimentary knowledge of engineering, physics or chemistry."
Fenton highlighted that even a Tesla electric car needs "thermal plastics, adhesives, synthetic rubber, driving on asphalt. Without hydrocarbons, Tesla blinks into nonexistence in a poof of irony. Without natural gas giving ethane to go into a cracker, to make that stuff, there is no Tesla."
Removing all hydrocarbons from the modern economy would be like returning "to the land of 1850 but you arrive there with 7.5 billion human beings this time, on the way to having nine billion. The suffering you would inflict on the human species would be palpable."
If all other uses of oil and gas were cut by an annual rate of 5% but petrochemical demand still grew at a 5% annual rate, "it'd be back to the same size market in 48 years...if you acknowledge that you still want to use this stuff in materials you're right back there in 48 years, and yes, when you make hydrocarbons go into materials, there are emissions."
If confronted with their "ignorance" on the uses of hydrocarbons, Fenton said he thinks young people sensitive to anti-fossil fuel rhetoric "are going to pivot and be like, 'Oh no, did I say all hydrocarbons? Yeah, no I meant like coal and burn, no I like gas, gas is great. Ethane? What's ethane? No, I still want the Super Bowl.' You're going to get this pivot."
Even with "very draconian" cuts to oil and gas use, the world would still fall short of emissions limits targets based on global growth scenarios, he said, meaning governments and companies will need to develop methods for pulling carbon from the atmosphere.
Fenton speculated on a future in which the oil and gas industry's competition comes from companies that "start to extract hydrocarbons from the atmosphere, not just from the ground."
"My bet is job security" for oil and gas "is great, your industry is fine," Fenton said. "Our species is slightly crazy right now. We'll get past it. It is way too partisan. It is way too argumentative. It has a policy vision masquerading as science, and at some point science is going to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute, actually that's not right.' And you're going to get whatever solution the market will demand."
He said there are misconceptions about what hydrocarbons are and where they come from that are underlying the anti-fossil fuel sentiment that has taken hold.
"I think most human beings actually believe there were these large terrestrial animals that lived a couple hundred million years ago and they fell over and then a lot of stuff got on top of them and then you dig them up and there's a fixed supply, and that's it," Fenton said.
"That's the concept they have. Most people don't ask the question where'd the dinosaur get the carbon? Most people are not aware that geologists don't think it was actually dinosaurs, they think it was the ferns and marine algae, because we're talking back so many hundreds of millions of years you don't even have dinosaurs yet.
"And then, if the plants got it from the atmosphere, where'd the atmosphere get the carbon? Interstellar space -- that's your natural logical conclusion, right? -- and stars that went supernova billions of years ago," he continued.
"So this carbon I'm spitting out right now was literally in a star 10 billion years ago, somewhere. That is not at all what I saw when I observed Columbia University students take over [university president] Lee Bollinger's office, demanding divestment [from fossil fuels], ordering in Chinese takeout from Amsterdam Avenue delivered in styrofoam plastic, as they put in their earbuds and typed out really angry screeds on Apple Mac computers."