Shell taps ancient offset strategy for CO2-free driving

Source: By Jenny Mandel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Royal Dutch Shell is rolling out a low-tech carbon capture option this month for Dutch drivers: Buy reforestation credits at the pump to offset fuel emissions.

The company announced the launch of “nature-based carbon credits” as a fueling option at gas stations in its home country, where drivers will be able to opt for carbon neutrality through a 1-euro-cent-per-liter surcharge (about 3.4 U.S. cents per gallon) on its regular gasoline or diesel options, or free with its premium fuel.

The program is part of a plan to spend $300,000 over the next three years on reducing carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production, transport and ultimate use of its products, Shell said, contributing to a company goal of reducing its total carbon footprint by 2 to 3 percent between 2019 and 2021.

Shell has made headlines lately for some of its climate stances, including an announcement that it would drop out of a refining industry association over “material misalignment” on climate policy and a call for the federal government to regulate climate-forcing methane emissions (Energywire, April 4).

In 2017, Shell said it would reduce its direct and indirect CO2 emissions from its own operations and marketed energy products by about 20 percent by 2035.

Still, many industry critics question the company’s sincerity given that fossil fuel consumption lies at the heart of its business. The company had $23 billion in capital expenditures in 2018.

Yesterday, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden called for “transformation of the global energy system … from electricity generation to industry and transport.”

“Shell will play its part,” van Beurden said. “Our focus on natural ecosystems is one step we are taking today to support the transition towards a low-carbon future. This comes in addition to our existing efforts, from reducing the carbon intensity of oil and gas operations to investments in renewable sources of energy.”

Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy, said Shell’s plan would “curb global deforestation, restore vital ecosystems, and help communities develop sustainably.”

Shell already offers carbon offsets for fueling to business customers in a handful of countries and said it would expand similar offset programs to the general public in the United Kingdom later this year, followed by unspecified other countries.

The company said its offset projects include reforestation projects in Peru and Indonesia as well as the GreenTrees reforestation project in the United States, which has a goal to reforest 1 million acres of marginal farmland in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, and that its carbon credits are verified by an independent third party.

The tree-planting strategy is one that some environmental groups have drawn attention to as the oil and gas industry amps up funding for research on “direct air capture” of carbon dioxide.

The high-tech version of the idea uses industrial equipment to capture CO2 emissions at fossil fuel installations or from midair, targeting a higher capture rate than trees can accomplish. A few companies are pursuing prototypes of what that technology could look like (Energywire, Jan. 10).

Tapping industry ‘ingenuity’

At a major energy industry event hosted in Houston last month, CERAWeek by IHS Markit, Conservation International was one of the few environmental groups to present its perspective on the oil and gas industry’s carbon footprint and “natural climate solutions” was its central platform.

“Nothing can do direct air capture at scale like reforestation,” Conservation International President Jennifer Morris said in an interview, describing it as a climate solution that’s available today at low cost. That stands in contrast to carbon capture and sequestration technologies that are new, expensive and unproven, she said.

Morris said her group works in 27 countries, many of which have had an oil and gas industry presence for years. She said Conservation International works with energy companies interested in reinvesting in the communities where they have a presence, helping them approach deforestation and reforestation projects effectively. The group builds capacity within local institutions for the work, which encompasses ecosystems like mangrove forests and certain sea grasses as well as rainforests, peat lands and other carbon stores, she said.

Morris pointed to research estimating that 30 percent of all emissions reductions needed by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change could be accomplished by protecting and restoring tropical forests.

“Our challenge is, can we use the ingenuity” of the oil and gas sector to get the most out of natural climate solutions, Morris asked.

Shell highlighted research suggesting that natural climate solutions could reduce emissions by 11.3 billion metric tons per year by 2030, “equivalent to the combined emissions of the USA and the European Union.”

As groups argue the economic and climate chemistry benefits of natural climate solutions, the oil and gas industry will need to show that any projects it supports lead to new and permanent greenhouse gas reductions and that its support for natural climate solutions amounts to more than simple green washing.

A question posed by the Nature Conservancy on its website sums up the challenge: “Can we be the first generation — since we first tilled the soil more than 10,000 years ago — to regreen the planet?”