business corporate responsibility energy

You can’t decarbonise the oil industry and still have an oil industry

In the short story collection Resurrection Trust, there’s a satirical tale by Jenny Curtis about an environmentally friendly hit-man. They guarantee to carry out their assassinations responsibly, cycling to the location, and then composting the unfortunate victim afterwards.

It’s a tongue in cheek story that, to me, highlighted how easily the language of sustainability can be used to obscure activities that are still very damaging. There’s a perfect example of that this week with the announcement of the Net Zero Solution Centre in Aberdeen.

This £50 million centre of excellence has the lofty ambition of decarbonising Britain’s oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.  There is talk of repurposing infrastructure for hydrogen production too, or using existing oil and gas platforms for experimenting with carbon capture and storage, but those are theoretical for now. As the CEO says, “our focus will be on developing technologies to reduce operational carbon emissions.” In other words, imagine oil rigs powered by renewable energy, or electric tankers for trucking that oil to market.

In case there was any doubt about their priorities, the new centre will be hosted at the Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OTGC). That’s the centre that was created by David Cameron’s government as part of a suite of initiatives to support Britain’s oil industry. It was set up around the same time that the government created a legal obligation to maximise exploitation of the country’s reserves, and that is in fact the primary aim of the OTGC:  “our goal is to help maximise economic recovery from the UK continental shelf”.

This new Net Zero Solution Centre then, has nothing to do with reducing production and transitioning away from fossil fuels. It’s about reducing the emissions involved in extraction, which is why it has been warmly welcomed by Shell, BP, and a host of others involved in the North Sea. What you do with the oil and gas that you extract is not their problem.

This is a project that doesn’t just set the greenwash detector buzzing. It breaks it entirely. The CEO of the OTGC wants “to become the first net zero hydrocarbon basin in the world… Suddenly the industry wouldn’t be part of a problem, we’d be part of a solution.”

Out here in the warming world, there is no such thing as low carbon extraction of a high carbon product. Britain’s remaining oil and gas reserves should be left in the ground, and the communities that work the North Sea should be supported to diversify and transition away from the industry.

The industry and the government prefer these figleaf projects that protect oil and gas production, and don’t threaten the ultimate business model. That’s why there is a key role for divestment, and for withdrawing the social licence for extraction. It’s also why the first demand of the Extinction Rebellion is to tell the truth. You can’t decarbonise the oil industry and still have an oil industry.


  1. Thanks Jeremy, it’s so helpful to have your insights into what’s really going on, despite all the good intentions and hand-wringing.

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