Talk of phasing out fossil fuels gets muted at Houston energy conference

New innovations are on display at CERAWeek, but oil and gas execs talked up the status quo.

By Michael Marks & Elisabeth JimenezMarch 25, 2024 3:54 pm,

The Hilton hotel in downtown Houston was the center of the oil and gas universe last week. Executives and policymakers from across the globe had gathered there for CERAWeek, an annual energy conference. 

Whether it’s in the keynotes or the convention center hallways, the conversations at the conference offer clues to where the oil and gas industry is going.

Chris Tomlinson, opinion journalist for the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, spoke to the Texas Standard about his main CERAWeek takeaways.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What were some of the biggest headlines for you coming out of CERAWeek?

Chris Tomlinson: Well, the CEO of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s oil company, gave us a good idea of where things are headed when he declared that the world needs to abandon this idea of phasing out oil and gas.

And he called for a doubling down on reliance on oil. And I think that kind of revealed the grand wish for the entire industry.

So he wasn’t alone in speaking out about his hesitance – that might be too small a word – about phasing out fossil fuels. 

Well, his applause line was well received. You know, none of the CEOs speaking at the big plenary sessions talked about phasing out oil and gas, which is exactly what the world called for at the annual meeting in November.

None of these companies were really interested in ending oil and gas production, but they are very interested in being paid to capture carbon dioxide.

» MORE: Why East Texas is becoming a hotspot for carbon capture projects

Let’s talk a little bit more about that. I mean, I understand that developing non-fossil fuel sources of energy was a big part of the agenda, but did they have ideas there or did things gain traction?

Well, CERAWeek is a little schizophrenic. In the Hilton, all the oil and gas CEOs talk about how their product is absolutely necessary for the future; it’s the only way to end poverty in Africa, in the Middle East and that there’s no way to phase it out.

And then you go across the skybridge to the George R.R. Brown Convention Center, and that’s where the innovators are. That’s where the people are developing geothermal energy, they’re developing carbon capture, they’re developing new, advanced nuclear technologies to phase out oil and gas.

nd so you get a little bit of both, but when you’re thinking about the oil and gas industry itself, they are not interested in a phaseout.

Interesting. Well, was there anything from the other side of that skybridge that felt like it had momentum to you?

Absolutely. Two Texas-based companies, actually, Fervo and Sage, are developing really exciting geothermal technologies using fracking to inject water underground into hot rock and generating steam and electricity from that. That’s very promising.

Texas has also announced an initiative to help develop advanced nuclear devices — nuclear reactors that are small, that can fit into cities, that are safer than existing reactors.

Now, you also write that there are future technologies that maybe have the potential to be cleaner than fossil fuels, but that at the moment are cheaper to do with what amounts to a lot of pollution in the meantime. Is that an oversimplification?

No, it’s not. I mean, hydrogen is what puts the hydro in hydrocarbons. It’s the source of energy. And Texas produces more hydrogen than any other place in the world. And so there are some exciting technologies on using hydrogen as a clean fuel.

The problem is developing clean ways of creating or generating hydrogen. And there’s a lot of research into that, and a lot of these Houston innovators think that’s the future for the energy industry in Texas.

» MORE: A $1.2 billion hydrogen hub promises clean energy and jobs on the Gulf Coast

I wonder, from your perspective, you mentioned a bunch of Texas companies, a lot of innovation happening here. Do you see the future of the energy capital of America continuing to be Houston, or do you think that there’s something that makes you wonder about that proposition long-term?

Well, really, this is going to be driven by policy, particularly state government policy. I mean, the rest of the world is fighting climate change. They want these new technologies. They are moving away from fossil fuels.

And if Texans can accept that and get on board with it, we can lead the way. We have the engineering skills we have the corporations, but what we need is state leaders who aren’t burying their heads in the sand and insisting that fossil fuels are the future, because they are not.

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