An exercise in greenwashing and corporate PR
Fossil fuels companies often reach for the tools of greenwashing, but this particular instance unintentionally drops a tiny hint on a completely different story in the background.
A recent article on a venerable French media outlet caught my attention. At first sight it’s just another article on how fossil fuel companies do their best to “green” their activities. A deeper look on the other hand reveals something about the nature of their business. This particular case is about the state-owned Brazilian oil company, but it could be about any other oil major.
At first glance it looks like that finally these dirty corporations have taken their job seriously and started to pump CO2 back where it originated from: under the surface. Great! How much? 6.7 million tonnes in a course of a year. Wow, does this mean that we can now burn as much oil we would like, since it has became carbon neutral? Well, no. This 6.7 million tonnes is a mere 1.5% of the CO2 released by burning the aforementioned company’s “product” extracted throughout the same time period (1) (2).
Oil companies are not here to save us. They are here to make profits, and the only way to do that is to pump more oil and sell it at a good price. In a world of depleting reserves however the only way to increase “production” is by enhanced oil recovery and by pumping CO2 in a depleting well to keep the black gold flowing.
Carbon-dioxide blends really well with oil, and helps it flow through tiny cracks and holes. Plus it provides the pressure forcing the black gold upwards — not unlike gas in a can of hair-spray. In return it requires high energy inputs in capturing, pressurizing, transporting then pumping it into the well. This method was invented well before anyone thought of burying CO2 to “save” the climate — so do not fall into believing that this is a genuine method to get rid of carbon from the atmosphere.
It’s important to emphasize here: depletion doesn’t mean that we are literally running out of oil. It means that as the cheap and easy to extract part is gone, oil companies have to resort to ever costlier, ever more energy intensive methods to retrieve what is left, and keep “production” numbers rising, or at least prevent them from falling. They keep doing this up to the point until oil prices no longer support the increased costs of production, then simply shut off the well. Often with oil left in it.
Depletion thus seems to be a plain economic issue. For economists it might be a simple financial or price question, but for societies it is more of an energetic issue (a matter of EROEI). Oil extraction slowly became more and more energy intensive, requiring ever higher prices to maintain, let alone increase “production”.
From an environmental standpoint, this is great news: it means we will soon reach a peak in oil extraction (if we haven’t passed it already in 2018) then finally start to decrease emissions. How this civilization will survive without an ever increasing (and soon to be decreasing) flow of oil, in an absence of a viable alternative, is a completely different question however.
In light of the above, the increasing trend of pumping more and more CO2 underground signals that Brazil (too) is getting dangerously close to the peak of its oil production. It is definitely not about becoming “greener” as the PR message re-published in an otherwise venerable media outlet would like to convince the population…
We definitely need more balanced and honest reporting on the topic and not simple copy-paste jobs presenting only half of the story.
Keep your eyes pealed, folks.
Until next time,
(1) Burning 1 barrel of oil releases 0.43 metric tons of CO2. Brazil extracted 2.83 million barrels a day in Q3 2021 which translates into 1033 million barrels a year. Burning this amount would emit 444 million tons of CO2.
(2) This is not to be confused with the CO2 pollution from their operations which they use partially as a source for the gas re-injected into wells (via carbon capture). They buy the rest from companies like fertilizer producers, where CO2 is a byproduct, not a result of direct air capturing (from the atmosphere). The later is still too costly. From this perspective they are doing nothing to mitigate the damage caused by using oil, only lessening the damage done during extraction.