Clean crude? Oil firms use offsets to claim green barrels

By Timothy Gardner, Nerijus Adomaitis and Rod Nickel

(Reuters) -In January, Occidental Petroleum announced it had accomplished something no oil company had done before: It sold a shipload of crude that it said was 100% carbon-neutral.

While the two-million-barrel cargo to India was destined to produce more than a million tons of planet-warming carbon over its lifecycle, from well to tailpipe, the Texas-based driller said it had completely offset that impact by purchasing carbon credits.

Such credits are financial instruments generated by projects that reduce or avert greenhouse-gas emissions such as mass tree plantings or solar power farms. The projects’ owners can sell the credits to polluting companies, who then use them to make claims of offsetting their carbon emissions.

Details of the Occidental transaction have not been previously reported. Two sources involved in the deal told Reuters that the driller paid about $1.3 million for the credits – or about 65 cents per barrel. Oil currently sells for more than $60 a barrel.

Occidental says such credits make the two-million-barrel cargo carbon-neutral because they represent an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas removed from the atmosphere by the projects generating the credits.

The arrangement reflects a growing trend. Oil-and-gas companies worldwide are increasingly trying to market their products as cleaner using a range of controversial methods, including buying credits, powering drilling operations with renewable power and investing in expensive and commercially unproven technology to capture and store emissions.

The moves are designed to secure a future for the fossil fuel industry in a world where investors, activists and regulators demand action to stop climate change. In some cases they are also designed for profit: Companies have begun seeking a premium price for what they call cleaner petroleum products.

Although carbon credits do nothing to reduce the pollution from a given barrel of oil, proponents of offset programs argue that credit purchases help finance clean-energy efforts that otherwise would not be profitable.

Critics blast such programs as smoke-and-mirrors public relations efforts that allow polluters to scrub their image while they continue to profit from climate damage.

Oil company claims of clean fuels through offsetting are like “a tobacco company saying they sell nicotine-free cigarettes because they paid someone else to sell some chewing gum,” said David Turnbull, a spokesman for Washington-based Oil Change International, an advocacy group opposing fossil fuels.

NO CLEAR STANDARDS

National and global carbon credit programs establish guidelines that projects must follow to in order to sell offsets. The programs rely on companies and nonprofit organizations such as Verra and SustainCERT to issue and verify credits under their standards. They certify that the projects generating credits are leading to the promised amount of reduced emissions and would not have been built without the credit income.

But there are no uniform standards for how to calculate the full climate impact of fossil fuels, or how to properly offset it with environmental projects, industry experts say. Companies buying credits are also not obliged to disclose their cost or origin – a problem because they can vary widely in price and quality.

In Occidental’s case, the credits were generated between 2016 and 2019 by solar, wind and other clean-energy projects in emerging economies such as India, Thailand and Turkey, and were verified by Verra.

“The credits they issued are valid and have environmental integrity,” said Verra spokeswoman Anne Thiel.

Verra and other verifiers, however, have since stopped approving renewable energy projects in those nations to generate offsets after concluding last year that they had become competitive enough to be built even without offset credit revenue.

Occidental defended the deal, saying it could kick off a new market for oil offset with credits that directs money to green-energy projects. “We can be a big part of the global solution,” said Richard Jackson, Occidental’s president of operations for onshore resources and carbon management.

TREES IN SPAIN

Occidental and the cargo’s buyer, India’s Reliance Industries, did not comment on whether Reliance paid a premium for the shipment.

But other oil-and-gas companies are eager to create a market where climate credentials allow them to command higher prices. That could allow them to recoup the full cost – or more – of credits or other measures that allow for the low-carbon labeling.

Lundin Energy, an independent driller with operations in Norway, is one of the companies that sees a market opportunity in crude with a low-carbon designation.

The company plans to spend $35 million to plant 8 million trees in northern Spain and Ghana – something it says will allow it to generate its own credits to offset greenhouse gas emissions from its fossil fuels.

Lundin was the first oil company in the world last year to receive independent certification it was producing low-carbon oil based on its reduction of emissions in producing oil from its Edvard Grieg field in Norway. It also aims to certify low-carbon oil from the Sverdrup field, also in Norway – Western Europe’s biggest – which Lundin co-owns with a consortium of partners.

Cleaner drilling operations, however, have a limited environmental benefit. At least 80% of greenhouse gases from oil are emitted after extraction from the ground, according to consultancy IHS Markit.

Alex Budden, Lundin’s Vice-President, said if buyers paid a 1% premium for lower-carbon barrels, it would boost the company’s annual oil revenue by $10 million to $20 million. That would allow it to recover the costs of its offset and efficiency efforts and eventually profit from them.

So far there have been no takers. “But it’s going to happen,” Budden said.

GREEN OIL SANDS?

Across the Atlantic, Canadian producers in the oil sands have a bigger challenge. Producers there emit three to five times more carbon than the worldwide average because more energy is needed to extract the oil, according to Rystad Energy, a global consultancy. Its producers are hoping to change that.

Suncor Energy, for example, has pledged to cut the amount of carbon it emits per barrel produced 30% from 2014 levels by 2030 to contribute to Canada’s climate goals and address shareholder pressure to reduce its emissions.

It will do so by improving energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy technologies, such as wind farms, said Chief Sustainability Officer Martha Hall Findlay. She said Suncor will consider certifying those lower-carbon barrels.

“There’s no question carbon is our Achilles heel in the oil sands,” she said.

Liquefied natural gas producers are also increasingly marketing carbon-neutral LNG. Unlike in the oil market, some LNG buyers are already paying a premium for such cargoes.

In March, for example, Shell announced it had taken delivery of Europe’s first ever carbon-neutral cargo of LNG from Russian supplier Gazprom. Gazprom provided the gas and both companies chipped in for the offsets, said Mehdi Chennoufi, Shell’s head of LNG Origination and Business Development.

Shell said the credits came from projects that protect biodiversity or restore land, but it would not disclose the cost.

Buyers in Spain, Japan, Taiwan and China have also bought LNG certified as carbon-neutral, a trend that has led the International Group of LNG Importers, an association of big global LNG companies, to start working on standardized methodology.

“Today there is a lot of talk about carbon-neutral LNG, but there is no universal definition,” said Vincent Demoury, the group’s Deputy General Delegate.

Climate activist Andy Gheorghiu said the notion of carbon-neutral liquefied natural gas is like “vegan pork sausage.”

“It’s just nonsense,” he said.

Other companies are turning to carbon-capture technology – despite its history of high costs and operational difficulties – to offset their products’ climate impact.

Qatar, the world’s biggest LNG producer, announced in February that it is building a carbon-capture project at its North Field expansion project in the Persian Gulf.

Occidental is also developing the largest-ever direct-air-capture facility, to pull 500,000 tonnes per year of carbon dioxide out of the open air near some of its Texas oil fields, using fans and chemical reactions. That’s equal to the annual emissions from nearly 110,000 U.S. cars.

Environmentalists criticize such projects because they could extend the life of the fossil fuel industry.

If Occidental’s project works, for example, the company plans to pump the carbon back into the Texas oil fields, raising reservoir pressure to extract more crude.

Occidental says it hopes to market crude oil produced in this way as the feedstock for refining jet and marine fuel – providing a way for those industries to claim they have offset their emissions.

Marion Verles, Chief Executive Officer at SustainCERT, the credit verifier, said such offset schemes can help reduce overall greenhouse-gas emissions – but could also backfire.

Telling consumers they can consume carbon-neutral fossil fuels sends the message, she said, that “behavioral change is no longer needed.”

(Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla, Nina Chestney, and Susanna Twidale in London; Kate Abnett in Brussels; Isla Binnie in Madrid; and Nidhi Verma in New Delhi; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)

Last year was one of three warmest on record, researchers find

By Nina Chestney

LONDON (Reuters) – Last year was one of the three warmest on record, with glaciers melting, sea levels rising and a spate of wildfires, heatwaves and droughts, research published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) showed.

The BAMS annual State of the Climate Report, by 528 climate scientists from 61 countries, said only 2015 and 2016 were hotter than 2019, based on records dating to the mid- to late 1800’s.

Each decade since 1980 has been successively warmer than the preceding one, with the most recent (2010-2019) being around 0.2 degrees Celsius warmer globally than the previous (2000–09).

For the 32nd consecutive year, 2019 saw the loss of mass from mountain glaciers, while lake temperatures were above the long-term average and permafrost temperatures continued to rise.

In 2019, global mean sea level set a new record for the eighth year running, reaching 87.6 mm above the 1993 average when satellite measurements began, with an annual average increase of 6.1 mm from 2018, the report said.

Greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change and pollution, increased. Carbon dioxide emissions rose by 2.5 parts per million (ppm), nitrous oxide by 1 part per billion (ppb) and methane by 9.2 parts per billion, the report said.

“A number of extreme events, such as wildfires, heatwaves and droughts, have at least part of their root linked to the rise in global temperature,” said Robert Dunn from the UK’s Met Office, which contributed to the report.

“The rise in global temperature is linked to another climate indicator: the ongoing rise in emissions of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane.”

Pressure is building for governments to do more to limit emissions to maximize the chances of capping a rise in average global temperatures at 1.5C, a goal enshrined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

(Reporting by Nina Chestney; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Side effects: Fuel demand crash shuts U.S. ethanol plants, meatpackers lack refrigerant

By Stephanie Kelly and Tom Polansek

NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) – A slew of U.S. ethanol plants have shut down as fuel demand has collapsed during the coronavirus outbreak, and meatpackers have been hit by a worrying side-effect: less carbon dioxide is now available to chill beef, poultry and pork.

“We’re headed for a train wreck in terms of the CO2 market,” said Geoff Cooper, president of the Renewable Fuels Association industry group. The RFA said 29 of the 45 U.S. ethanol plants that sell carbon dioxide, or CO2, have idled or cut rates. The U.S. ethanol sector is the top supplier of commercial carbon dioxide to the food industry, accounting for around 40% of the market, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

That has put the U.S. meat industry on high-alert. It uses carbon dioxide as a refrigerant and preservative for meat, and also uses the gas to stun animals before slaughter.

The CO2 crunch is the latest supply chain disruption threatening the food industry as it struggles to keep workers on the job during the coronavirus outbreak while meeting rising demand at grocery stores.

Cargill Inc [CARG.UL], the world’s biggest supplier of ground beef, and chicken processor Perdue Farms said they are seeking to make sure they have enough supplies.

“We are working with our partners to ensure they understand that we offer an essential service to the world – providing the ingredients, feed and food that nourish people and animals – and maintain our supply,” Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said. He added that the company is aware of “potential shortages or limited allocations” in certain areas.

Perdue Farms has enough CO2 “for now” and back-up plans if supplies run low, spokeswoman Andrea Staub said.

But if shortages of carbon dioxide worsen, meat companies may not be able to produce food at regular rates, said Rich Gottwald, president of the Compressed Gas Association.

“If they don’t have CO2, then it will slow their production of those food products,” he said.

The North American Meat Institute, an industry group that represents processors like Tyson Foods Inc <TSN.N> and WH Group Ltd’s <0288.HK> Smithfield Foods Inc [SFII.UL], said it was helping connect carbon dioxide suppliers with meat companies that anticipated possible problems obtaining CO2.

While supplies remain available, Veronica Nigh, a farm bureau economist, said some meat companies already were paying more for CO2.

“They’re certainly feeling the impact of limited supply and the price that ends up translating to,” she said on a conference call on Friday.

(Reporting by Stephanie Kelly in New York and Tom Polansek in Chicago. Additional reporting by PJ Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by David Gregorio)

Brazil Amazon deforestation soars to 11-year high under Bolsonaro

By Marcelo Teixeira

SAO JOSE DOS CAMPOS, Brazil (Reuters) – Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose to its highest in over a decade this year, government data on Monday showed, confirming a sharp increase under the leadership of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro.

The data from Brazil’s INPE space research agency, which showed deforestation soaring 29.5% to 9,762 square kilometers for the 12 months through July 2019, sparked an uncharacteristic admission by the government that something needed to be done to stem the tide.

It was the worst level of deforestation since 2008, heaping further pressure on the environmental policy of Bolsonaro who favors developing the Amazon region economically.

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is considered key to the fight against climate change because of the vast amounts of carbon dioxide it absorbs.

Risks to the forest drew global concern in August when fires raged through the Amazon, drawing sharp criticism from France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

At a briefing to discuss the numbers, Environment Minister Ricardo Salles said the rise in deforestation showed the need for a new strategy to combat the illegal logging, mining and land grabbing which he said were to blame.

Environmentalists and nongovernmental organizations placed the blame squarely on the government, saying that Bolsonaro’s strong pro-development rhetoric and policies to weaken environmental enforcement are behind the rise in illegal activity.

“The Bolsonaro government is responsible for every inch of forest destroyed. This government today is the worst enemy of the Amazon,” said Marcio Astrini, public policy coordinator for Greenpeace, in a statement.

Bolsonaro’s office directed Reuters to remarks made by Salles and another official and did not comment further on the issue.

In August, Reuters reported Bolsonaro’s government had systematically weakened environmental agency Ibama, grounding a team of elite enforcement commandos and forbidding agents from destroying machinery used to illegally deforest.

Brazil’s Climate Observatory, a network of nongovernmental organizations, said the 2019 increase in deforestation was the fastest in percentage terms since the 1990s and the third fastest of all-time.

In response to the numbers, Salles vowed to roll out a series of measures to counter the rising deforestation, including stepping up enforcement efforts assisted by high-resolution satellite imaging.

The minister said he would meet governors of Amazon states on Wednesday to discuss tactics to counter deforestation.

All options are on the table, according to Salles, including mobilizing the military for use in environmental enforcement operations.

GOVERNMENT REVERSAL

Salles’ recognition that deforestation is indeed on the rise comes after months of the government casting doubt on preliminary monthly data showing destruction was skyrocketing.

At multiple press briefings earlier this year, Salles alleged the monthly data was unreliable and contained inconsistencies. He had urged journalists not to report the monthly figures and wait for the annual data, announced Monday.

Bolsonaro had accused the INPE space research agency of lying about the monthly data. In a high-profile dispute, then-INPE chief Ricardo Galvao stood by the data and called Bolsonaro “a joke of a 14-year-old boy that is not suitable for a president of Brazil.” Galvao was later fired.

The annual figure accounts for seven months under Bolsonaro, but also measures five months under the previous government.

It also does not account for destruction after July. Preliminary data for August to October shows deforestation more than doubled compared to the same period a year-prior to 3,704 square kilometers.

NGOs say they fear that protections could be weakened further as the government considers allowing commercial agriculture on native reserves, expanding wildcat mining and allowing for illegally occupied land to be “regularized.”

Beef prices are also at record highs in Brazil, leading some environmentalists to fear it could fuel land grabbing for cattle ranching – one of the biggest drivers of deforestation.

“The coming years could be even worse,” said Carlos Rittl, executive-secretary for Climate Observatory.

 

(Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira; Writing by Jake Spring and Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Alex Richardson and Andrea Ricci)