Producing the energy that drives the world’s economy has an impact on the environment, but energy companies and governments work to make that impact as small as possible. Industry practices of safe operations and environmental protection have evolved significantly in the past few decades.
Technology improvements enable us to conduct many aspects of our operations far more efficiently now than just a decade ago. This efficiency translates to smaller “footprints” (the amount of surface area disturbed), less waste generated, cleaner and safer operations and greater compatibility with the environment.
Energy companies have developed and implemented sophisticated management systems that spell out the procedures required by employees and contractors to operate safely and to protect the environment. Over the past few years, these management systems have been extended to include social responsibility and ethical considerations.
The energy industry has shown repeatedly that energy production and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. For example, the industry can produce the oil and gas needed to give consumers the freedom and mobility they demand and the warmth and light needed to survive while preserving the natural beauty of the environment.
Global Climate Change
Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Many chemical compounds found in the Earth’s atmosphere act as greenhouse gases. These gases allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere. When sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface, some of it is reflected back toward space as infrared radiation (heat). Greenhouse gases absorb this heat and trap it. Some greenhouse gases—such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide—are emitted to the atmosphere through natural processes and human activities. Others, such as gases for aerosols, are created and emitted only through human activities. Greenhouse gases naturally blanket the Earth, keeping it warmer than if these gases were not in the atmosphere. This is called the “greenhouse effect,” so named because of a similar effect produced by the glass panes of a greenhouse.
The Earth’s temperature has increased at a faster rate during the last century than ever before. Some scientists believe this is because of an increase in concentration of the main greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorocarbons. These rising temperatures may produce changes in weather, sea levels and land-use patterns. Some people refer to this “climate change” during the past century as “global warming.” Studies generally show that human activity is a key contributor in global warming. This climate change is primarily from economic growth, fuel used for electricity generation and weather patterns affecting heating and cooling needs. Other human contributors are landfills, coalmines, oil and gas operations, and agriculture.
Addressing the Issues
Emissions from fossil fuel production and use may be contributing to the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere. Energy companies are working to reduce these emissions. As a start, they are managing their own use of energy. They use technology to convert waste heat into energy, reducing energy consumption and emissions. Many traditionally oil and gas companies are also exploring (and in some cases marketing) alternative energy sources such as solar power, biofuels, geothermal energy and wind power. They are setting goals for themselves and using new emissions estimation and tracking tools to assess if their goals are being met, and they are reporting their progress to the public. Finally, they are partnering with major universities and research institutions by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in climate change research to improve our understanding of global warming and to advance the technologies that will help combat it. Visit the American Petroleum Institute to see how specific companies are addressing climate change.
Also known as carbon sequestration, the carbon capture process traps and stores carbon dioxide after it is produced so the gas never enters the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere could possibly cause global warming and ocean acidification if it is not trapped and stored. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) plays a critical role in fighting climate change by reducing CO2 emissions while energy demands continue to rise globally. Oil companies have been using carbon capture for decades to enhance oil recovery. Only recently it has been thought of from an environmental standpoint.
What happens to the CO2 once it is captured?
Once the CO2 is captured, it can have these possible outcomes:
- Use as a value-added commodity. In this case, an added benefit is that a portion of the carbon dioxide can be sequestered. For example, oil companies currently inject millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year into depleting oil formations to enhance the production of crude oil.
- Store it deep underground in secure geological formations. Some of the best natural containers are old oil and gas fields, such as those in the North Sea.
- Convert it into methane, biomass, mineral carbonates or other substances. Concepts for converting carbon dioxide are in the very early stages of research.
- Visit the Scottish Centre for Carbon Storage website for an interactive map showing commercially significant CCS sites (planned or operational) around the globe.