By Janet Matsushita, EMEAP Refining Director, ExxonMobil.
In 2012 when hurricane Isaac hit, I was a refinery manager in New Orleans. The hurricane cut the energy in our homes for two consecutive weeks. This meant not only that children didn’t have computers and other electronics for school or play anymore, but also that there were no lights, no electricity to cook on the stove, no refrigerator for perishable goods. There was also very low mobility – no fuel for cars and buses, because local refineries had to shut down. When I think back to this time, it reminds me of the 19th century economist, William Stanley Jevons, who said, “Without energy, we are thrown back into a laborious poverty of previous ages” – and that was exactly how I felt.
By 2030 the number of people in the global middle class is projected to almost double compared to 2015. As energy is essential for human development, society faces a dual challenge: to provide reliable and affordable energy to this growing population while at the same time reducing environmental impacts, including the risks of climate change. Yet there is no silver bullet for such a challenge; a diversified set of solutions will be needed. For example, while part of the transport fleet will become electrified over time, certain vehicles such as airplanes, trucks, and ships are difficult to electrify and need the energy density of liquid fuels. As the manager of all of ExxonMobil’s refineries outside the USA, the dual challenge is always top-of-mind for me, and we are working hard on different fronts to contribute through technology and innovation.
Let me start by explaining what refineries actually are, and then I can expand on how I see their role in a low-carbon future.
Molecule converter machines
Essentially, refineries are ‘molecule converter machines’. Thanks to the technologies inside our refineries, we can convert hydrocarbons from crude oil or natural gas into practical applications, such as smaller gasoline molecules to fuel vehicles, or particles which can be used to create an array of everyday products including smartphones, paint, building materials and essential medical supplies. Refineries are important for energy production and much more – they help power our economies and our lives.
So what exactly is the role of our refineries in addressing the dual challenge?
Turning promising innovations into scalable solutions
One of the fronts where our refineries are essential is the production of low–carbon liquid fuels. The algae biodiesel we are researching, for example, could potentially be used in diesel vehicles without having to make major changes to engines or infrastructure. This would, among other things, minimize disruptions and keep the cost of transitioning low. Of course, there is still work to do to bring this technology to scale. However, biofuels are a promising avenue for low-emission commercial transportation.
Another crucial technology we are working on is carbon capture and storage (CCS) – which captures CO₂ from industrial plants before it reaches the atmosphere and stores it safely underground. ExxonMobil is a leader in CCS and is capturing about 7 million tonnes of CO₂ per year. Our refineries are at the forefront of these innovative technologies, for example with a project in the Port of Rotterdam, and show that the refining industry has a place in the future energy mix. In addition, the refining industry has developed pathways through trade associations, for example Fuels Europe’s Clean Fuels For All strategy, providing pathways enabling aviation, maritime and road transport to further decarbonize in support of Europe’s climate ambitions.
The Future of Refining
For the European refining industry to provide innovative solutions like advanced biofuels, CCS and other industry-wide ambitions like the Clean Fuels For All pathway, it needs to be able to compete on a global scale. We need industries and policymakers to work together, not only to avoid the risk of ‘carbon leakage’ but also to keep the innovation momentum going through a technology-neutral approach. Through this approach, society will be best positioned to find the right mix of solutions to provide the energy the world needs while managing environmental impacts.
Although COVID-19 has slowed down the pace of life and energy use in the short term, the reality is that populations around the world are still growing. The need for reliable and affordable energy will persist and refineries will continue to play a key role in fulfilling that need.