Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods on Saturday said the “problem statement” that countries need to focus on at the COP28 climate summit is reducing emissions, in contrast to calls for a collective commitment to phase out all fossil fuels.
For many at the summit, which is being held in the United Arab Emirates, COP28 can only be recognized as a success if it results in a deal to “phase out” all fossil fuels, whose burning is the chief driver of the climate crisis.
The language of the final agreement, expected by or around the Dec. 12 end of the conference, will be closely monitored. A “phase out” commitment would likely require a shift away from fossil fuels until their use is eliminated, while a “phase down” could indicate a reduction in their use — but not an absolute end.
There’s also an ongoing debate about whether an agreement should center on “abated” fossil fuels, which are trapped and stocked with carbon capture and storage technologies, or “unabated” fossil fuels, which are largely understood to be produced and used without substantial reductions in the amount of emitted greenhouse gases.
Asked by CNBC’s Steve Sedgwick at COP28 whether it would be the wrong scenario for countries to agree to the phase out of abated fossil fuels, Woods replied, “I think what society ought to focus on is the true problem here, which is emissions.”
“The challenge here is eliminating emissions,” he continued. “How we do that will be a function of where the technology goes, and what the circumstances are, and where those emissions are being emitted.”
In a speech delivered to world leaders on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres was unequivocal in his call for the burning of fossil fuels to be stopped outright, in order to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis.
“We cannot save a burning planet with a firehose of fossil fuels,” Guterres said. “The 1.5-degree limit is only possible if we ultimately stop burning all fossil fuels. Not reduce. Not abate. Phaseout — with a clear timeframe aligned with 1.5 degrees.”
Not everyone is on board with calls to phase out fossil fuels, however. Russia has previously said it would oppose this language being used in the final agreement, while COP28 host the United Arab Emirates has instead signaled its preference for a “phase down.”
Darren Woods, chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in San Francisco, California, US, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Executives from large multinationals are converging on the sidelines of APEC in San Francisco this week for an audience with the Chinese president and other Asian leaders as long-frosty US-China relations show only tentative signs of warming. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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“I don’t think there is a one-size fits all. I actually think that part of the thing that has slowed us down is this focus on making a step change and getting out of our existing energy system and starting something brand new. That is going to be a long, costly process that is going to be very, very expensive,” Exxon Mobil’s Woods said.
“Instead, what we ought to be looking at is how do we get from where we’re at today to a future with lower emissions, and that involves step changes in some areas. It certainly involves wind, solar and [electric vehicles], but it also involves decarbonizing what we currently have.”
Woods said that there are currently options to start reducing the carbon intensity of existing technologies “at a much lower cost.”
“So, stay focused on the problem statement of emissions. Keep your mind open to a variety of different solutions and make sure that the work that everybody is putting into this is focused on the areas of strength that we can make the most reduction the quickest,” he added.
Big Oil executives have previously sought to defend their core business model from climate criticism, saying it is not possible to keep everyone happy during the transition away from fossil fuels. Officials of large oil producing nations, including of the UAE, have likewise advocated for the energy security and affordability of using fossil fuels while transitioning toward the exclusive use of green energy.
Tengku Muhammad Taufik, president and group CEO of Malaysia’s state energy firm Petronas, said in early October, “So, the debate has always been posed here, I’m reminded of an old saying: ‘If you want to keep everyone happy, sell ice cream.’ We are not in the business of ice cream — and, I’m reminded, there are people who are lactose intolerant.”
Exxon announced in mid-October that it had agreed to buy shale rival Pioneer Natural Resources for a whopping $59.5 billion in an all-stock deal. The agreement was Exxon’s largest buyout since acquiring Mobil nearly 25 years ago and was seen to leave no doubt about its future support for fossil fuels.
Asked about criticism the U.S. oil giant has received from climate campaigners over the Pioneer deal, Woods said, “Well, the way we’re looking at this is, there is a demand for oil and gas today, and there will be demand for oil and gas going forward in the future.”
An Exxon Mobil gas station in Washington, DC, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 203.
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“What exactly that level is, we all have our different views on, but as long as there is demand out there, I think what society wants are the most responsible operators meeting that demand. And what we’re committing to do is [to] be the most responsible operator,” he added.
“We will basically produce more oil at a lower cost, more efficiently with less environmental footprint. That’s a win-win-win. And we’re improving U.S. energy security so there’s a lot to like about that deal,” Woods said.