Why the Decline of the Oil and Gas Industry Poses an Economic Opportunity for Washington

Transportation accounts for nearly 70% of petroleum use in the United States, yet the last few weeks have been a strong indicator that even the producers of fossil fuels don’t see a long-term future for their product. With the demand for alternative options rising, it poses a once in a generation opportunity for Washington to seize upon its mantle of green leadership to reap the economic benefits of the clean fuel economy to create thousands of new, good-paying jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and essential services that might otherwise be cut from the state budget because of the COVID pandemic. The cracks in the fossil fuel dam appeared In an August 4 press release from British Petroleum (BP), one of the world’s five largest oil companies as they announced:
  • A tenfold increase in investments in low-carbon energy by 2030,
  • Reduction in oil and gas production by around 40% by 2030,
  • No expansion of oil and gas production to new countries, and
  • A focus on delivering energy rather than extracting resources.
Why would a company disinvest from its bread and butter? The same reason they started drilling for oil in the first place: money. Revenue has taken a hit this year. BP reported a loss of $16.8 billion in the second quarter of 2020 and cut its dividend to shareholders in half to a level it calls, “resilient” (read: reduced future earnings). Assuming this is more than just a ploy to offset a terrible decade of publicity, the commitment to reduce oil and gas production is significant. BP intends to accelerate progress toward its goal of cutting the carbon footprint of its products in half by 2050. This is an absolute reduction in GHG emissions, not a reduction as a proportion of customer base or revenue.

A Clean Gusher of Liquid Fuels

Even with the BP announcement, demand for vehicle fuel isn’t going away any time soon, which is why any carbon reduction strategy must incorporate cleaner fuels. Renewable diesel fuel to run long-haul and delivery trucks and more sustainable jet fuel is an incredibly important piece of the puzzle.

BP’s proposed portfolio recognizes the need for greener gas and diesel. Its mix of low-carbon energy solutions includes renewables, bioenergy, hydrogen fuels, and carbon capture technologies. Bioenergy production is projected to grow five-fold in the coming decade.

Exxon Mobil has also seen the need to shift gears. On August 11th, the company announced its commitment to buy 12.5 million barrels of renewable diesel over the next five years from a small refiner in California, Global Clean Energy, because they underestimated the market demand.

What caused Exxon Mobil to turn to a relatively obscure refiner for its supply? Simple. California implemented a Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) nearly a decade ago. Californians demanded less pollution without giving up their cars, and under their clean fuel standard, a new market has emerged. Over $4 billion has been invested in cleaner fuel production in the state, while Californians have reduced their fossil-based gas and diesel use by 14 billion gallons.

Going forward under the LCFS, the average carbon intensity of fuels in California will need to drop another 20% below 2011 levels by 2030. Oil companies like BP and Exxon-Mobil know this, and they don’t want America’s largest market for greener gas and diesel to leave them in the rear-view mirror.

We Can’t Afford to Wait

Most of the West Coast of North America has embraced clean fuel standards. Oregon implemented measures for low-carbon gas and diesel in 2015, and British Columbia did so back in 2008. Their standards are similar to those that California adopted. Meanwhile, last week Illinois Governor JB Pritzker released a climate and energy plan that contained an LCFS for the entire Midwest.

The race is on to take advantage of clean fuels for transportation, and Washington is already falling behind. Earlier this month, Phillips 66 scrapped its plan to build an $800 million biorefinery in Whatcom County in favor of the Bay Area. Washington’s lack of a clean fuel policy cost us 500 good-paying jobs.

Waste from farming, agriculture, and forestry industries in Washington is already used to produce low-carbon diesel and sustainable jet fuel. But these fuels are being exported to Oregon and California to help those states meet their LCFS benchmarks. In other words, the less climate polluting fuels we currently make go to other places while we continue to import highly polluting fuel for transportation from unstable places like the Middle East and Russia.

Because so much of our electricity is generated by clean hydropower, transportation is Washington’s largest source of climate pollution. If we don’t put a dent in the emissions from that sector, we won’t make any of our future climate change reduction goals. That means more unhealthy air, more poisoned water, and more intense forest fires.

Yet an alternate future exists where we make our own fuels locally instead of importing them from around the world; a future where we use waste created from our local agriculture and forestry industries to create good-paying jobs in smaller and rural communities across Washington that haven’t seen the boom times that have powered the economy in the Central Puget Sound region.

Washington has enough forest waste to produce 400 million gallons of greener diesel and jet fuel. That would supply nearly half of the need for all planes taking off from Sea-Tac, Paine Field, and Spokane International. We aren’t taking advantage of it, though, because fossil fuels have been subsidized to pollute.

By contrast, even though cleaner fuels are better for our health and our planet, they are penalized. A low-carbon fuel standard says all fuels should be treated equally and that their carbon intensity should be a factor in their price.

The math is simple, and the market has spoken. It’s no longer a question of whether the transition to less polluting fuels will happen. Washingtonians have a choice. Do we want to be an early adopter and take advantage of this once in a generation opportunity to grow Washington’s clean economy and create thousands of good-paying jobs, or let the paint dry while other states get the economic and climate benefits?

The time to act is now. Washington should join the rest of the West Coast and implement a statewide clean fuel standard.