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Energy company versus climate petition – a meeting of opposites?

At the ZEIT conference “Austria 2022”, a panel discussion brought together individuals who had never met like this before: Rainer Seele, OMV CEO and responsible for safeguarding oil and gas supply, and Katharina Rogenhofer, initiator of the citizens’ initiative on climate action, discussed in the Austrian Parliament that very day. Born sparring partners on paper, at least politically. But how far apart are they really when drilling down to the details?

Corinna Milborn: Let’s start by establishing common ground. Both of you recognize the climate crisis. You just draw different conclusions from it. I would like to ask: How bad is it? And how fast do we need to act?

Rainer Seele: I believe we should work off the basis of rational figures. And not emotionalize the climate crisis too much. I am especially against stirring up fear among the population. We see that the climate crisis is gathering pace and that we need to react. But this is a global task that requires a great deal of energy from business but also from policymakers as well. Especially when it comes to financing this transition.

Katharina Rogenhofer: I find it good that we both recognize the scientific figures. That’s crucial. Because I think that the climate crisis has been played down for far too long. We have failed to act for the past 30 years. The climate crisis has led to a situation in which hundreds of millions of people will fall into poverty, will have to relocate, because they can’t grow any more food where they live or because their island has been flooded. First we have to process these figures in our own heads. The climate crisis is killing the forests, it’s causing harvests to fail. So, it’s not about inciting fear, but we do have to emphasize the urgency.

Rainer Seele: I can understand that certain things are emotionalized in order to add more pressure. That’s reasonable. The only thing I am criticizing is that looking at the past doesn’t actually bring us further forward. The targets that were set politically, well none of them have been achieved. We’re in agreement here. But what I am calling for is that we develop clear concepts of how we want to counter this. There is huge potential in innovation and this has to be prioritized by business and researchers. You shouldn’t force change through a culture of banning things, instead you should provide incentives to encourage a progressive way forward.

Katharina Rogenhofer: It’s not true that there are no plans and concepts. On the contrary, we have made demands. We need a CO2 budget just like our national economic budget. We need to exit oil, coal and gas. And here we need to be very clear, also when investing in infrastructure. At the present time we should no longer be allowing the installation of gas heating or oil heating. We need to shift road use as far as possible towards public transport. With every new gas pipeline that is built, with every oil heating system, we are chaining ourselves to fossil-fuel infrastructure for another 20 to 50 years. That needs a rethink in light of the climate crisis. 

We see that the climate crisis is gathering pace and that we need to react. But this is a global task that requires a great deal of power from business but also from policymakers as well. Especially when it comes to financing this transition.” 
Rainer Seele, Chief Executive Offier, OMV Aktiengesellschaft

Corinna Milborn: Climate activists are demanding that you don’t take a single bit more gas, a single drop more oil from the ground, that you stop – now, immediately. How realistic is this demand?

Rainer Seele: It’s a question of the timeframe you’re imagining. If today I push a button and shut down my refinery then people can’t drive their cars or take a plane anymore. That’s unrealistic. But equally none of the major oil and gas companies today are still saying that there are billions to be made from producing oil. There has been a realization that there will be a step-by-step change. The forecasts show us that oil consumption won’t be as high as with earlier prognoses. And that we are seeing a shift – in the direction of natural gas. And in the longer term, renewables in particular will make up a significant share.

Corinna Milborn: And what does that mean in terms of years? How long will you keep on taking oil and gas out of the ground?

Rainer Seele: I believe it will last much longer than we all think. Because we will continue to need this raw material. We all think that oil always ends up in an exhaust pipe. But we have a crystal-clear strategy at OMV: in future we will burn less oil and process more. We can take the crude oil and use it to make high-value products in the chemicals sector, products needed to build electric vehicles or iPhones for example. We will continue to need oil in the future for an array of applications in the non-fuels sector.

Katharina Rogenhofer: Well, no-one is demanding that this happens tomorrow. But we all need to be clear that oil, coal and gas are emission-intensive sources of energy. When we burn them, we release CO2 into the atmosphere and exacerbate the climate crisis. In the long term, we need to exit every form of fossil fuel. In the long term, we need to cut emissions to zero, not just reduce them. It’s a bit like saying that smoking a cigarette with a filter is good for your health. By 2040 nationally and by 2050 internationally, we can only emit as much as can be naturally bound in trees or marshes. And that means exiting oil, coal, gas.

We need to be clear that oil, coal and gas are emission-intensive sources of energy. When we burn them, we release CO2 into the atmosphere. In the long term, we need to exit every form of fossil fuel.
Katharina Rogenhofer, Spokesperson for Austria’s citizens’ initiative on climate action

Corinna Milborn: Is that realistic, Mr. Seele?

Rainer Seele: Here we must be careful not to ignore the consumer, the customer, society. We always think that we can simply switch off markets and consumer behavior and that tomorrow everything will be different. We need to ensure that the consumer doesn’t perceive this change as a step backwards, but rather as a form of progress. And progress means taking care that certain living standards are upheld. We don’t want to have to get the candles out tomorrow because of a power cut.

Katharina Rogenhofer: Reversing climate change doesn’t have anything to do with taking a step backwards. It’s actually about a vision for the future in which we use renewables for power and heating, prioritize green spaces over paving, and comfortably get from A to B using public transport. We may even live healthier lives as the air will be less polluted with the particles from burning oil, coal and gas.

Corinna Milborn: That’s something that differentiates OMV from other big oil companies. They say they’re going into renewables. You say that you’re sticking with oil, but you’re going into processing.

Rainer Seele: We have looked a lot at this question. We actually have to ask ourselves, where does the competitive advantage lie? Are we particularly skilled at building wind turbines or solar panels? At OMV we don’t have any competitive advantage there. But we identified that we are already one of Europe’s biggest chemicals producers. Accordingly, we want to delve into the value chains and put a much greater focus on producing high-quality plastics that we will need in the automotive sector, in healthcare and in nutrition. We want to be more active in this area.

Katharina Rogenhofer: And I don’t yet see any step in the right direction. If you look at OMV’s vision of the future and do the math, then you realize that an equal amount of oil will be produced. And even more gas. Maybe some of it will go into processing. But I haven’t seen that you want to exit oil and gas completely. In the meantime, a full 87 percent of your products will still be burnt and still release CO2 into the atmosphere. And while we’re on the subject of processing, it’s pretty questionable whether this is a solution or whether it’s simply a way to maintain our dependency on oil. Plastic is an environmental problem whichever way you look at it. Yes, there are certainly niche solutions when you’re talking about medical products. But I think there are visions that are more fit for the future. For example, as a large company you could commit to geothermal energy. 

Corinna Milborn: But you also have methods where you can take CO2 and use it to produce fuel or plastic. Is that perhaps a future technology?

Katharina Rogenhofer: That happens to be what trees do every day – they suck up CO2 from the air and we can also build houses from wood for example. That’s a brilliant carbon capture and storage technology. But let’s be clear – all of these things are still in their infancy. So why should we now commit to technologies where we don’t yet know how they will pan out? What’s more, the method for making plastic from oil, and making fuel from plastic uses massive amounts of energy. Where should this energy come from? And on the other hand, we know that we have to reduce CO2. That’s why we should pivot to renewables, to geothermal. And not to plastic, which leads to even more pollution.

Rainer Seele: These technologies are not in their infancy; we have mature technologies and an established procedure for using CO2 in such a way that we can then make either plastic or synthetic kerosene, for example. Alongside hydrogen, that is currently the only prospect for reducing aviation emissions.

Corinna Milborn: Thank you very much for the passionate exchange and for this discussion.

Zeit Conference Austria 2022

The interview took place as part of the "Zeit Conference Austria 2022" in German language and is presented here in an abbreviated format.

You can view the full interview here (in German):
ZEIT Conference Austria 2022 | Interview with Katharina Rogenhofer and Rainer Seele

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