World’s Fourth-Biggest Oil Company Vows to Go Big on Green Power

To help fight climate change, France’s Total commits to leaving some fossil fuels in the ground.
Patrick Pouyanne, CEO of French oil and gas company Total, discussed plans for adapting the business to climate change at its annual shareholders meeting on May 24. (Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters)
May 26, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

One of the world’s biggest oil companies is factoring global goals for combating climate change into its multi-decade business plan.

French oil giant Total acknowledged in a report released Tuesday that “a part of the world’s fossil fuel resources cannot be developed” if nations are to fulfill the Paris climate accord agreement to hold global temperature increases to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The company stood by a 2015 decision to reduce investments in oil production from Canadian tar sands, adding that it confirmed at that time “that we do not conduct oil exploration or production operations in the Arctic ice pack.” Total first announced its position on Arctic drilling in 2012, according to Reuters.

Total’s leaders are “trying to link their strategies and investments to climate decisions,” said Alexander Shestakov, the director of the World Wildlife Fund’s global Arctic program. “That’s a positive sign coming from one of the world’s oil majors.”

But he noted that the firm has left a door open to Arctic drilling.

“In the new strategy, they just confirmed that they are not planning to do any oil exploration in the Arctic ice pack,” Shestakov said. “It is a small nuance, but there are some parts of the Arctic that are not covered with ice—like the Barents Sea, where Norway is operating. If they put full stop after ‘the Arctic,’ that will be stronger and more interesting.”

Sea ice is diminishing rapidly as global temperatures rise, with 2016 on course to set a record. Ice began breaking up in Alaska in mid-May—weeks earlier than usual, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “It looks like late June or early July right now,” David Douglas, a wildlife biologist with the United States Geological Survey, said in a statement. “Polar bears are having to make their decisions about how to move and where to go on thinner ice pack.”

Total, which is valued at about $140 billion, said it would expand its renewable energy business sixfold, from 3 percent of its operations in 2015 to 20 percent by 2035, according to the report.

The firm also intends to make natural gas more than 60 percent of its fossil fuel production by 2035. The company’s fossil fuel production is split about evenly between natural gas and oil.

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Carbon dioxide emissions from energy production are the leading driver of climate change, and burning natural gas produces the lowest emissions of any fossil fuel. But critics have argued that leaks and emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from operations make natural gas as bad an option as coal or oil.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported in April that oil and natural gas extraction accounted for a third of the nation’s methane emissions, beating out the livestock industry.

Perhaps anticipating these criticisms, Total committed in the report to ending methane flaring at natural gas operations by 2030.

Climate activists praised Total for reducing its investments in oil production. “Total’s admission that development of tar sands is inconsistent with combatting climate change highlights the absurdity of continued attempts by pipeline companies like TransCanada and Enbridge to build more tar sands pipelines,” read a joint statement issued by an environmental coalition including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Oil Change International, and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

But Total’s plan to expand natural gas production was greeted skeptically. “Sierra Club welcomes Total’s new policy changes to meet the global climate accord and reduce its role in climate disruption,” Sierra Club climate policy director John Coequyt said in a statement. “Companies like Total are key players in the world’s transition away from dirty fuels.” But “the only real strategy for effectively tackling the climate crisis is to transition off of outdated dirty fuels and move toward 100% clean, renewable energy.”