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Many in Houston call it the nation’s (or the world’s) energy capital. Which means, in practice, that it’s the oil and gas capital. There aren’t any gleaming office towers or huge industrial complexes devoted to renewable energy, as there are for oil and natural gas.

Because oil and gas are fossil fuels, “energy capital” also means Houston is a leading center for businesses that make and sell products that produce carbon emissions that are heating and disrupting the planet’s climate system.

You might think, then, that a conference called the Houston Low-Carbon Energy Summit would be sponsored by a coalition of environmental groups, perhaps, or a local university. But an event with that name is being staged this week by the Center for Houston’s Future, a think tank affiliated with the Greater Houston Partnership, which is itself the area’s leading business organization. Giant oil, gas and petrochemical companies have long played an influential role in the Partnership’s activities.

While many climate-action advocates call for ending fossil-fuel use, promotional materials for the summit indicate the Center envisions a major continuing place for oil and gas as humanity grapples with the challenges of climate disruption. Conference discussions will deal with things like “energy storage and renewable energy, carbon sequestration and usage, methane [another potent greenhouse gas] capture, cleaner fuels, and expanded markets for natural gas,” cleanest of the fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions, but a source of methane pollution. The meeting, the Center said, “will send a clear message that Houston-based energy companies and stakeholders are working to ensure that Houston will remain the Energy Capital of the World, as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy.”

Brett Perlman, the CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future, talked with Bill Dawson, editor of Texas Climate News, about the conference. This transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Center for Houston's Future

Brett Perlman

Tell me how the summit came about. Even though a lot of people are well aware that leading oil and gas companies have explicitly acknowledged the reality and the impending risks of climate change for some time now, some might find it surprising that a think tank affiliated with Houston’s leading business organization would be sponsoring this event.

That’s why we’re doing this.

Would you speak to that, please?

Well, we really do see that there’s a lot going on, maybe just beneath the surface, that people really don’t read about, don’t have access to, don’t see. And we think that there is an opportunity really to change the dialogue on the way people think about Houston and what energy companies are doing and start a discussion on how the energy companies in Houston need to be part of the dialogue for addressing climate change.

The Center, your organization, has an independent board. But is it accurate to regard this summit, and the broader Center initiative that this summit will be launching, as a significant indicator of evolving opinion in the Houston business leadership – which means the leadership of some national and multinational companies – on climate change and the increasing urgency? There are some indications in the broader social and political discourse right now about a potential opening for more action on climate change, notwithstanding the position of the president and many in the Republican leadership. Apart from the content of the summit itself, is it accurate to see it as part of this larger shift that seems to be occurring?

I think it is accurate, and I think we’re starting to see that happen with some of the energy companies in Houston and the work they’re doing. At the Center for Houston’s Future, we are looking at the evolution of the energy industry and seeing some significant changes. We view our role as helping to collect and formulate a developing consensus around relevant changes and where we ought to be going as a community.

That’s why we did this summit now – because we saw that the energy landscape is changing rapidly, that companies are starting to put more attention into decarbonizing the energy sector. And we saw, frankly, some opportunities for Houston to become a leader in that space. What we want to do is try to fill that gap and try to start a discussion around how can Houston lead this transition to a low-carbon energy future.

Throughout the 1990s, I was the Houston Chronicle’s environmental reporter. Probably my major single task was to follow the multiple, complicated ins and outs of the challenge of meeting the federal Clean Air Act mandate to develop a State Implementation Plan to meet the ozone [smog] standard in Houston. I witnessed a transition in the Houston business leadership, from much less eagerness to act on ozone to much more eagerness to come to the table and be not an obstructer but to help shape the dialogue as compliance plans were developed. Am I stretching to see some sort of parallel with what’s going on now with regard to climate and the energy industry?

No, I don’t think so at all. I’m aware of that history and the role that the Partnership played in addressing that State Implementation Plan and some of the individuals that were involved in that, like Kelly Frels [a prominent attorney involved in discussions about improving Houston’s air quality and other civic endeavors], who was very influential in that. The work that Kelly did, I think, is a model for what we’re trying to do here as we really do believe that the business community needs to play a proactive role in helping shape this dialogue around this transition to the new energy futures that’s starting to evolve.

The conference program is oriented almost entirely toward the mitigation of climate change – stopping the emission-caused warming that scientists say is happening. There is one panel on adaptation. Why did you make this decision? I see mitigation and the role that the Houston business leadership could play as helping solve a global problem, whereas a conference on adaptation would have been on more of a local or regional challenge.

That’s a really excellent question and the reason we did that is precisely because of the way you defined it. Because we really think that we at the Center want to work on problems that impact the Houston community but also have global impact. And because of our strength in our energy industry I don’t believe that there’s any other place in the country and maybe no other place in the world that could have as big an impact on addressing climate change – and that’s starting to build these solutions – as Houston, Texas, can.

We might do something on adaptation. I think that there is a whole story to be told on adaptation, and I don’t want to diminish that. I think adaptation is an important part of the strategy for addressing climate change, but we really think for mitigation there is a set of tools in the toolkit that we can use to address carbon emissions from all the sectors. And we have something as a community, as an industry, to say on those issues. The conference is really designed to start that dialogue. And by the way that dialogue is already going on. It just hasn’t been going on in a forum like what we’re creating.

The program deals with a lot of things that energy companies are doing or can be doing or should be doing, regardless of whether there is some governmental hammer – whether it’s a carbon tax or a Green New Deal or a Clean Power Plan like the Obama administration had or cap-and-trade or technology incentives like [Texas’ Republican] Sen. John Cornyn recently spoke about. Am I right that these are things that are going on to some extent and that you are hoping there’ll be more discussion about happening, regardless of whether there’s some federal mandate? 

That’s right. I think we are trying to capture what energy companies are already doing. But we’re also interested in identifying what the gaps are. And we’re also interested in talking about the pace of change: What we’re doing – are we doing it fast enough? There’s the entire panel of climate experts from across the country. We feel very fortunate to have some of the world’s leading experts at this conference. Melanie Kenderdine, who was the policy chief in the Department of Energy and worked very closely with Ernie Moniz [energy secretary in the Obama administration]. Ned Harvey and Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute. These are well-respected experts in this area, and they’re bringing perspectives to have a dialogue with industry on [whether] what we’re doing is enough.

We’re also asking the question, what needs to happen to create more innovation in energy to start addressing these problems. [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates said that in order to solve climate change, what we need is a revolution in technology. We certainly believe that, and that there are opportunities for innovation in energy that aren’t being captured today or are just at the very beginning stages. And those are the things where Houston can excel. So this is not only about addressing climate change but also about economic development. We believe there is a business case to be made for making Houston a leader in addressing climate change and building the energy-innovation ecosystem to really lead in this area.

[The Paris Climate Agreement calls for rapid, sweeping changes in energy use to hold man-made heating of the atmosphere to 2 degrees Celsius. A panel at the conference is entitled “What Needs to Happen to Achieve Paris? Do We Need an Energy Transition or Transformation to Maintain a 2C World?”] The United States is in the process of pulling out of the Paris Agreement. What does the phrasing of the Paris panel’s title mean about the Center’s view?

The Paris Agreement was signed by 195 countries and is an international agreement that’s in effect. We think that whether it’s implemented by the U.S. or not – the current administration or some future administration – this idea that we want to maintain global temperatures, on average, at a level no higher than 2 degrees C remains a benchmark that the world is using to determine whether we’re adequately addressing climate change, whether we’re succeeding in addressing this challenge.

One session is about “a roadmap to zero carbon in oil and gas.” That’s going to raise some eyebrows among some people who follow this issue and think, how can you have zero carbon in oil and gas? It seems to suggest that the world can keep using oil and gas with carbon capture and removal technologies widely deployed. Is this what that panel is going to be talking about?

We’ve done some work already as part of the conference that looks at what that opportunity is to create that roadmap. I can’t say that we have created the roadmap today, but we have a sense of where companies are starting to align. There are a number of energy companies – refiners and petrochemical companies – that certainly understand that they are going to have to address emissions from their facilities.

And that will come through technologies like you mentioned. It may come through capturing methane emissions. It’ll come with creating a whole ecosystem in oil and gas that has to work together. Those are the things we’re going to start to explore. How do we create that? How do we create that roadmap that starts us down this path of moving towards zero or low carbon emissions from fossil fuels? One of the things we’re good at in Houston is addressing engineering challenges. There are industry organizations like the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative which are basically trying to undertake exactly this challenge. That’s why we’re presenting that panel in that way – to say that creating zero emissions from fossil fuels has to be part of the tools that we have to address climate change.

Have you received any pushback from any relevant business organizations to the fact that this summit is happening at all?

Absolutely none.

Do you see any challenges to the sort of action that the summit will be discussing – and promoting, really – in the prevailing opinions that we have here in Texas still among many of the state’s top elected officials?  Senator Cornyn on the other hand has taken a step in the direction of acknowledging the issue and promoting the idea of technology improvements to do something about it. But the sorts of things your summit is discussing are way beyond talking about new technology. Do you see any challenges in the fact that there are still some folks who don’t see things the same way?

Sometimes the politicians are behind the trend on where industry and other stakeholders and the public are going. So I think this is maybe an example of what we would hope would come out of this summit: That the politicians start to see that industry – some parts of industry, and I won’t say all of the industry – is moving forward on these things because they understand what a challenge this problem is to our well-being and way of life and that it needs to start being addressed.

So maybe this is just a beginning of a longer discussion that needs to happen in order for the politicians to finally catch up with where the public and industry and other stakeholders are. We think this is one of the most important issues for the globe and for our community, and we are very interested in working to start to create this dialogue. That’s what we’re about.


Image credits: Houston skyline – Randall Pugh / Flickr. Brett Perlman – Center for Houston’s Future.