Wednesday, 27th September, 2023

[Day 1290]

Today is a day that I like to describe as ‘chewy’ because we had nothing much on and the day seemed to be a little indeterminate as regards the weather. We had made a provisional plan to go to one of our favourite cafes in Droitwich just down the road but I judged that Meg seemed a little too wobbly when she got up this morning so it was probably better for us than we spent a quietish day at home. After we had got ourselves up and breakfasted, I made a lightning visit to Waitrose for some supplies and to to pick up my copy of ‘The Times’ I am a little distressed to learn from a sign on my usual newsagent’s door that they would be ‘closed for the time being because of a domestic emergency’ or similar so I wonder what has happened. I do hope that neither the newsagent nor his wife have been taken ill but I shall just have to keep the shop door under surveillance until such time as they can re-open. In the meanwhile, we amused ourselves this morning, if that is the right phrase, with a variety of TV presentations. For lunch, I raided our fridge as it is the day before our shopping day on a Thursday and made a lunch of parsnips, leeks in an onion sauce and some tomatoes cooked and flavoured with basil. What with on thing or another, I finished up with five saucepans on the go this morning which I can scarcely ever remember doing before so I must remember to do what I can on the microwave on another occasion. The meal was very tasty but I had prepared somewhat too much for Meg so I must train myself to give her two-thirds portions from now on as her energy needs are so much less than mine.

The big political news reported today is that the regulator has approved (and presumably the government concurs) with the RoseBank Ool and Gas field off the Shetland Isles. Sky News reports that the timing could hardly be any more provocative. Barely 24 hours after the International Energy Agency (IEA) reiterated in a new piece of analysis that there was no need for new oil or gas projects if the world is to get to net zero, Britain has approved the biggest new oilfield in more than a decade. Rosebank is not massive by global standards. It is expected to produce roughly 300 million barrels of oil, which makes it a relative minnow compared with some of the giant fields previously discovered and exploited in the North Sea (to put it into context, Brent produced about three billion barrels, so 10 times more). It will do little to change the overarching trend – that the UK is becoming more and more reliant on imported oil to power its economy. Indeed, it is quite likely that most of the oil produced at Rosebank will end up being exported to refineries overseas rather than processed in this country. Even so, it is the first major new field to be approved since the UK committed to hitting net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And it is symbolic in other senses too: it marks the opening of a new frontier in the North Sea. The question that I ask myself is whether this oil has to be burnt as a fuel, adding to the carbon emissions. A quick search of Google indicates that there are 6,000 products made from oil including solvents, ink, floor wax, ballpoint pens, upholstery, sweaters, boats, bicycle tyres, sports car bodies, nail polish, dresses, golf bags just to show some of the diversity of products involved. I do not know whether in the pursuit of a green economy, the petrochemical industry will need to evolve or completely transform itself. The growth in demand for petrochemical products means that petrochemicals are set to account for over a third of the growth in oil demand to 2030, and nearly half to 2050, ahead of trucks, aviation and shipping. This subject has hardly received any attention or political debate and parhaps because of the diversity of products manufactured from oil there is no simple solution. But you might have thought that the subject was worthy of some sort of analysis. But what I have learnt from some quick researches is the following.

By breaking the hydrocarbons in oil and natural gas into simpler compounds and then assembling those building blocks, scientists long ago learned to construct molecules of exquisite complexity. Fossil fuels are not just the feedstock for those reactions; they also provide the heat and pressure that drive them. As a result, industrial chemistry’s use of petroleum accounts for 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Now, growing numbers of scientists and, more important, companies think the same final compounds could be made by harnessing renewable energy instead of digging up and rearranging hydrocarbons and spewing waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. First, renewable electricity would split abundant molecules such as CO2, water, oxygen (O2), and nitrogen into reactive fragments. Then, more renewable electricity would help stitch those chemical pieces together to create the products that modern society relies on and is unlikely to give up. Chemists in academia, at startups, and even at industrial giants are testing processes—even prototype plants—that use solar and wind energy, plus air and water, as feedstocks. One company, in Berkeley, has designed a washing machine–size device that uses electricity to convert water and CO2 from the air into fuels and other molecules, with no need for oil. At the other end of the commercial scale is Siemens, the manufacturing conglomerate based in Munich, Germany. That company is selling large-scale electrolyzers that use electricity to split water into O2 and hydrogen (H2), which can serve as a fuel or chemical feedstock. Even petroleum companies such as Shell and Chevron are looking for ways to turn renewable power into fuels.