Here’s a question – between great old oil producer Occidental Petroleum and electric vehicle maker extraordinaire Tesla, which does more to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions?
I know what you’re thinking. That’s easy.
Well Vicki Hollub agrees with you. She’s the CEO of Occidental (OXY), and she pointed out recently that the amount of CO2 that they pump underground does more to reduce global emissions than Tesla’s entire contributions.
It turns out there’s a lot more to this claim than meets the eye…
Ms Hollub explained, to the Financial Times, that the amount of carbon they are sequestering (putting in the ground) is equivalent to taking four million cars off the road.
The relevant quote for this article is this: “It does more than what Tesla’s doing right now — although we need Tesla to continue what they’re doing. It’s going to take everything.”
She’s not necessarily trying to diss Tesla, so much as pointing out that there are many ways to skin a carbon dioxide molecule.
Luckily for you, I’m going to try and diss them both.
First things first, her claim was not net – ie, it doesn’t factor in how much carbon dioxide the company does emit.
This would be like China pointing out the three coal plants that have been closed, and trying to twist that into a positive when 300 more just opened.
1-0 to Elon.
However, while she wasn’t trying to criticise Tesla’s environmental credentials, perhaps she should have been.
How green is Tesla, really?
Well one thing that infuriates critics of the company more than anything else is that it’s not nearly as positive as people think, and nor is Mr Musk.
If he is such a climate champion, then why does he rack up many, many more miles on his private jet than other (profitable) CEOs in the S&P 500? Why does he have a private jet at all?
And why is he using it repeatedly to do 20-mile trips, which are so much more damaging than driving one of his own electric cars?
Here are some back of the envelope calculations from a Reddit user about how much damage this does.
Musk has a Gulfstream G650ER valued at $70 million dollars.
He flew approximately 250.000 kilometers last year.
The G650ER will consume approximately 1.6 Kg of fuel per Km flown at cruising speed.
This equates to 400.000 Kg (400 tons) of fuel, with a value of approximately $350K.
Such an aircraft will produce 3.15 grams of CO2 per gram of fuel burned (3.15 Kg per Kg).
This would equate 1.260.000 Kg of CO2 (1260 metric tons) being released into the atmosphere.
Your average car will produce about 4 metric tons of CO2 per year in order to both manufacture the fuel and burn it.
This would mean Musk’s jet produced as much CO2 in a year as driving 300 gasoline cars. This, without taking into account the CO2 emissions that came from fuel production. If we took that into account the number would be closer to 400.
The Washington Post reported this fine slice of hypocrisy:
“We know we’ll run out of dead dinosaurs to mine for fuel & have to use sustainable energy eventually,” Musk tweeted in November on the same day his jet flew over Mexico for what Tesla says was a personal trip. “So why not go renewable now & avoid increasing risk of climate catastrophe?”
Does that make it 1-1?
But… as much as I’d love to really ram this point home, it’s not such a big deal when looking at Tesla’s net emissions. It highlights Musk’s personal hypocrisy, for sure, but the company and the cars still represent a great leap forward.
Articles occasionally do the rounds online trying to claim that EVs “aren’t nearly as green as you think”, or “emit just as much CO2 as petrol vehicles”.
And the 550,000 vehicles Tesla sold in 2019 replaced about 4 million tonnes of CO2 compared to conventional driving. Tesla’s working is shown as “the equivalent of saving emissions from being released into the environment from over 500,000 ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles with a fuel economy of 22 miles per gallon.”
The reason people seek to criticise Tesla or EVs though, lies in this next fact.
Emissions don’t just come out of the tailpipe.
There are three tiers of emissions measured – called Scope 1, 2, and 3.
Tesla measures very well on emissions produced when consumers use its product.
But there are more ways to measure a company’s footprint.
For example, Tesla’s manufacturing process is actually less efficient than the average competitor, in terms of CO2e per vehicle (carbon dioxide equivalent – a measure of all harmful greenhouse gases).
Let’s loop back round to Vicki Hollub’s quote though.
Her claim, that Occidental Petroleum prevented more carbon emissions than Tesla, is true. In a very limited sense.
Occidental plunges about 20 million tonnes of CO2 into the ground per year. Technically this trumps Tesla’s 4 million replaced tonnes, or at least puts that figure into perspective.
Tesla has not sold that many cars, so it has not displaced that many petromiles, and there are some emissions from Elon’s jet and from manufacturing – so it’s not perfect and it’s not a giant.
However, as Myles McCormick of the FT quite rightly points out,
Occidental produced about 1m barrels of oil equivalent a day in 2019. Doing so emitted about 28m tonnes of CO2 equivalent from its operations. The subsequent burning of that oil by its customers in the form of petrol and other fuels emitted a further 103m tonnes of CO2 equivalent — though the company said that these so-called Scope 3 emissions were beyond its control.
It’s ironic, because Tesla’s primary focus is on one small aspect of Scope 3 emissions – those produced by its product.
It would rather ignore everything other than product use emissions, while most other companies would argue that what the customer wants or does with it is their problem – ie, don’t blame the steak on the cow.
It’s an interesting debate. The truth, as always probably lies somewhere the middle.
I have always sympathised with the view that the drug war is a blunt and wasteful tool – much better to spend money on improving the demand situation.
This leads me to a similar view about oil majors. Where there is demand, there will be supply.
They should be judged on a different metric – how efficiently and cleanly they can produce a barrel of oil.
If we want to reduce oil usage, it’s not much use stopping this or that oil major from investing in a project. Someone less scrupulous will step in and do it anyway, if the demand is there.
Time and resources would be much better spent supporting innovation in clean technologies, building out electric charging infrastructure, incentivising fleet operators to switch to EVs, and more.
And while they’re at it, they could legalise another bit of the green economy too – cannabis. But that’s another story, for another time.
But anyway, in the Occidental vs Tesla debate, it’s fair to say that Vicki Hollub has brought attention on some valuable and interesting points. It’s important to realise that it’s not quite four legs good, two legs bad – as many would love to believe. Rather, there is a huge amount of nuance and complexity around reducing emissions, and where the responsibility or blame lies for doing so.
In the end, we’re all in this together, and all companies will have to muck in one way or another.
All the best for now,
Editor, UK Uncensored
PS Tesla’s done amazing things, more than you would think… I’m not talking about Tesla Inc, I’m talking about Nikola Tesla. The pioneer behind A/C current and radio technology. Nikola has one big idea, one that was unfulfilled while he was alive. But scientists have finally unlocked Nikola’s secret. Find out here.