Non-binding it may have been, but the people of three Kurdish governorates and the city of Kirkuk have voted overwhelmingly to seek independence from Iraq. The movement for this has been building up over the years – Saddam Hussein’s administration kept it quashed but the subsequent political landscape in Iraq has encouraged it. The referendum, and its results, was quickly condemned by the central Iraqi government, as well as Kurdistan’s neighbours of Turkey and Iran.
The central Iraq government considers Kurdistan a renegade province, asserting that it holds sovereignty over the land and – more importantly – its oil riches. Yet, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) still calls the shots, and despite central protests, sells its own oil that powers its own economy. It is a situation analogous to China and Taiwan or Spain and Barcelona. The original proposition for the referendum was for the three major Kurdish regions. This had been given a lukewarm response by Iraq’s central government, but when it was expanded to include Kirkuk – where oil was first discovered in Iraq in 1927 – hackles were raised and retaliation was threatened.
At Iraq’s requests, Iran closed its airspace surrounding the Kurdish regions, preventing flights, while also conducting military exercises at the border in a show of force. Turkey condemned the referendum in no uncertain terms, going as far as threatening military intervention. The issue is optics. Turkey is dealing with its own restive Kurdish minority population, as is Iran, and the worry is that the referendum would spur Turkish and Iranian Kurds to band together to force an independent Kurdistan carved out of bits of Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
It is Turkey that the KRG should worry about. Even though the vote was declared as non-binding – merely an indication of the people’s desire of independence – Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the vote was ‘laying the ground for conflict.’ This is crucial because Turkey is the only conduit for Kurdish crude oil to reach the wider market, shipped via pipeline to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Kurdish oil could pass through Iraqi ports, but because the Iraqi central government considers all oil produced within its borders under the authority of state crude marketing agency SOMO, the KRG would receive no revenue from this. And now Turkey is threatening to close this sole valve, which would leave the landlocked KRG with much oil and no place to sell it. And the KRG has a lot of oil. The region produced some 550,000 b/d of oil last year, and looks set to boost output to 600,000 b/d, putting it on par with OPEC members Qatar and Ecuador. The entire region itself is estimated to hold some 45 billion barrels of crude reserves, which is more than Nigeria. This is the root of the conflict. The region is rich – very rich – in oil. And the Iraqi government will not let it go without a fight.
Worst still for the KRG is that Turkey is now leaning to treating all oil originating from Iraq as under Iraqi central control through SOMO. The current pipeline leading to Ceyhan is controlled by the Kurds and piggybacked upon by the federal North Oil Company; Turkey’s new policy would mean that revenue from all that oil will go to Iraq, not split between the KRG and Iran as it now is. It may not lead to that. Most signs are pointing to this being political bluster and grandstanding to indicate disapproval. Oil continues to flow through the Turkish pipeline without any interruption, and looks set to do so for a while. The KRG has recently signed plans with Russia’s Rosneft to build and expand natural gas pipelines in Kurdistan, while Chevron drilled its first exploration well in the Sarta block in Iraqi Kurdistan in two years.
What the referendum has achieved, is to draw the lines in the battleground for Kurdistan. These lines will not be crossed. They will form the basis of negotiation between the KRG and the Iraqi government on how best to move forward with their relationship. The KRG cannot afford to make new enemies; their ‘friends’ in Turkey and Iran are problems enough. But what they have is oil. And that is a very good bargaining chip in their quest for independence.
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In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.
Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.
Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.
This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.
But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.
But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.
Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.
Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.
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