Energy experts and government representatives met this week in Houston to discuss the state of the energy industry at IHS Markit’s annual CERAWeek. The conference has historically been a convening of thinkers in conventional fossil fuels, but this year the industry also grappled with a theme that’s gaining more attention across the sector: the energy transition. 

Greentech Media rounded up the highlights. 

Oil and gas wrestles with emissions reductions

Oil and gas majors are now talking a big game on the energy transition: rebranding, buying up clean energy companies and positioning to “thrive through” the changes. CERAWeek was no exception. But right alongside their recognition that the transition is happening, companies doubled down on commitments to their core business.

In a conversation with CNBC, BP CEO Bob Dudley said the company expects renewables to play a key role moving forward, “in combination with natural gas.” The oil major sees a way to make money in clean energy, but said it’ll balance that with its traditional markets. 

“There is a business model there, but it’s one of margin rather than home runs,” Dudley said.   

This week the company also announced it will team with the Environmental Defense Fund on a three-year effort to identify and develop technologies to curb methane emissions in oil and gas production. The atmospheric warming potential of methane is tens of times that of carbon.

That effort got a boost when Gretchen Watkins, the U.S. president of Royal Dutch Shell, implored the Environmental Protection Agency to uphold methane standards. 

Shell also pledged this week to reduce emissions of its operations and product sales by 2 to 3 percent from 2016 to 2021.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Maarten Wetselaar, director of Shell’s Gas & New Energies Division, expanded on the company’s ambition to build the “utility of the future.” Wetselaar said Shell sees electrification as the biggest trend in energy in the next decade and believes it can grow to become the largest electricity power company in the world by the early 2030s.

“We are not interested in the power business because we like what we saw in the last 20 years; we are interested because we think we like what we see in the next 20 years,” Wetselaar said. Like its peers, Shell sees a future containing renewables alongside natural gas. 

Onstage at the conference, Eldar Saetre, CEO of Equinor, recognized climate change but also said the Norwegian company’s business will remain the same. 

“We are still proud to produce oil and gas,” he said. 

In its annual sustainability report, released Friday, Equinor said it would also continue scaling up “new energy solutions” to meet growing demand.

Though oil and gas majors say they’re working to lessen their environmental impact, it's worth remembering that they’re still on the member list for the American Petroleum Institute (API), a trade association that’s lobbied against protections like methane regulations. 

Equinor’s Saetre recognized that tension, but ultimately sidestepped it, in a conversation with Axios this week. 

“There are dilemmas with API, but we also feel we can have different views on specific themes and agree on other themes,” said Saetre. “As long as we can do that, we find that it’s an association we can be a part of.” 

Discussing the Green New Deal 

The controversial resolution from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey was also on the minds of many CERAWeek attendees. 

Reuters reports that BP’s Dudley said the major can only play a part in developing a cleaner energy system if it also engages with activists — he referenced the mass school “climate strike” walkouts planned for Friday — and policymakers, like those behind the Green New Deal.

“We need to demonstrate that we share the common goal of a low-carbon future and that we are in action toward it,” Dudley said. 

Energy Secretary Rick Perry also expressed interest in a conversation on the plan, but he cautioned against excluding certain energy sources. 

“If we are going to be serious about the climate, we have to be realistic,” he said. “It’s the transition to [liquefied natural gas], it’s using nuclear, it’s using our renewables in a combined way.”

Mike Sommers, president at API (of which BP America is a member) went further in his criticism, calling the deal “unrealistic.” 

“I think for most of our members, yes, they take it seriously from a public relations perspective, but you look at what it actually means, and more than anything, it’s a plan to have a plan right now,” Sommers told CNBC

Disruption in the car business

The executive chairman of Ford Motors, William Clay Ford Jr., recognized at CERAWeek that “every bit of our business is being disrupted.” Last year, Ford said it was moving away from making sedans and announced it would drop $11 billion into developing electric vehicles.  

For now, car manufacturers like Ford are working to balance demand for the cars that consumers want now, namely SUVs, and the electrified vehicles they’ll look for in the future.

To help get there, General Motors told Axios it’s working to increase the charging companies involved in an already-announced partnership that includes ChargePoint, newly-Shell-acquired Greenlots and EVgo. 

At CERAWeek, CEO Mary Barra also said the company would increase production of the Bolt to meet global demand. GM announced a corporate restructuring in November to focus on SUVs, crossovers and trucks, as well as electric vehicles.

“We are in the midst of a transportation revolution,” Barra said. “There is more to come, because the Bolt EV is our platform providing a window into our all-electric and self-driving future.” 

Resilience, meet jello

The resilience docket is back, folks. At CERAWeek, DOE's Perry said he’s “thrown a lot of jello at the wall” to try to find solutions to support coal and nuclear plants, to no avail. The energy secretary said federal negotiations are ongoing as he encouraged states to pursue their own plans. 

It’s now been over a year since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officially rebuffed Perry’s efforts on a lifeline for coal and nuclear. FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee dug into the ongoing resilience debate at the conference as well, reports Utility Dive’s Gavin Bade.

The chairman noted that it might not be possible to gird the grid against disruptions from every extreme event, but Chatterjee suggested transmission investment might help.   

“I believe it is more reasonable for us to consider additional transmission investments as an insurance policy to help reduce the size of disruption and enhance the grid's ability to bounce back," he said.