CMI Co-director and Principal Investigator: Robert Socolow

This is my last contribution to an annual report of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) in the role of co-director. At the Annual Meeting in April 2019, I will be stepping down after eighteen and a half years. In this valedictory I look back and then forward.


What drove us all?

When John Browne, BP’s CEO, at his Stanford speech in 1997, broke ranks with BP’s peer group of leading oil and gas companies to insist upon the urgency of climate change, there was ample evidence at hand that the rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere posed serious threats to human well-being. Moreover, it was undeniable that the principal cause of the rising concentration was the extraction of fossil carbon from geological formations and its release to the atmosphere after combustion. A robust global energy system based on fossil fuels was overwhelming the atmosphere of a small planet.

“Business as Usual” wasn’t good enough. The fossil fuel industries weren’t acknowledging their role, nor were they working at inventing new roles. The times required leaders who understood the need to be disruptive.

BP decided, as one expression of its revised priorities, that it would restructure its ways of working with universities, in favor of deeper and broader relationships. What happened next, as far as CMI is concerned, is captured in the new autobiography by Bernie Bulkin, who led the process when he was BP’s chief scientist (see Bernard J. Bulkin, Solving Chemistry: A Scientist’s Journey. Whitefox Publishing, 2019):

It seemed important to me that the work that would be carried out be of deep interest to at least some of the technical community within the company, and ideally some of the business community as well. [One theme] seemed obvious to me – do something connected to climate change. At that time there was the beginning of interest in what we now call carbon capture and storage (CCS)...This CCS process would require a lot of science and engineering if it was ever to be practical, and I wanted to use one of the university centres to advance this science and engineering. ...I wanted all this work to be set in a place where there was some deep thinking about climate change itself, so that the university scientists and engineers could influence our business leadership with their thoughts. (pp. 200-204, passim)

Princeton was in a competition with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford. Princeton had caught BP’s attention because of my work on the industrial ecology of carbon and the work on CCS by our colleague, Bob Williams. My message was that the atmosphere has been our wastebasket for all of the carbon human beings have burned, but there are other wastebaskets. Bob’s message was that the opportunities for CCS were much larger than others had understood: not only could the coal industry contribute, but also the oil and gas industry and the fledgling bioenergy industry. And the destinations for captured CO2 could include not only the deep ocean, but also many of the world’s deep geological formations. In 1996, Bob persuaded the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that it could productively expand the U.S. CCS program, and during the summer of 1997, I ran a CCS workshop for DOE that reconceptualized the CCS agenda.

Bulkin describes a fateful phone call:

I called a lead person, out of the blue, at each university, and said we were thinking of giving away $15-20 million for research in a particular area, and were you interested in competing for this. I made clear that this would be a limited competition, pre-selected, so the odds were pretty good. When I called Rob Socolow at Princeton he was away, and I asked that a message be passed to him. Some hours later I got a call back from Texas, where he was travelling with his wife [Jane Pitt, 1938-2003]. He later told me that he had been inclined to ignore my call (since I had not said very much in the message) but his wife told him, “Don’t be stupid, you never know what this could be about.” She was right. (p. 209)

I knew Princeton couldn’t be competitive without a strong second thrust to complement our CCS work. Francois Morel, then head of the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), introduced me to Steve Pacala, whom I had not known before, and Steve and I then presented BP with a program strong in both low- carbon technology and climate science. Bulkin again:

The Princeton gang said that, well, there are certainly some geological issues, and we have someone to work on those, and there are some applied science and engineering problems and we will work on those, but at its heart this is an environmental problem. We are taking a gas which is viewed now as a pollutant and going to store it someplace. MIT was proposing to store it at the bottom of the ocean. Will the public not say “OK, so you guys screwed up the air, and now you are going to pollute the ocean too?”, or if it is to go underground, will you not have to deal with issues of how long it will stay there, what happens if it escapes, how does the storage perturb the geology, and a range of other issues? (p. 212)

BP liked our view that global carbon management was, first of all, an environmental problem, deeply interdisciplinary. We won. And we set off on the right foot.


The CMI program

CMI is currently a quarter-of-a-century program (2000-2025) to which BP has committed 56 million dollars. (I note that this remarkable total is nearly 1 percent of what BP identifies as the cost of its commitments to sustainability in the Browne era.) Princeton regards CMI as its best example of a university-industry relationship, and BP considers CMI its best university program.

Both Princeton and BP refer to CMI as a partnership. Its hallmark is an arms-length relationship. Steve and I choose which Princeton faculty to support, and they choose their own research topics and approaches, as well as their staff and students. BP occasionally asks Princeton to create webinars for BP’s internal use, to comment on BP’s public reports as they develop, and to provide tailored on-campus briefings about climate change science and technology for a few of its senior executives.

CMI research expresses the norms of natural science. We are irreverent. We are committed to understand problems deeply, to document our work fully, and to keep our thumbs off the scale. We aren’t hired guns. We don’t do “answer analysis,” which buttresses someone else’s case with arguments that point in a predetermined direction and suppresses arguments that point in the opposite direction. Murray Gell- Mann, a notable physicist and a mentor of mine, sees us as part of the “rational underground.”

We are also committed to getting our ideas into public discourse. An exemplar was Steve’s and my work on stabilization wedges, not only published in Science in 2004 and in Scientific American in 2006, but also, thanks to Steve and to Roberta Hotinski, turned into a downloadable game that high school students could play.

This ethos, in my view, is the principal reason why CMI has been so fortunate in the recruitment and retention of faculty and student participants.


Some of what CMI has accomplished

I will start with three papers reporting work to which I contributed. The first, mentioned above, is the “wedges” paper, co-authored with Steve Pacala. It is the “already” paper, bringing a message of hope that humanity already has the technologies in hand to limit global CO2 emissions, even as the global economy continues to grow. We provide a quantitative tool to evaluate portfolios of these technologies, and we focus on the goal of assuring that annual global fossil fuel emissions do not rise. Today, that goal is widely considered insufficiently ambitious. Meanwhile, in the twelve years between 2002 (the data used in our paper) and 2014 (the most recent year of data in the same database), annual global fossil fuel emissions increased by 40 percent. The wedges paper, by far, has had more impact than any other work I have done: a career-best paper at the age of 66, totally dependent on a collaboration with a guy of 46.

A second paper studies the CO2 emissions of individuals rather than nations. It highlights the world’s “high emitters,” no matter where they live, and it shows that, soon, more than half of the world’s one billion highest-emitting individuals will live in developing countries. The paper proposes an allocation rule that would enable the world’s nations to achieve, jointly, any global emission-reduction target – a rule intended to address “fairness”: the rule counts only the emissions of each country’s high emitters. Two CMI post-docs, Shoibal Chakravarty and Massimo Tavoni, led the analysis.

The third paper addresses “committed emissions.” My co-author is Steve Davis, and the paper builds on a suggestion from David Hawkins. Steve Davis and I track, year by year starting in 1950, the emissions still ahead from the world’s fossil-fuel power plants functioning at that time, assuming each plant shuts down 40 years after starting up. We find that this measure of global committed emissions has increased every year. We argue that the global mitigation enterprise would benefit if, routinely, “commitment accounting” and traditional emissions accounting were practiced side-by-side.

As for the achievements of my many CMI colleagues over the past 18 years, it is possible in this short note to acknowledge only very few of them. Steve Pacala continues to develops mathematical models of vegetation that predict landscape-level features (like carbon gains and losses from a forest) from ecosystem-scale attributes (like species composition). He and Elena Shevliakova then embed these aggregated land models within the global climate models of our neighboring institution, the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Commerce, one of the world’s strongest climate-modeling laboratories. Jorge Sarmiento relentlessly pursues carbon flows in the ocean, notably in the past few years leading a heroic project that deploys hundreds of “Argo floats” to study the physical and chemical properties of the Southern Ocean down to two kilometers. Michael Bender and John Higgins have found the world’s oldest ice, near the surface in Antarctica. And, in the past year, Xinning Zhang has discovered a new mechanism that drives methane emissions from wetlands.

On the technology front, work led by Bob Williams, Eric Larson, and Tom Kreutz has revealed a multiplicity of new technologies that can make biomass a significant contributor to global primary energy. Bob Williams and Joan Ogden were always a step or more ahead of the world’s assessments of hydrogen production, transport, and use. And Mike Celia and George Scherer blended modeling, lab work, field measurements, and statistical analysis to scope the leakage risks associated with CO2 placed into deep geological formations.

My apologies for omitting so much other work of comparable quality and impact.


Future research

The past two years have been qualitatively different from earlier CMI periods in the urgency expressed inside BP to scope out alternative transitions to a low-carbon future. The 2015 Paris Agreement has energized private corporations with global reach, including BP, as it creates the potential for countries to race not to the bottom but to the top. The consequences are particularly dramatic for countries currently investing heavily in energy infrastructure as they proceed through the early stages of industrialization. An agile company may be able to promote and profit from “leapfrogging,” i.e., the commercialization in developing countries of low-carbon technologies – and combinations of these technologies – that the world has not previously seen.

Over the seven years (the period through which CMI is funded), the oil and gas industry could encounter debilitating hostility. But that is not foreordained. I am not known for passing up opportunities to give advice, so here are three areas where I think carbon mitigation is brimming with commercial opportunity:

  1. Managing land and biocarbon There is roughly as much carbon in the land biosphere above ground as in the atmosphere, and even more in the world’s soils. Accordingly, offsetting fossil carbon emissions with land carbon build-up could proceed at large scale. But if pursued without ecological awareness, the offsets could bring both serious environmental damage and reputational risk. My shorthand is that the biosphere needs to be protected from $100 per ton of CO2 – meaning, from offsets valued at that price that elicit counterproductive activity. Princeton’s expertise in two areas of special relevance – forest science and in soil science – will be of great benefit for CMI.
  2. Pairing fossil fuels with renewables The oil and gas industry, and many others, underestimated the competitiveness of wind and solar power and the strength of the embrace of these energy sources by policy makers. Their Achilles Heel is variability. Batteries can handle variability on the scale of hours. But longer periods of lulls and clouds, as well as seasonal variability, require the invention of novel firm-power packages. The oil and gas industry needs to offer such packages.
  3. Mainstreaming CCS The contribution of fossil fuels to a mid-century low-carbon global energy system will be severely restricted unless the capture and storage of fossil-fuel carbon becomes routine. Fossil-fuel carbon is yours to manage: you found it. And you are the masters of the subsurface: you know best how to return your carbon to locations deep below ground and keep it there. Yet today, the oil and gas industry is less engaged in scoping the CCS option than when CMI began 18 years ago. The pendulum is swinging back, however. A quite generous CCS subsidy emerged in the U.S. just one year ago. In the next seven years, government incentives in many countries may stimulate hundreds of full-scale projects and several major regional CO2 pipeline networks to connect them. Some policies may reward the co-firing of biomass and coal in CCS plants, which is a route to negative-emission electricity. Other policies may encourage CO2 direct chemical removal from the atmosphere – a climate mitigation strategy that is likely to be more viable if broad deployment of fossil-carbon CCS has paved the way.

Your contributions will be more welcome if you make clear that you understand how fundamental the transition of the energy system is going to be. Be forthcoming and transparent as you make new investments in upstream reserves. Transfer your expertise in deep-water floating structures to those who will be mooring offshore wind turbines. Welcome the electric car by facilitating state-of-the-art charging at your gas stations. Show your industrial, commercial, and residential customers how to use less gas. Promote efficient gasoline and diesel vehicles. In general, become much more involved with your customer’s use of your products.


A few words of thanks

I can’t thank Steve Pacala enough. His zest for life, his fearlessness, his omnivorous intellectual appetite, his love of “mind candy,” his uncanny ability to think like a tree, and his ability to inspire others have undergirded CMI’s success. We are an odd couple, and Steve has brought out the best in me.

There would not have been a CMI without Bob Williams. He has driven the mitigation agenda for climate change more than anyone else alive. He has deepened the world’s understanding of bioenergy, the hydrogen economy, CCS, and solar and wind power (a very incomplete list). Bob sees ways to combine distantly related technologies to transform entire industries in much the same way as a chess master sees winning combinations of moves in the middle game. I spent decades next door or down the hall, and it was inspiring.

I can’t single anyone else out. I must beg all of my collaborators, colleagues, post-docs, and students to forgive this shortcut.

Similarly, among the members of the CMI administrative staff, I will thank in name only Caitlin Daley, my indispensable assistant, and Holly Welles, CMI’s faithful and sure-footed program manager. Alas, I leave the names unwritten of so many other wonderful staff members at PEI who feel like my family.

As for BP, Gardiner Hill has been our “relationship manager” since CMI’s inception. He is a special guy and a special friend. Who could not be both charmed and impressed by Gardiner’s light touch, his blend of managerial toughness and gentleness, and his determination to put all his savvy into sensitizing BP about the commercial potential of low-carbon energy? My rule has been: communicate with BP only through Gardiner. I believe that this rule has served CMI well.

As for others at BP, my earlier citations from the new book by Bernie Bulkin scarcely convey the mix of acumen and joy that he brought to the early years of CMI. Again, mentioning anyone else at BP is risky, but nonetheless I’ll hail here as sensitive and engaged partners: Chris Mottershead, Tony Meggs, Ellen Williams, David Eyton, Dev Sanyal, and our current Executive Sponsor, Cindy Yeilding.

It has been an extraordinary privilege to have been allowed to get to know a major global company so deeply, to have been taken seriously by so many of its leaders, and to have been invited to meet so many of its employees in so many of its offices and laboratories. Three amazing field trips are enduring testaments to BP’s hospitality: to Alaska’s North Slope, to the CCS project at the In Salah field in Algeria, and to the Sherbino 2 wind farm in West Texas.

Steve Pacala sails on, with food in the larder for seven years, an open sea, and good weather for now. To all of you on board with him, now or soon, have a great voyage!