Creating chemistry for a more sustainable world
Karen McKee, President, ExxonMobil Product Solutions, explains the company’s philosophy behind the energy transition and shares her vision for a more sustainable world enabled by chemistry
What are some of the challenges and opportunities afforded by the energy transition to chemical and petrochemical producers?
I tend to be an optimist, and I think the energy transition is a real opportunity for our industry. In my role at ExxonMobil and as the President of ICCA, it’s encouraging to hear governments, policy makers and brands acknowledge that chemicals and plastics are one of the enablers to a lower-carbon future.
Today, we are performing at some of the highest standards for responsible care. But, even as one of the industry leaders, we need to do more to increase energy efficiency and reduce our emission intensity. That’s a challenge we’re tackling at ExxonMobil. We’ve created emission-reduction roadmaps for each of our major operating sites, but we know it won’t be easy.
How is ExxonMobil approaching the energy transition?
We believe a thoughtful transition should be an “and” equation. We must continue to meet society’s needs for energy products and reduce emissions. We’re trying to find the most impactful and the most cost-efficient ways to do that.
I mentioned the roadmaps for our operated sites. We’re looking at where we can electrify our operations, where lower-emission power is available, and we’re looking at fuel switching to hydrogen. At ExxonMobil, we benefit from integrating with our Low Carbon Solutions business. Together, we’ve announced that we are planning a massive low-emission hydrogen project at our integrated site in Baytown, Texas. We’ll be the biggest user of that hydrogen.
Can you tell us more about your low-carbon projects?
Our Low Carbon Solutions business is leading several projects to help us reduce emissions from our own operations, and when you put that together with our recent acquisition of Denbury, ExxonMobil, our customers will have access to pipelines and storage for carbon capture along the US Gulf Coast. That can be an opportunity for us to help other companies reduce their emissions.
- In carbon capture and storage, we’ve signed three contracts to capture and store CO2 generated in manufacturing processes. When the projects are up and running, we expect them to capture 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year combined. That’s equivalent to replacing approximately 2 million cars with electric vehicles, or about the total number of EVs on US roads today.
- Our plant at Baytown, Texas, plans to have capacity to produce 1 billion cubic feet of low-carbon hydrogen per day. This plant is expected to help reduce our emissions and help customers reduce theirs by using our capture and storage capacity. The hydrogen will provide a low-carbon power resource to industrial customers.
- We have also announced a new lithium project in Arkansas. Lithium is needed to make the batteries that power electric vehicles and laptop computers. It’s an exciting new business opportunity that plays to our strengths, and the technology we’re using has less environmental impact than traditional open-pit mining.
What are the areas in which the industry is lagging behind, and how can leaders accelerate progress to meet 2050 climate targets?
The right way to look at climate change and emissions is globally. When you step back for that view, there has been much progress since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016. The emissions intensity of the world’s energy supply has declined as wind, solar, and natural gas have helped displace coal as an energy source.
Still, more needs to be done to accelerate that progress. We need as many solutions as possible. We need policies that support all approaches and technologies, and we’ll eventually need a carbon market to attract the required investments.
What is the role of alliances and collaboration in driving sustainability across the industry?
No one can go it alone. These are complex, large-scale challenges that require broad collaboration. To achieve a net-zero future or create a circular economy for plastics, many parties must work together.
In Houston, for example, we work with communities, waste-management companies, and other recyclers to improve the collection and sorting of plastic waste.
On emissions and other issues, we work with governments, universities, and other companies to advance technology and deploy and scale innovative solutions.
How does ExxonMobil approach plastics circularity in its products and recycling to help address the plastic waste issue?
Plastics are essential for modern life and too valuable to waste. They help preserve food, deliver clean water, conserve energy, and protect against disease. At the same time, plastic waste in the environment is a real problem, and we need scalable solutions.
Our advanced recycling plant in Baytown, Texas, is one of the largest facilities of its kind in North America, with the capacity to process 80 million pounds of plastic waste every year. That’s diverting plastic from landfills and breaking it down to the building blocks that can make new products. It’s a great complement to mechanical recycling – not a replacement.
Advanced recycling handles plastic wrapping, plastics with food residue, even artificial turf that would otherwise be landfilled or burned. It’s market-driven, doesn’t require government incentives, and benefits society by reducing waste. Because the plastic waste that we process into usable raw materials can be attributed to new, virgin-quality, certified circular polymers through a mass balance approach, it presents a business opportunity. We’re serving a developing market for certified circular resins where there is rising demand from fast-food restaurants, packaging suppliers, and brand owners.
ExxonMobil has long-standing relationships in the region, particularly in Saudi Arabia. What are your plans for this region and are you eyeing any investment and expansion opportunities here in the GCC, or elsewhere in the world?
The Middle East is an important region in our global portfolio, with upstream, refining and petrochemical operations. We’re committed to maintaining successful relationships in the region and remain interested in new business investments that align with our strategy and competitive advantages.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
At ExxonMobil, we talk about the “and” equation. Providing the world with the energy and useful products it needs and reducing emissions.
A lot of that responsibility falls to ExxonMobil Product Solutions, where our teams produce fuels and lubes, specialty products, and the plastics and chemicals that make life better for billions of people around the world. For my entire career, we have focused on being a responsible producer. We work to be more efficient. Reduce environmental impact. Create more sustainable products. Our technology team is hard at work, looking for the next break through. That’s our mandate and the opportunity for our teams around the world. They’re all passionate about making a difference.
It can be done. We can manufacture the products the world needs “and” work to lower our own emissions. I’m confident the work our industry is doing today will be recognized as one of the reasons the world meets this important challenge.