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London — The UK oil and gas industry can play a key role in the development of the hydrogen and carbon capture, usage and storage sectors given its existing expertise in producing and transporting hydrocarbons, an official from industry association Oil & Gas UK said Wednesday.

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OGUK energy policy manager Will Webster told an event in London the industry could help manage the energy transition in the UK as it looks to meet the legally binding 2050 net-zero carbon emissions target.

"There are some synergies for our members in CCUS and hydrogen," Webster said at the launch of a new report by law firm CMS on the role of oil and gas companies in the energy transition.

OGUK has reshaped its vision for helping curb carbon emissions since the UK government made the net zero target legally binding in May last year, with part of its efforts to focus more on gas and on decarbonization measures, Webster said.

"We will produce increasingly more gas than oil and increasingly more decarbonized gas," he said.

The development of hydrogen through carbon capture would ensure a continued role for the industry, he said.

Current UK gas production is some 900 TWh, Webster said, and the UK Committee on Climate Change recommends reaching hydrogen output of 270 TWh by 2050 -- which would mean almost one third of current UK gas production going over to hydrogen.

'New industry from scratch'

Webster warned about the pace of change, however. "It's basically building an entirely new industry from scratch," he said.

"CCUS and hydrogen will require a long-term commitment and policy support," he said, pointing to the numerous "chicken and egg" problems around infrastructure development and consumption.

Once up and running, however, the speed of progress could accelerate. "Hopefully it will take on a life of its own," Webster said.

"Key to unlocking the big numbers is knowing that the sector will grow and it becomes self-reinforcing," he said.

CMS' global head of energy and climate change, Munir Hassan, told the event that there were numerous pilot projects under development for CCUS, and that there could be a tipping point where the technology becomes commercially viable.

"Once we have a proof of concept, we could see the rapid commercialization of CCS globally," Hassan said.

Pressure on the industry is growing, with Tim Eggar, chairman of the UK industry regulator, warning earlier this month that the UK oil and gas industry's "social license to operate" was under serious threat.

Independent consultant Beth Mitchell told the CMS event that the integration of climate change issues was now "at the heart of the investment process" and that the pace of change had been remarkable over the past two years.

"Climate change is now a mainstream concern," Mitchell said, with investors concerned about all the implications of the issue.

Private equity firms are already implementing policies to require climate change considerations, she said, with capital likely to leave the oil and gas sector as a result.

Sustainability link

Industry players are acting too. Trader Gunvor on Tuesday said it had successfully met targets for its $725 million sustainability-linked borrowing base financing.

It said it was the "first energy commodities trading company to close a financing in which the interest rate is dependent on the company's year-on-year improvements in 15 different sustainability criteria."

Mitchell said the oil and gas sector needed to understand that there was no one-size-fits-all strategy for contributing to the energy transition and that "it's going to be a bumpy ride."

She said investors could choose to prioritize renewable project spending by specialist companies rather than those under development by oil majors.

Jonathan Woolf, partner at CMS, said the global oil and gas industry was in "more flux" than even during the oil crises of the 1970s.

He said that the industry was waking up to the need to act, with European majors -- such as Shell, Total, Equinor and Repsol -- spending more on renewables than their counterparts in the US or Asia.

In 2018, European majors spent an average of 6.2% of their capex on renewables compared with just 0.8% in the rest of the world, including the US, the CMS report found.

"Everyone's doing something; it is just a question of what and how much," he said.

Woolf said there was also a "strong correlation" between the spending of the majors on renewables with the oil and gas reserves that have.

The CMS report concluded that the shift to renewables was "far less pronounced" when companies are less influenced by drivers such as limited investor pressure or if they have particularly large oil and gas reserves.