Oil CEOs clash with U.S. Energy Dept official over energy transition

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HOUSTON, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Top energy executives this week urged a more cautious transition of energy policy away from oil and gas, but a U.S. Energy Department official said the industry has a moral obligation to address climate change and the economic opportunity it represents.

Executives from Saudi Aramco, Exxon Mobil and Chevron, speaking at the World Petroleum Congress in Houston on Monday, blamed demand for renewables and lack of investment in fossil fuels for recent fuel shortages and price volatility.

The conference was marked by withdrawals of top energy ministers over travel restrictions and concerns over the Coronavirus. The verbal skirmish occurred at a time when oil demand has recovered sharply from a collapse during the coronavirus pandemic even as world governments have stressed the urgency of addressing climate change.

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"The volatility in commodity prices and the impact on business and people," said Equinor ASA Chief Executive Anders Opedal, "illustrates the risks we face in an imbalanced transition."

U.S. deputy Energy secretary David Turk pushed back against the industry position, saying addressing climate cannot be put on the back burner.

"There is not an alternative to stepping up and fixing the threat to climate change," he said to an audience in a largely empty hall.

Consumers in Asia and Europe have been dealing with shortages of natural gas, coal and power due to production declines that pushed prices to multi-year highs. In the United States, the Biden administration has criticized oil and gas companies, saying they put profits over consumers.

The tension between investing in oil and gas, carbon reduction technologies and responding to investors demanding higher returns will be a continuing issue for major oil firms, executives said.

"The future of energy is lower carbon from exploration discoveries and production," said Liz Schwarze, vice president of global exploration at Chevron.

Amin Nasser, CEO of Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, said there are too many incorrect assumptions made about the pace at which consumers will shift to renewables from oil and gas.

People "assume that the right transition strategy is in place. It’s not," said Nasser. "Energy security, economic development and affordability are clearly not receiving enough attention."

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Reporting by Marianna Parraga, Erwin Seba, Liz Hampton and Sabrina Valle in Houston; Editing by David Gregorio

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