AN oil giant provided food for thought last week with news of an initiative that sparked renewed allegations of greenwashing on the part of majors.

France’s Total said it planned to convert a huge refinery into a “zero crude” facility that would stop processing oil and gas and switch to producing useful goods in an environmentally sound way.

Total expects the range of goods that will be produced at the Grandpuits plant 45 miles from Paris will include jet fuel made from inputs such as animal fat and cooking oil, sourced from local suppliers.It said biofuels could reduce carbon emissions by at least 50 per cent compared to their fossil equivalents.

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The plant will make bioplastics from sugar. It will also convert used plastic into a liquid that could be employed in the production of food packaging. Two solar plants on the site will produce electricity for use in industry.

The plan will mean the end of crude refining at Grandpuits after more than 50 years.It is expected to require investment of more than €500 million (£460m).

“With the industrial repurposing of the Grandpuits refinery into a zero-crude platform focused on energies of the future connected with biomass and the circular economy, Total is demonstrating its commitment to the energy transition and reaffirming its ambition to achieve carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050,” said Bernard Pinatel, president of Total’s refining and chemicals business.

However, the announcement of the plan seemed to trigger renewed attacks on Total in the Twittersphere, with the company being accused of greenwashing.

It was notable that Total made clear that it will continue with conventional refining and fuel production operations at other plants. The group said operations at service stations and airports in the Greater Paris region will not be affected. They will be supplied by other refineries, including one at Donges which is undergoing a €450 million modernisation.

Total has a big North Sea oil and gas production business.

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Aspects of the decision-making process that Total said it had been through may also have reinforced the hands of critics.

Total said it decided to transform Grandpuits after discovering that it would cost around €600m to replace the 160-mile pipeline used to transfer crude to the refinery. Grandpuits was closed for more than five months last year after a leak was found on the pipeline.

There will be concerns about the implications of the huge changes that will be made at Grandpuits for jobs.

Total said 250 of the 400 jobs at Grandpuits and an associated depot will be retained following the conversion.

The hope is lots of jobs in construction will be created during the revamp and in new operations on the site following its expected completion in 2024. Total reckons the new look plant could attract other industries to Grandpuits and the surrounding area.

Total made the kind of commitment to minimise the impact on workers that some think more UK firms should make.

The company said it would complete the “industrial redeployment” with no layoffs, relying on early retirements and internal mobility within the group’s sites.

READ MORE: 200 North Sea jobs at risk as oil services giant plans deep cost cuts

The plan may still reinforce fears about what the transition to a clean energy system will mean for the jobs of people working in the wider UK oil and gas supply chain. This is under huge pressure amid the slump in commodity prices triggered by the coronavirus crisis.

What the Grandpuits plan does appear to show, however, is that oil giants are thinking about how we can get to net zero in terms of carbon emissions while continuing to meet the needs of consumers and businesses.

If net zero is to be achieved a big reduction in the emissions associated with refineries and associated petrochemicals operations will be required.

Total’s approach involves finding new ‘cleaner’ ways to produce essentials such as fuel for use in transportation and feedstocks for plastic production.

Another solution under consideration would involve decarbonising the operations of refineries that continue to use crude. This would be a hugely complex task, which could entail capturing carbon and then transporting it miles offshore for storage in depleted North Sea oil and gas reservoirs.

Scotland’s Wood is working with SGN on a project to determine how the country’s pipeline network would need to be adapted to support carbon capture and storage. It is also working on planning for a project that is expected to help deal with emissions from a huge refinery on the Humber.

READ MORE: Revamp of Scottish pipeline networks could boost efforts to decarbonise huge industrial plants 

However, the rationalisation process that has been completed by some oil giants in recent years may make it harder for the public to hold key players in the refining and chemicals business to account.

Companies whose shares are traded on public markets find their environmental, social and governance (ESG) policies are subject to increasingly close scrutiny by investors. Many fund managers appear eager to burnish their credentials as ESG specialists.

The shares of Total, BP and Royal Dutch Shell are listed. All are big players in the North Sea.

A range of significant refining and marketing assets have been sold in recent years to private firms whose shares are not listed.

Total sold the Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire to Prax in July for an undisclosed sum, to focus on its integrated refining and petrochemicals operations.

London-based Prax has quietly developed a very big business, whose activities include trading oil on international markets and selling petrol from Harvest-branded filling stations.It is owned by Winston and Arani Soosaipillai who have kept low profiles during the 20 years they have spent developing the group.

Scotland’s massive Grangemouth refinery has been part of Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos empire since 2005. Ineos bought the plant with a portfolio acquired from BP.

In June Ineos bought BP’s remaining petrochemicals operations in a $5 billion deal. BP plans to increase investment in renewables as it aims to be a net-zero business by 2050.

Mr Ratcliffe has provoked the ire of environmental campaigners, not least for championing the benefits of shale gas. Ineos adapted Grangemouth so that it could use shale gas imported from the US in liquid form in huge ships.

READ MORE: Ineos hails progress at Grangemouth as it plans £2.4bn investment in Europe

On its website Ineos says the chemicals industry has a central role to play in the shift to a resource and energy efficient society.

“Sustainability and petrochemical industry are not antagonistic, on the contrary,” it says. “At Ineos sustainability is fundamental to how we do business. It is a key driver of innovation.”

Against that backdrop, the onus will be on governments to ensure that the market delivers net zero.