Unburnable Carbon and the Panic Run

CarbonBubble

“You can argue that Big Oil is becoming Big Gas,” says Occo Roelofsen of McKinsey, a consulting firm. Others are going in for renewables. Total of France has a majority stake in SunPower, one of the world’s biggest solar-power firms. Eldar Saetre, the boss of Statoil, Norway’s state-run oil company, says that in 15 years there may be more opportunities outside oil and gas than within.,,,,

Plenty of oil firms (Exxon among them) are also calling for governments to enact a “carbon tax” on emitters of greenhouse gases. Their critics argue that this is less altruistic than it appears. For one thing, such a tax would hurt the coal industry especially, thereby boosting the oil firms’ gas businesses. And governments, especially in the developing world, where fossil-fuel demand is still surging, may find such a tax politically impossible anyway; the oilmen are calling for it, opponents say, in the knowledge that such countries will never introduce it….

On November 4th New York’s attorney-general, Eric Schneiderman, subpoenaed documents from Exxon to investigate how much it has known since the 1970s about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate. Exxon is reportedly being investigated under the Martin Act, dating back to 1921, which gives prosecutors wide-ranging powers to investigate securities fraud. Exxon says it has long disclosed information about the risks to its business from climate change, and from action to prevent it, in reports to its shareholders. But the firm’s run-in with the New York justice department may be a portent of what is to come.

Another worry for oil executives is pressure from investors spooked by the financial risks of climate change. Policymakers, such as Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, talk about the possibility of many oilfields turning into “stranded assets”, or “unburnable carbon”, if governments get serious about climate-change action. Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker, a climate-advisory firm, says that if the Paris pledges are taken at all seriously, the oil and gas industry may become “ex-growth”. Oil executives dispute that. But shareholders, if motivated, could force the industry to shrink just by limiting the funds they provide for new oil discoveries.

Curiously, the present situation may provide a foretaste of this—though cyclically, because of falling oil prices, rather than structurally, because of rising temperatures. Faced with a world awash in crude, oil majors are abandoning high-cost reserves in the Arctic, Canada, North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. One oil executive ruefully calls it a “practice run” for the day in the distant future when fears of global warming, or the emergence of cheap, clean alternative technologies, mean that demand for fossil fuels starts to wane.

Excerpt from Oil Companies and Climate Change: Nodding Donkeys, Economist, Nov. 14, 2015, at 61

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