Energy Industry at a Crossroads in the Face of Climate Change

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Jason/Adobe Stock

Cutting through the polarized hype on climate change is one of the toughest challenges for firms trying to position themselves and their enterprises for the future.

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On the one hand there is a broad green or environmental lobby, which rightly shouts out the risks of rising global temperatures and the link greenhouse gases play in that rise.

Unfortunately, at the same time, many in that lobby claim a switch to a zero-carbon future would be simple.

On the other hand there are complete naysayers who do not even accept there is a climate change issue to address, let alone have any interest in finding less environmentally polluting options.

Governments rarely help; in fact, the U.S. is actively rolling back previous legislation, apparently in a perverse belief that if you say something is fake news enough, it actually does become fake news.

In many other countries, governments act with varying degrees of commitment, but at times appear to promote one solution while still supporting another cause of pollution in a different part of the economy. As a result, policies are not joined up.

Oil majors can hardly be said to be neutral in this debate, but their periodic reports are the subject of so much scrutiny that they have to be reasoned and their assumptions have to be logical or they would suffer ridicule.

So, when Andy Brown, Shell’s upstream director, told The Telegraph that zero net emissions are technologically and economically possible by 2070, his comments at least bare scrutiny.

He went on to add electric power would have to jump fivefold by that time. Wind and solar would have to increase by 50 times. It would require 10,000 Carbon Capture Sequestration (CCS) projects able to sequester six gigatons of carbon each year, accompanied by sweeping reforestation for such a goal to be reached, even over such an extended timeframe.

In the intervening decades, global temperatures may well have risen past the point of no return.

Ranged against that goal is the relentless demand for autos around the world. The same article points out a chilling statistic: Americans have roughly 900 cars per thousand head of population, yet the current figure is closer to 150 for China and 25 for India — and these rising nations aspire to The American Dream as much as anyone.

However, we should not fall into the same trap as many when looking at global warming; automobiles plays their part, but it is a relatively small part. Transportation — trucks and ships — play a bigger role, and the agricultural industry is even larger. If humans were to switch to a plant-based diet, we would buy ourselves decades to combat climate change.

Even so, for the energy industry, transportation and petrochemicals remain the focus. In an industry that operates on decade-long investment planning, it is no surprise that firms are changing priorities with increasing speed.

Saudi Aramco plans to switch 2 million to 3 million barrels per day to petrochemical production over the next 10 years, and potentially 7 million barrels per day over two decades. This is a staggering amount, The Telegraph observes — Saudi Arabia’s entire oil exports in January were 7.2 million barrels per day.  The Kingdom is also launching a $150 billion dash for lower-polluting natural gas, with plans for production to reach 23 billion cubic feet per day within a decade, equal to 60% of today’s global market for liquefied natural gas.

The following graph, courtesy of The Telegraph, illustrates the motivation for the shift in priorities.

Source: The Telegraph

Rarely has the energy industry been at such a crossroads and never has the oil industry faced such an uncertain future. Even in the febrile market of the early 1970s following what was then deemed an energy crisis did oil companies seriously doubt there would be a need for their product in the decades to come.

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But today there are genuine questions facing planners about what product mix oil companies should optimize for by the middle of this century, let alone what the landscape will look like 10 years from now.

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