Might the fossil fuel industries implode faster than the clean energy industries can grow to replace them?

State of The Transition, July 2016.

In a memorable recent statement, some of Germany’s top scientists argued that “controlled implosion of fossil industries and explosive renewables development” can deliver the targets in the Paris agreement on climate change. Taking this premise at face value, and setting aside the thought that other factors might also be needed, the course of events in July does not offer much hope that “controlled” is a word easily applicable to the array of existential problems currently battering the energy incumbency. And while the clean energy industries continue to make progress, they are clearly not “exploding” as fast as they could. Might it be that the ongoing implosion of fossil fuel industries will happen much faster than the necessarily explosive transition to solutions?

Let me start with coal. The prospects for this bankruptcy-strewn industry grew worse in July. It increasing looks as though the Chinese government’s recent retreat from coal is biting, and that the peak of Chinese coal production in 2014 is real. Prof Nick Stern and others, including Chinese collaborators, argued that we are witnessing “a turning point in the climate change battle” in this development. The latest Chinese announcement is a ban on construction of many coal projects until 2018. The air pollution driving much of their retreat is slow to abate. The same is true of India. NASA data this month showed toxic air choking a vast swathe of the subcontinent, most of it deriving from fossil fuel combustion. Facing all this, even Deutsche Bank, the most recalcitrant of the coal funders, pulled back from deals in the coal mining sector.

Investment continues to flow out of coal, and other fossil fuels, as a result of divestment campaigning

The coal industry’s long-hyped escape route from emissions pressure, carbon capture and storage, recedes ever further from economic feasibility. The truth behind one of the few supposed exemplar projects was laid bare this month. The Southern Company’s Kemper coal plant CCS project is more than 2 years behind schedule, more than $4 bn over the initial budget of $2.4 bn, and under SEC investigation for what the New York Times describes as “piles of dirty secrets”.

Investment continues to flow out of coal, and other fossil fuels, as a result of divestment campaigning. Swedish pension fund AP4 made the biggest divestment move of any institution to date in July. The $35bn pension scheme will decarbonise its $14.7bn global equity portfolio by 2020, and invest $3.2bn in passive investment tracking low carbon benchmarks. Increasingly the case for divestment is seen as an economic risk. $33 trillion in fossil fuel revenue is under threat by 2040, according to Mark Lewis of Barclays. His view is particularly significant, because he is on the G20 Taskforce on Climate Related Financial Disclosures, due to table recommendations for action by an increasingly sensitised financial sector later this year.

The oil and gas industry’s prayers for a return to high oil prices have yet to be answered, and as a consequence its parlous state deteriorates. A study of 365 oil and gas megaprojects by Ernst and Young shows 64% with cost overruns, and 73% behind schedule. This dismal delivery record is combining with low oil prices to create a potent squeeze on profitability, as the second quarter results of Big Oil showed clearly. US drillers have hit a new record for junk bond defaults: $28.8 bn so far this year, according to Fitch Ratings. With $500 bn+ outstanding,  more bankruptcies can be expected. Some companies are trying to buy time by paying debt interest with more debt.

The industry is trying to innovate its way out of trouble, and as ever makes progress that is impressive, if viewed in a non-holistic frame of reference. Global oil breakeven costs have fallen by fully $19 to a current average of $51 since the oil price started to fall in 2014. The trouble is, the oil price is around $40. Most of the industry’s targets are not just uneconomic, but far from economic.

“Oil giants find there’s nowhere to hide from doomsday market”, read a Bloomberg headline. “The industry cannot survive on current oil prices,” veteran analyst Fadel Gheit pronounced. The bankruptcy count stands at more than 80 companies so far.

So will the oil price rise, and offer some respite? Not according to most analysts. Morgan Stanleyexpects a fall to $35. (The price is around $40 at the time of writing). The main concern is excessive production of gasoline by refineries (= less crude imported). As ever, others disagree. Core Laboratories point to the net worldwide annual crude oil production decline rate of c. 3.3%, and expect US production to continue falling, meaning tight supply, and rising prices.

About the author
Jeremy Leggett is a well respected author and commentator, founder of Solarcentury and SolarAid, Chairman of Carbon Tracker, climate-and-energy activist, historian and futurist. He is the author of several books on energy, climate change and withdrawal from fossil fuels. He contributes frequently to the Financial Times and the Guardian. In January 2017 he also offers an executive course on emerging trends vital to strategy formulation in 2017-2020. Leggett is Doctor of Philosophy in Earth sciences from Oxford University.

Even if the price does rise again, problems continue. The industry faces a huge shortage of workers. 350,000 have been laid off industry-wide since the oil price began falling in 2014. 60% of the fracking workforce has been laid off, 70% of fracking equipment has been idled. It will be difficult to turn the taps back on, as even some of the industry’s own bosses point out. And if the price rises back above $90, a different set of problems emerges, led by the marked historical correlation of periods of high prices with subsequent global recessions. Prices above $90 also markedly improve the relative economics of clean energy projects.

The efforts of much of the oil industry to morph into a gas industry are faring little better. Major LNG projects have hit the rocks, just like major oil projects. Shell has shelved a project in British Columbia. Chevron’s Gorgon Project in Australia has mostly been closed since completion due to gas leaks. US shale drillers make much of the first shipments of their product as LNG, but Citi analysis shows US LNG cannot compete in the Pacific basin.

We should expect a lot more self-stranding, driven increasingly by investor pressure and capital retreat

And then there is the ongoing drama over leakage. It is not an understatement to say, as the New York Times did in July, that the future of natural gas hinges on staunching methane leaks. To be fair to some companies, belated efforts are being made to self-monitor leakage. But more materially, an Environmental Protection Agency data collection programme is now underway on tens to thousands of oil and gas operations. My bet: the net result, industry wide, will be be that gas emerges worse than coal in emissions terms.

And now for what I suspect is the most significant piece of news that I saw in July. Suncor, the main tar sands operator, is discussing with the Canadian government the idea of deliberately stranding some tar sands in a bid to cut both costs for the company, and emissions for the government’s Paris targets. This is a global first.

Another prediction: we should expect a lot more self-stranding, driven increasingly by investor pressure and capital retreat, but also by the industry’s own efforts to escape the vice of both low, and high, oil prices.

So to the question with which I opened this blog: Might it be that the ongoing implosion of fossil fuel industries will happen much faster than than the necessarily explosive transition to solutions?

Of course. The top reason for concern from July was to be found in Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s figures for global investment in renewables in the first half of the year: a sharp fall, down 23% from the first half of 2015. Q2 2015 saw $90 bn invested. Q2 2016 saw $60bn. For comparison, BP learned its final bill (before tax breaks) for the Deepwater Horizon spill this month: $61.6 bn.

One oil company. One oil spill. More cash “clearing up” an avoidable catastrophe than invested in the entire global renewable industry in a full quarter of a year.

This has to change, or we will discover what a “disorderly transition” – to use Carbon Tracker’s understated term – looks and feels like. It may please populist rightist demagogues and their terrifying plans, or lack thereof. But it will not be kind to the prospects of our children and grandchildren.