The global energy economy is undergoing a rapid transition from ‘hydrocarbon molecules to electrons’: in other words, from fossil fuels to renewables and low-carbon electricity. Leading energy industry players and analysts – the energy-forecasting ‘establishment’ – are seriously underestimating the speed and depth of this transition. This in part reflects the vested interests that dominate that establishment. By contrast, the financial sector – which has little or no vested interest in fossil fuels – understands what is going on and is taking the transition on board.
The history of past energy transitions – including the US’s shift from wood to coal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the French adoption of nuclear power on a wide scale in the 1980s – provides useful context for analysis of this trend. Such transitions have been triggered by factors ranging from market upheaval to technological change, with the technological element typically reinforcing the transition.
A similar dynamic, involving triggers and reinforcing factors, is in evidence today. The current transition in the global energy system has been triggered, in the first instance, by concerns over climate change and recognition of the imperative of shifting to a lower-carbon economy. In some places, growing concerns over urban air quality have overtaken climate change as a driver of government policy in support of the transition. The reinforcing factors include the falling costs of renewables and the rapid market penetration of electric vehicles (EVs). To these factors can be added ongoing uncertainty over the possibility of another oil price shock; and rises in oil product prices that are independent of movements in crude oil prices – a phenomenon sometimes known as ‘OECD disease’.
If the transition to renewables and low-carbon electricity happens faster than the energy establishment anticipates, the implications for exporters of oil and for the geopolitics of oil will be very serious. For example, the failure of many oil-exporting countries to reduce their dependence on hydrocarbon revenues and diversify their economies will leave them extremely vulnerable to reduced oil and gas demand in their main markets. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region will be particularly exposed, with the possible consequences including an increase in the incidence of state failure in a region already suffering the fallout from having signally failed to address the causes of the Arab uprisings since 2011. Increased political and economic turbulence in the MENA region would also have the potential to create serious migration problems for Europe.
The geopolitics of oil over the past 120 years have played a central role in international relations. Indeed some would argue that geopolitical rivalry over access to, and control of, oil supplies has been the source of much of the conflict witnessed in the 20th century (Yergin, 1991). The rise of renewables implicit in the current energy transition could well change this status quo. Renewables are widely used and widely produced. Currently, their availability is constrained neither by the agendas of dominant fuel suppliers nor by the threat of physical disruption to the strategic transit routes along which traded resources are typically shipped. There are certainly supply constraints associated with some minerals required for renewable energy technologies, but these hardly compare with the conflicts around oil supply, and most such constraints, in any case, are easily managed. Thus, as this energy transition proceeds, oil geopolitics will begin to fade away as an issue of concern.
DUBAI (Reuters) – When Saudi Aramco was on the verge of a deal last year to buy a stake in an Indian oil refinery, its boss quickly boarded a company jet in Paris and flew to New Delhi.
Chief executive Amin Nasser arrived unannounced early on April 11, 2018, finalised the agreement and signed it later that day. Negotiators had just finished hammering out the details.
His last-minute flight, after a business trip to France with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, underlined the importance of the deal both to Saudi Arabia and its huge state oil firm.
The planned investment in the $44-billion (£35 billion) refinery and petrochemical project on India’s west coast is a prime example of how Aramco is trying to squeeze value out of each barrel of oil it produces by snapping up refining capacity, mainly in fast-growing Asia.
But it also underlines the challenge Saudi Arabia faces in reducing its heavy economic reliance on oil. The results of its programme to diversify have been mixed, some projects are moving slowly and others are too ambitious, economic and energy analysts say.
Prince Mohammed’s stated goal of being able to “live without oil” by as early as 2020 looks set to be missed.
“Saudi Arabia’s oil addiction is as strong as ever…economically, of course, the Saudi economy runs on oil. Oil still dominates GDP, exports and government revenues,” said Jim Krane, energy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
“That said, Saudi Arabia is changing its relationship with oil. The dependence remains. But the kingdom is squeezing more value out of its oil,” he said.
The slow progress means the Saudi economy is likely to remain hostage to oil prices for longer than planned. Any delay in implementing change also risks denting Prince Mohammed’s image as a reformer.
SECURING THE FUTURE
Announcing his plan three years ago, the Crown Prince said Saudi Arabia must end its “oil addiction” to ensure the world’s biggest oil exporter and second largest producer cannot be “at the mercy of commodity price volatility or external markets.”
He spoke after a fall in crude oil prices boosted the Saudi fiscal deficit to about 15% of gross domestic product in 2015, slowing government spending and economic growth.
This year the deficit could hit 7% of GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund, as oil-related growth slows following production cuts led by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Aramco is central to the Crown Prince’s reform plan in several ways, not least because its planned partial privatisation will generate income for the reforms.
The company has also been involved in most of the kingdom’s high-profile deals in the last two years as it increased investment in refining and petrochemicals.
In that time, Aramco has announced at least $50 billion worth of investments in Saudi Arabia, Asia and the United States. It aims to almost triple its chemicals production to 34 million metric tons per year by 2030 and raise its global refining capacity to 8-10 million barrels per day (bpd) from more than 5 million bpd.
In March last year, Aramco finalised a deal to buy a $7 billion stake in a refinery and petrochemicals project with Malaysia’s Petronas. A month later, Nasser and a consortium of Indian companies signed the initial deal that would give Aramco a stake in the planned 1.2 million bpd refinery in India’s western Maharashtra state.
In February of this year, Aramco signed a $10 billion deal for a refining and petrochemical complex in China. Last month it signed 12 deals with South Korea worth billions of dollars, ranging from ship building to an expansion of a refinery owned by Aramco.
“This is what I call the back to basics approach to economic diversification in the Gulf,” said Robin Mills, chief executive of energy consultancy Qamar Energy in Dubai. “The energy industry has the assets, capital and skills, so it’s the engine of new projects – refining, petrochemicals, gas and so on.”
MR UPSTREAM LOOKS DOWNSTREAM
In March, Aramco said it was acquiring a 70 percent stake in petrochemicals firm Saudi Basic Industries (SABIC) (2010.SE) for $69.1 billion from the national wealth fund, known as the Public Investment Fund (PIF).
Aramco is gaining new markets for its crude and building a global downstream presence – the refining, processing and purifying end of the production line. Its aim is to become a global leader in chemicals.
“We are not investing left and right, we are investing in the right markets, we are investing in the right refining assets, we are investing where we create value from fuels to chemicals,” Abdulaziz al-Judaimi, Aramco’s Senior Vice President for Downstream, told Reuters in May.
Nasser, previously known by Aramco employees as Mr Upstream, is leading the downstream expansion. He wants to bring Aramco’s refining capacity closer to its oil production potential, which is now at 12 million bpd.
Aramco wants gradually to match the downstream presence of its big competitors and, like Saudi Arabia as a whole, to reduce its vulnerability to any downturn in demand for crude oil or oil price volatility.
“You want to secure your demand in key markets,” said an industry source familiar with Saudi Arabia’s oil plans. “You have to become more dynamic, to become more adaptable, you have to make sure that you secure your future. Malaysia was one example, India was another.”
For years, Aramco has been a regular crude supplier to Indian refiners via long-term crude contracts.
Yet while it has stakes in refineries or storage assets in other important Asia markets such as China, Japan and South Korea – and owns the largest refinery in the United States – it has not secured that same access in India, a fast-growing market for fuel and petrochemicals.Slideshow (2 Images)
“India is a market that you just can’t ignore anymore,” an industry source said.
Aramco has also shifted its marketing strategy in China. It is now more oriented towards independent refiners to boost Saudi crude sales after years of dealing almost exclusively with state-owned Chinese firms.
But overall, plans to wean Saudi Arabia of oil have advanced slowly.
Few details have emerged of a $200-billion solar power-generation project announced by the PIF and Japan’s SoftBank in March 2018. It is unclear how or when the project will be executed, and Saudi’s Arabia’s energy ministry is moving ahead with its own solar projects.
In a blow to potential investment, the image of Saudi Arabia and the reputation of the Crown Prince have been damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.
Leading businessmen and politicians boycotted an investment forum meant to showcase the kingdom’s new future away from oil, and it was only big deals with Aramco that saved it.
Also, the partial privatisation of Aramco has been delayed since it set out its plans to acquire the stake in SABIC, though senior Saudi officials including Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih have said it could now happen in 2020-2021.
The PIF, chaired by Prince Mohammed, was meant to receive around $100 billion from the flotation. Instead it will get around $70 billion from the sale of its SABIC stake.
The PIF made its mark on the global stage three years ago by taking a $3.5- billion stake in Uber Technologies. But since 2016, the PIF’s direct investments overseas stand at just $10.5 billion, according to Refinitiv data, and many of the fund’s announced commitments have yet to materialise.
The funds’ main investments over the past two years were inequity shares in companies such as electric car makers Tesla (TSLA.O) and Lucid Motors and Gulf e-commerce platform Noon.com.
Such deals would not necessarily attract inward foreign investment, help develop industries or create jobs.
Additional reporting by Marwa Rashad and Hadeel Al Sayegh; writing by Rania El Gamal; editing by Ghaida Ghantous and Timothy Heritage
New York (CNN Business) The epic American oil boom is just getting started. OPEC, on the other hand, is stuck on the sidelines. US oil production is on track to spike to a record 13.4 million barrels per day by the end of 2019, according to a recent report by energy research firm Rystad Energy. Texas alone is expected to soon top 5 million barrels per day in oil production — more than any OPEC member other than Saudi Arabia. Oil plunges back into bear market The surge in American barrels — led by the Permian Basin in West Texas — has offset oil blocked by US sanctions on Venezuela and Iran. But all of that US oil is also contributing to a supply glut that last week sent crude into another bear market. OPEC has been forced to scale back its output — a trend that could continue as the cartel tries to prop prices back up. “We continue to see the Permian representing the key driver of global oil supply growth for the next five years,” Goldman Sachs analyst Brian Singer wrote to clients on Monday.
US daily output could soon top 14 million
The shale oil revolution has made the United States the world’s leading producer, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia. The ferocity of the US shale oil revolution has caught analysts off guard several times over the past decade. Rystad Energy ramped up its year-end US output forecast by 200,000 to 13.4 million barrels per day. In May, the United States likely produced a record 12.5 million barrels of oil per day, the firm added. All but four million of those barrels were from shale oilfields. That growth is expected to continue. The United States is on track to end 2020 by producing 14.3 million barrels per day, Rystad projects. That’s slightly higher than the firm previously estimated and nearly triple 2008’s output. Of course, analysts could have to rein in those blockbuster forecasts if oil prices crash significantly further. That would force American frackers to preserve cash and pull back on production.
OPEC’s production hits five year low
OPEC remains in retreat as the cartel tries to balance the market by putting a floor beneath prices. OPEC’s oil production tumbled to 29.9 million barrels per day in May, the lowest level in more than five years, Rystad said. OPEC output is down 2.6 million per day since October 2018 — the month before oil prices crashed into the last bear market. Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, said on Friday that OPEC is close to a deal to extend its production cuts. Those cuts, which Saudi Arabia has borne the brunt of, are due to expire at the end of June. The stock market is ‘spoiled’ by rate cuts” We think that OPEC will at least maintain its output cuts, and maybe even deepen them at their next meeting,” Caroline Bain, chief commodities economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note to clients on Monday. Rystad dimmed its projection for Saudi Arabia’s oil production from 10.6 million barrels per day to 10.3 million.
Venezuela, Iran under pressure
OPEC’s output could be further hurt by problems in some of its member countries. Iran’s oil exports have plunged because of US sanctions. The years-long collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry has been accelerated in recent months by US sanctions and sprawling blackouts in the South American nation. “There appears little prospect of a recovery in output from Iran or Venezuela any time soon,” Bain wrote. Violence is also threatening oil production in Libya and Nigeria. All told, Rystad Energy estimates 1.3 million barrels per day of oil production is at risk in those four OPEC nations. “Risks to short-term supply are undoubtedly still plentiful,” Rystad analyst Bjørnar Tonhaugen said in the report.
Will crude slide below $50?
Despite all this, analysts aren’t predicting a spike in oil prices. If anything, forecasters are bracing for more pressure on prices, due in part to robust US production. Brent, which has tumbled about 15% since late April to $63 a barrel, should finish the year at around $60 a barrel, according to Capital Economics. The US economy is about to break a record. These 11 charts show why US oil prices, trading at about $54 a barrel, are down nearly 19% since late April. Recent selling has been driven by a spike in oil inventories that suggest demand for crude is deteriorating. Goldman Sachs said that a reversal in the oil demand metrics will be required to prevent US oil prices from sinking below the $50-$60 range.”Our real concern is over demand weakness,” consulting firm Facts Global Energy wrote in a report on Monday. “Have we entered an era where demand will keep falling and we have a lot more oil on our hands than expected?”
CleanTechnica Fossil Fuels elaborated on the more and more overwhelming tendency of eying Fossil Fuel complicity as no longer hidden in America’s investments institutions. as well as elsewhere in the world. Here it is.
They’re not giving up. Yes, several attempts were defeated to persuade the Massachusetts municipal and county retirement systems to remove fossil fuel investments from their portfolios. But the Massachusetts Legislature is still considering measures that open up possibilities for divestment. To do otherwise, they argue, is to engage in fossil fuel complicity.
And they’re not alone. All over the US, organizations are pushing for divestments within institutions and municipalities. Led by FossilFree.org, individuals and advocacy groups are raising the discourse around the necessity to stop and ban all new oil, coal, and gas projects bypassing local resolutions to divest and by building community resistance.
Divestment has been a tool used to promote social change since at least the 1970s, when anti-apartheid activists urged institutions to move their investment dollars away from companies that did business with South Africa. Fossil fuel divestment has been gaining momentum in recent years, with more than 1,000 institutions pledging to remove $8.55 trillion from investments in the fossil fuel sector.
Fiduciary Duty is Now a Companion Argument to Social & Environmental Reasons to Divest
In 2017, Somerville, Massachusetts’ governing board agreed to move $9.2 million — 4.5% of the total invested funds — out of fossil fuel investments. The regulatory body that oversees public pension systems rejected the move, however, with reasons ranging from procedural to breach of fiduciary duty. The Massachusetts Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission (PERAC) claimed Somerville was failing to put the financial needs of its beneficiaries ahead of social and environmental causes. PERAC oversees 104 public pension plans across the state, with about $86 billion in total assets.
Demand for fossil fuels is likely to drop as much of the global economy shifts to renewable energy.
Increased storm frequency due to climate change can cause supply chain disruption and infrastructure damage for oil companies.
“From the fiduciary perspective, there are a lot of questions as to the economic health of the fossil fuel sector moving forward,” Alex Nosnik, a member of the Somerville board, said. “Risk, certainly in concert with the environmental and social issues, was driving our decision to move forward.”
Ultimately, after lots of divestment advocates worked alongside sympathetic legislators to craft a local option bill that would authorize any municipal or county retirement system to divest from fossil fuels should they so choose. Standalone bills have been filed in the House and Senate; similar language has also been included in a wide-ranging clean energy bill pending in the Senate.
Several of the state’s environmental groups have come out in favour of these measures, including the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club, the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, and the Climate Action Business Association.
“We have to stop putting money into fossil fuels,” said Deb Pasternak, director of Sierra Club Massachusetts. “We need to take our money and direct it toward the renewable energy economy.”
Every now and then, the idea of powering Europe using the vast solar resources of the Sahara Desert comes up. Were this to actually happen, we may witness the rise of new energy superpowers in Northern Africa. But a look at the economic and political energy system suggests what’s more likely is the oil-rich countries of the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf will continue to dominate energy trade even in the post-fossil era.
Renewable energy, of course, is very location dependent – the sunnier a place is, the more energy you get out of photovoltaic panels. Over the course of a year, southern Algeria, for example, gets more than twice as much solar energy as southern England. The graph below, which I put together as part of my PhD, shows that some of the best solar resources in the world are indeed found in Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Niger, Chad and Sudan.
So, one could build large Saharan solar farms and then transmit the power back to densely populated areas of Europe. Such a project would need to overcome various technical challenges, but we can say that in theory it is possible, even if not practical.
Yet plans to actually set up mass Saharan solar have floundered. The most notable project, Desertec, was fairly active until the mid 2010s, when a collapse in the price of oil and natural gas made its business case more difficult. At that time, the major technology considered was concentrated solar power, where you use the heat from the sun to run a steam turbine. Energy can be stored as heat overnight, therefore enabling uninterrupted energy supply and making it preferred to then expensive batteries.
Since then, however, the cost of both solar panels and battery storage have dropped drastically. But, while conditions might look favourable for Saharan solar, it is unlikely that new solar energy kingpins will arise in North Africa. Instead, we should look one desert further to the East – the Rub al Khali on the Arabian peninsula, the home of the reigning energy powers.
Sun shines on the Gulf
The economies of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf nations are built around energy exports. And as climate change imposes pressure on the extraction of fossil fuels, these countries will have to look for alternative energy (and income) sources in order to keep their economies afloat. The International Renewable Energy Agency set up its headquarters in Abu Dhabi, and the region has no shortage of ambitious solar projects promising extremely cheap electricity. However only a small amount of capacity has actually been deployed so far. Low oil revenues have not helped with the megaprojects.
Countries in the Sahara also have little history of trading fossil fuels, outside of Libya and Algeria, while things are rather different for the petro-states of the Gulf. And this matters because, in the energy business, worries over longer-term security of supply mean countries tend to trade with the same partners.
This would be the Achilles’ heel of a Northern African energy project: the connections to Europe would likely be the continent’s single most important critical infrastructure and, considering the stability of the region, it is unlikely that European countries would take on such a risk.
Which brings us to an alternative way to transmit energy: hydrogen. A process called electrolysis can use renewable electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the resulting hydrogen can store lots of energy. Soon it will become feasible to move energy around the world in this form, using shipping infrastructure similar to that already in use today for liquefied natural gas.
Sure, there are disadvantages compared to batteries. It would mean introducing two more conversion stages and thus reduced efficiency (30% roundtrip efficiency compared to 80% for batteries), but it would overcome the distance barrier. And perhaps just as importantly: shipping energy by hydrogen would mean no significant change to the existing maritime trade infrastructure, which will hand an advantage to established energy exporters.
If this means the Sahara is unlikely to develop renewable energy superpowers, then perhaps this is for the better. With the booming populations of Sub-Saharan Africa in dire need of electrification, clean solar power might be better used to alleviate the energy crisis in somewhere like Nigeria rather than sent to Europe. While these countries may eventually be able to shake off any solar resource curse, in the short term, exports like these could just look like yet another European attempt to extract natural resources from Africans.
Polluters, as all those big energy producers (Big Oils, OPEC members and non members alike) are labelled, appeared to be ‘undermining’ UN climate Paris agreement. In effect, Oil, Gas and Coal world giants are exploiting a lack of conflict-of-interest protection at UN climate talks to push for continued fossil fuel use despite its contribution to catastrophic climate change through expensive lobbying campaigns because as it happens these oil, gas and coal giants could stand to waste trillions in a moderate world climate change. Patrick Galey elaborates on Phys.org.
The five largest publicly listed oil and gas majors have spent $1 billion since the 2015 Paris climate deal on public relations or lobbying that is “overwhelmingly in conflict” with the landmark accord’s goals, a watchdog said Friday.
Despite outwardly committing to support the Paris agreement and its aim to limit global temperature rises, ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total spend a total of $200 million a year on efforts “to operate and expand fossil fuel operations,” according to InfluenceMap, a pro-transparency monitor.
Two of the companies—Shell and Chevron—said they rejected the watchdog’s findings.
“The fossil fuel sector has ramped up a quite strategic programme of influencing the climate agenda,” InfluenceMap Executive Director Dylan Tanner told AFP.
“It’s a continuum of activity from their lobby trade groups attacking the details of regulations, controlling them all the way up, to controlling the way the media thinks about the oil majors and climate.”
The report comes as oil and gas giants are under increasing pressure from shareholders to come clean over how greener lawmaking will impact their business models.
At the same time, the International Panel on Climate Change—composed of the world’s leading climate scientists—issued a call for a radical drawdown in fossil fuel use in order to hit the 1.5C (2.7 Fahrenheit) cap laid out in the Paris accord.
InfluenceMap looked at accounts, lobbying registers and communications releases since 2015, and alleged a large gap between the climate commitments companies make and the action they take.
It said all five engaged in lobbying and “narrative capture” through direct contact with lawmakers and officials, spending millions on climate branding, and by employing trade associations to represent the sector’s interests in policy discussions.
“The research reveals a trend of carefully devised campaigns of positive messaging combined with negative policy lobbying on climate change,” it said.
It added that of the more than $110 billion the five had earmarked for capital investment in 2019, just $3.6bn was given over to low-carbon schemes.
The report came one day after the European Parliament was urged to strip ExxonMobil lobbyists of their access, after the US giant failed to attend a hearing where expert witnesses said the oil giant has knowingly misled the public over climate change.
“How can we accept that companies spending hundreds of millions on lobbying against the EU’s goal of reaching the Paris agreement are still granted privileged access to decision makers?” said Pascoe Sabido, Corporate Europe Observatory’s climate policy researcher, who was not involved in the InfluenceMap report.
The report said Exxon alone spent $56 million a year on “climate branding” and $41 million annually on lobbying efforts.
In 2017 the company’s shareholders voted to push it to disclose what tougher emissions policies in the wake of Paris would mean for its portfolio.
With the exception of France’s Total, each oil major had largely focused climate lobbying expenditure in the US, the report said.
Chevron alone has spent more than $28 million in US political donations since 1990, according to the report.
AFP contacted all five oil and gas companies mentioned in the report for comment.
“We disagree with the assertion that Chevron has engaged in ‘climate-related branding and lobbying’ that is ‘overwhelmingly in conflict’ with the Paris Agreement,” said a Chevron spokesman.
“We are taking action to address potential climate change risks to our business and investing in technology and low carbon business opportunities that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
A spokeswoman for Shell—which the report said spends $49 million annually on climate lobbying—said it “firmly rejected” the findings.
“We are very clear about our support for the Paris Agreement, and the steps that we are taking to help meet society’s needs for more and cleaner energy,” they told AFP.
BP, ExxonMobil and Total did not provide comment to AFP.