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The fall from grace PDF Print E-mail
Earth News
Written by Joan Russow
Monday, 16 February 2015 08:35


By Science in Society



The dramatic fall in oil prices of nearly 60 % since June 2014 to a five-year low has fueled speculations on its causes and economic consequences. Superficially, the causes for tumbling oil prices are oversupply and decreased demand. The US’ ‘fracking boom’ has greatly reduced its oil imports, while the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has steadfastly refused to decrease production, resulting in a glut in supply. At the same time, the global economic downturn, especially the slowed growth in China’s economy, has substantially reduced the demand for oil.

The reality is more complicated, as pointed out in an article posted on Foresight Investor. Until 1973, the oil prices were controlled by the importing countries and kept as low as $2.50 to $3.50 a barrel (~$10 to $15 in today’s money). However, OPEC’s embargo on Western countries in 1973 caused prices to skyrocket. OPEC increased production, and prices eventually settled down to ~$35 a barrel, fluctuating around that level for almost thirty years.

After 2000, the low-cost high-yielding oilfields became depleted, and oil had to be extracted from less economical fields, thereby putting off investment at a time when the growth in emerging markets, especially China, was pushing up demand for oil. As a result, oil prices soared to over $140 a barrel just before the credit crunch of 2008.

During the credit crunch, oil price plunged from $140 in June 2008 to $44 in February 2009, but soon recovered to ~$110 a barrel and stayed around there until June 2014. The high price made previously uneconomic oilfields profitable and the US output grew about 50 % in the past five years to 13.5 million barrels a day as supply was collapsing in Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Iran. However, production from those countries has recently recovered to some extent, with the largest increase in Libya. This sudden surge in supply caused oil prices to drop, and continue dropping when OPEC decided it would not cut back its supply to raise the price.

The article went on to spell out the economic consequences for different countries, the ‘biggest winners’ being those dependent on imported oil, the ‘biggest losers’ being producers that depend on oil for their economy. But it may have underestimated the impacts from more profound changes in the global energy landscape within the past decade.

“Ending the oil age”

“Ending the oil age” is the title of an article published in the December 2014 issue of the New Internationalist. It begins with Rockefeller Foundation’s historic announcement timed to coincide with the worldwide marches for climate action In September 2014 that it was going to divest from fossil fuels; following in the footsteps of the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association and Stanford University.  Unlike the other organizations, however, Rockefeller’s fortune of $860 million was made onoil. “The Rockefeller story is also the story of the rise and fall of the first ‘oil major’. Standard Oil, founded by John D Rockefeller in 1870, soon came to control the burgeoning US oil industry, from extraction to refining to transportation toretail.” The unprecedented monopoly was “so despised” that the US government eventually broke it up, giving birth to Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron, among others.

“The forced break-up created the Rockefeller millions.” The article continues. “A century later, those millions are being used to make a dramatic point: we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the oilage.”

To back up her thesis, the author Jess Worth pointed out that today, most available oil is either in “politically dysfunctional” regions such as the Middle East and Nigeria, or in places and forms that are uneconomical and risky to extract: tar sands, oil shale, ultra-deepwater, the Arctic. The big oil companies have been investing heavily and pinning their hopes on those marginal reserves. Goldman Sachs warned investors that the technical risks of new oil projects have risen “to never before seen levels”, and the investments needed to get new sources of oil flowing has “gone through the roof.”

It is no wonder that companies are shelving major oil projects. In 2014, Statoil’s multi-billion dollar ‘Corner’ development was put on hold, as was Total and Suncor’s $11-billion Joslyn project, and Shell’s massive Pierre River mine plans.  Shell has spent $5 billion so far trying without success to drill in the inhospitable Arctic. Total said it won’t even try.

Also notable is the US’ ‘fracking boom’ based on a wild over-estimate of gas and oil reserves that were economical to extract when oil prices exceeded $100 a barrel, as revealed by new scientific studies (see US 'Fracking Boom' a "Fallacy", New Studies RevealSiS 65). Now that the oil prices have plummeted with little hope of returning to previous levels soon, those reserves have become even less economical to extract. BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner by market capitalization and had invested heavily in the US fracking boom, announced it is cutting shale oil production and reducing the number of onshore rigs in the US by 40 %.

Further signs of distress in the oil industry have come to light. US oil services company Baker Hughes announced a cut of 7 000 jobs in the first quarter of 2015, saying that oil drilling is falling faster in North America than in the rest of the world, and warning of “challenging” conditions ahead. Haliburton, the rival oil service company that agreed a takeover of Baker Hughes in November 2014, also highlighted a sharp slowdown in activity. Its chief executive Dave Lesar said spending by oil companies (its customers) had on average dropped by 25-30 % as the result of the plunging oil prices.

In Europe, the oil and gas giant Total plans to cut capital spending by 10 % in 2015 and to hasten disposal of billions of dollars in assets to cut costs. In an interview given to Financial Times, the new chief executive Patrick Pouyanne said that he will make deeper and swifter cuts to this year’s spending, including exploration and development in the UK’s North Sea, Canada’s oil sands, and mature fields in west African states such as Gabon and Congo.

Total is the latest of the oil majors to signal further cuts to shore up cash flow and protect dividends. ConocoPhillips has earlier announced 20 % reduction in capital spending for 2015, while BP has taken $1 billion restructuring charge to pay for job losses, including 200 staff employed in its North Sea business. The majors have made clear they will pass on the cuts to oil service companies including groups such as Schlumberger, which had announced plans to cut 9 000 jobs a week earlier.

Renewables booming

Some commentators have been quick to note that the effects of falling oil prices on the renewable energy market will be minimal because unlike in the past, the global energy landscape has changed considerably in the 21st century. In the 1980s and 1990s, the then newly developing solar, wind, and geothermal markets in California collapsed as North America suddenly found itself with a glut of cheap oil and natural gas. Today, diesel and other petroleum-based fuels account for only 5 % of global electricity generation compared to 25 % in 1973. Diesel is even less relevant in the US power markets, making up only 1 % of generation.

To dispel any remaining doubt, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)’s new report shows that the cost of generating renewable energy is now equal to or below the cost of fossil fuels in many parts of the world.  It says that renewables should remain competitive even if oil prices were to remain low for a while, and history has shown that period of low oil prices tend to be transitory. In contrast, the prices of renewables are on a downward trajectory. Large-scale solar photovoltaic cost has dropped about 70 % since 2008. The cost of utility-scale solar projects to produce power is about $0.08/kWh with no financial support, and in some places like the Middle East as low as $0.06/kWh. In comparison, the cost of fossil fuel power is between $0.07 and 0.19/kWh when environmental and health costs are factored in.

The report, launched during IRENA’s fifth Assembly in Abu Dhabi, places special emphasis on bringing power to the 1.3 billion people worldwide that still do not have access. For them, renewables are the cheapest option. This applies also to islands and other isolated regions that rely on diesel. At the launch, IRENA and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development announced $57 million in loans to five renewable energy projects in developing countries.

Director General of IRENA Adnan Z. Amin said: “Renewable energy projects across the globe are now matching or outperforming fossil fuels, particularly when accounting for externalities like local pollution, environmental damage and ill health. The game has changed; the plummeting price of renewables is creating a historic opportunity to build a clean, sustainable energy system and avert catastrophic climate change in an affordable way.”

“Our interconnected energy landscape has evolved beyond the point where the price of oil determines the fate of clean energy,” said minister of state Sultan al-Jaber, who also chairs Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company.

Speaking at the World Future Energy Summit opening ceremony in Abu Dhabi, Jaber said the globally investments in clean energy have increased by 16 % during the past 12 months, amounting to $310 billion; while  the projected capacity of wind turbines and solar energy panels increased by 26 % during the same period, producing 100 GW.

“Renewable energy has shifted “from an expensive alternative to a competitive technology” said Jaber. “This growth has been driven by the sharp decline in cost and steady rise in technology efficiency.”

He called for seizing the opportunity of falling oil prices to cut fuel subsidies that cost the world $550 billion in 2013 (which is more than four times the subsidies to renewables).

In March 2014, Abu Dhabi opened the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, which has the capacity to provide electricity to 20 000 homes.

Severing old ties to fossil fuels & investing in renewables

The UAE ranks 7th in world’s oil reserves. For some time now, it has been trying to build an oil-free future in the desert and is currently a major player in clean technologies, funding large-scale renewable energy projects around the world, and investing millions in fundamental research in partnership with with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in energy, water, microelectronics, advanced materials and transportation systems.

At the Future of Energy Summit, the UAE leaders announced a partnership with Denmark and with Vestas Wind in particular, to tackle energy poverty in the developing world. The Wind for Prosperity project offers carbon-free electricity to those mostly using very expensive diesel generators. Bader Al Lamki, the director of Masdar Clean Energy, told Guardian journalist Andrew Winston that “conventional forms of energy are going to decline.” Al Lamki runs a couple of funds investing hundreds of millions in some of the largest utility scale solar and wind projects in the world, as well as water desalination, energy storage, and energy efficiency.

UAE built Masdar City, a demonstration and research facility, to showcase how clean oil-free technologies could work in practice. UAE partnered with MIT to build a graduate degree programme and research facility to patent and leverage new technologies.

As Winston points out, there’s a surprisingly long list of countries that get over half their electricity from renewables already, although most are using hydropower. A smaller group is going for the new renewables like solar, wind, and geothermal: Germany has been leading the move towards 100 % renewables by 2050 (see below). Kenya is planning to get half its electricity from solar by 2016. Morocco is aiming for 42% green energies by 2020. And Saudi Arabia, with the second largest oil reserve in the world, is investing over $100 bn in a solar future.

Targeting 100 % renewables by 2050

It was indeed Germany that led the move towards 100 % renewable energies since the beginning of the present century, with numerous innovative policies such as feed-in tariffs and distributed generation, all of which we highlighted in a comprehensive green energies report published in 2009 (see Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050). In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, Germany was the first country opting to phase out nuclear power, and its great energy transformation, ‘Energiewende’ is underway with strong social and political support and numerous economic benefits. Part of this radical transformation involves  distributed grid energy storage, now widely recognized as an asset with the mainstreaming of distributed renewable energy sources (see Distributed Grid Energy Storage Comes of Age with RenewablesSiS 65). Other countries including the US are following suite, and energy storage technologies are rapidly advancing.

‘100% renewable energy’ is now actively promoted as a climate action plan, as a growing number of cities, regions and even countries around the world have already proven it can be achieved. Denmark was the first major economy to announce it was going 100 % renewable by 2050. That involves not only electricity, but also transport. There shall be no burning fossil fuel.

Other examples given on the German Energiewende website include the following.

In Germany, 74 regions and municipalities have already reached 100% renewable energy targets. One of them, Rhein-Hunsrück District with about 100 000 inhabitants, has begun producing more than 100 % of its electricity needs since early 2012. By early 2014, Rhein-Hunsrück produced over 230 % of its total electricity needs and exporting the surplus to the regional and national grid, or re-directing it into local transport, hydrogen or methane production. The district has therefore converted previous energy import costs into regional jobs and earnings. Within 15 years, Rhein-Hunsrück District`s CO2 emissions were reduced by 9.5 tonnes, and the cost savings amount to €2 million.

In nuclear dominated France, Perpignan Méditerranée is setting itself up as a role model in the energy transition, aiming to be the first urban area in Europe to meet all its electricity needs in local projects. Currently, 75% of the region’s electricity needs are already met by renewable energy. The approach is to reinvigorate the local economy, agriculture and tourism in an inland part of the region called Catalonian Ecopark.

In the United States, the city of Greensburg, Kansas, powers all local homes and businesses with 100 % renewable energy 100 % of the time. Greensburg has gone from “tragedy to triumph”. On 4 May 2007, a tornado destroyed 95 % of the town. The community, with a strong leader Mayor Bob Dixon, turned disaster into an opportunity and created a vision to rebuild Greensburg as a sustainable community. Building efficiency combined with local wind power, small solar installations, and biogas, are the cornerstones of their master plan, and a diverse group of experts gathered to turn their vision into reality.

Civil society movements that hasten the end of oil

There are significant campaigns afoot to hasten the end of oil.

The CAR initiative

The world’s largest coalition of 70 investors, the Carbon Asset Risk (CAR) Initiative Investor Signatories worth $3 trillion call on world’s 45 largest oil & gas, coal and electric power companies to assess risks under climate action and ‘business as usual’ scenarios.

The investors mostly based in the US and Europe sent letters to the fossil fuel companies requesting detailed responses before their annual shareholder meetings in early 2014. Investor signatories include the largest public pension funds, the New York State and New York City Comptrollers, F&C Asset Management and Widows Investment Partnership.

“We would like to understand [the company’s] reserve exposure to the risks associated with current and probable future policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050,” the investors wrote in their letter to oil and gas companies. “We would also like to understand what options there are for [the company] to manage these risks by, for example, reducing the carbon intensity of its assets, divesting its most carbon intensive assets, diversifying its business by investing in lower carbon energy sources or returning capital to shareholders.”

The CAR initiative was coordinated by Ceres and Carbon Tracker Initiative. Ceres is a nonprofit organization “mobilizing business and investor leadership on climate change, water scarcity and other sustainability challenges.” The Carbon Tracker initiative is a non-profit company that aims to align the capital markets with efforts to tackle climate change. It has demonstrated that current capital expenditure plans in the energy sector are incompatible with delivering emissions reductions to improve air quality and prevent climate change.  As shown in its 2013 report, in 2012 alone, the 200 largest publicly traded fossil fuel companies collectively spent an estimated $674 billion on finding and developing new reserves, some of which may never be used. In comparison, the amount spend on investments in renewables in 2012 was $281 billion. This highlights the opportunity to redirect this capital, rather than it being wasted on high carbon assets that could become stranded.

“Demandfor coal has been falling in key markets. Climate policy and economic changes inAsia mean thistrendcould soon become permanent. Analyststell usthat demandfor oil could weakentoo before long,” said Craig Mackenzie, Head of Sustainability at Scottish Widows Investment Partnership, one of Europe’s largest asset management companies, and signatory to the CAR initiative. “Companies must planproperly for therisk offalling demand bystress-testingnew investments to minimize the risk our clients’ capital is wasted on non-performing projects.”

“Assets are already being written down due to increasing competition between energy sources, air quality standards being introduced to reduce health impacts, and measures to reduce carbon pollution combining to change the energy landscape,” said James Leaton, Research Director at Carbon Tracker. “Avoiding high cost, high carbon projects which are failing to deliver a return on capital will improve shareholder returns.”

The divestment movement

The divestment movement has taken the world by storm in the last 18 months. Students, churchgoers and local residents are asking universities, churches, city councils and states to cut their financial ties with the fossil fuelindustry. As a result, 181 institutions around the world have pledged to divest more than $50 billion. The campaign has enlisted high profile champions such as Desmond Tutu, UN climate chief Christina Figueres, and theRockefellers.

Grassroot opposition campaigns

There are numerous grassroots campaigns opposing the exploitation of fossils fuels.

The Keystone XL pipeline is intended to bring tar sands oil from Northern Alberta in Canada all the way down south to Texas to be exported to new markets. It has been targeted by a campaign that succeeded in delaying approval for six years, thanks to a powerful coalition of Indigenous communities, landowners, grassroots activists and environmental NGOs covering the entire route.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to take tar sands oil across British Columbia has been similarly opposed and delayed for years.  It has now been approved in theory, but a massive coalition of First Nations and residents have sworn to stop it from being built. The lack of available export routes is a major reason cited by Statoil, Total, and Shell for shelving their tar sands projects, and it is also causing unease among investors.

At the same time, actions taken by communities of just a few hundred people living in the heart of Alberta’s tar sands zone could also put a stop to the world’s largest industrial project. Both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Beaver Lake Cree have initiated legal challenges that if successful could call into question the approval of all tar-sands projects.

The campaign to ‘leave the oil in the soil’ started in Latin America, where for years Indigenous communities have battled against oil extraction in the Amazon. The proposal to leave oil under Ecuador’s Yasuní national park unexploited received international financialsupport. It was turned into a carbon trading scheme when the government decided to take it forward, and then abandoned in 2013 by President Correa. But the grassroots movement lives on, the ‘Yasunidos’ are  mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians, and working with other frontline communities all over the Amazon to leave the oil underground and to stop the assault on the world’s largest intact rainforest.

A campaign to stop oil drilling in the Arctic is in progress, with Greenpeace the most visible player in direct actions to block rigs drilling in the icy seas. Thirty Greenpeace activists were imprisoned in Russia.  Years of dogged legal challenges to every phase of the approval process by Alaskan Native groups and NGOs have also been crucial in preventing Shell from getting a drop of oil out of the Arctic.

To find out how you can get involved in hastening the end of the oil age, go to: http://newint.org/features/2014/11/01/extended-oil-keynote/.

Fully referenced versions of all the articles including this editorial are available on ISIS members website.


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