The Fossil Fuel Endgame
It is my contention that we are currently witnessing the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel industry.
After years of high prices for crude oil (~$100/barrel for Brent, just under that for West Texas Intermediate), prices starting falling in late summer 2014 and have been sitting for the past few months at just above half their former prices. The proximate cause of this fall is the decision by the Saudis to go after market share rather than keep oil prices high.
I believe this decision marks a turning point in the history of oil. It’s not short-term but permanent.
The average barrel of oil has become more difficult to extract over time, and oil prices have risen accordingly. The Saudis are sitting on enormous reserves of cheap-to-extract oil, and have benefited from the increased prices. A couple of years ago, their reserves looked like a steadily appreciating asset – worth more in the future (when oil would likely be more expensive than now).
However, we have two major new factors: renewable energy is rapidly decreasing in cost, and real climate policy in the major economies (US, China, EU) looks inevitable. Now oil is likely to be less lucrative in the future – and most of it will have to be left in the ground. This graph shows just how dramatically the price of solar has dropped in recent years (wind has seen similar though less dramatic improvements over time):
That means that oil is now a depreciating asset and it makes financial sense to sell it now, even at historically cheap prices. It’s like a gold rush in reverse, as the endgame of the fossil fuel era plays out. The Saudis have single-handedly cut the price of oil in half and have announced their intention to push prices lower if need be. So oil prices won’t be going up any time soon.
At today’s prices, Canadian tar sands projects are totally untenable, and Bakken shale oil is marginal: oil will continue to flow from existing wells, but new wells will only tap the most productive spots. This means that the need for North American crude-by-rail will dry up over the next year or so. In particular, we’ve seen the Pittsburg WesPac project be re-proposed, but this time without the rail terminal. And the Kinder Morgan crude-by-rail terminal in Richmond, CA apparently stopped receiving shipments in February 2015.
Recently Shell announced that it would buy the BG Group (an LNG – liquefied natural gas – supplier) at a 50% premium in a huge deal. Far from being a sign of a robust and growing industry, this reminds me of nothing so much as the “dinosaur mating” of the big mainframe manufacturers as their product became less and less relevant over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.
In the face of inexorable improvements in price/performance of clean energy technology, a growing fossil fuel divestment movement, and increased clamor for a price on carbon or other way to tackle climate change, I think we will see more of these deals in the future as the industry contracts and slowly dies. Our goal should be to hasten the death of this industry in order to limit the damage it’s still able to inflict.
This Financial Post article, “Saudi Arabia was worried about a danger much bigger than shale when it blindsided oil markets“, supports much of what I say here. The Saudis are worried about the peak and then decline of demand for oil, in part because of its replacement by clean energy. If anything I think they’re not paranoid enough.