Beyond the Gas Frenzy
This post is based on a keynote speech Christiana Figueres delivered at Gastech 2022 in early September.
Christiana is a Founding Partner of Global Optimism, co-presenter of climate podcast, Outrage + Optimism, and co-author of The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist's Guide to the Climate Crisis.
13 September 2022
As we all know, the invasion of Ukraine, beyond its tragic human and geopolitical consequences, delivered an unexpected boost to the otherwise retreating fossil fuel industry. While some governments are summoning the industry to increase production to reduce prices in the short term, I see the age-old pattern of shifting capital around and maintaining another type of ambiguous and toxic status quo rather than leveraging the windfall cash to accelerate investments into renewables and their related infrastructure.
I am no oil and gas expert, but in contrast to the disposition of most in the climate community, I have been holding space for an industry that understands its important role in the energy transition, and is capable of identifying its critical contribution to the stability of our planet as the basis of its business continuity. But that is not what I see today. I hear the narrative about climate change, but I don’t see the decisive actions.
When the frenzy of substituting Russian gas is over, a few stark realities will raise their ugly heads.
- It will soon be horrifically evident that the current high energy prices provided historically high profits for the fossil fuel industry, while at the same time turning abject poverty into unfathomable misery among the most vulnerable populations of the world, driving millions more into poverty for the first time, and forcing lower income families in industrialized countries to choose between energy and food.
- It will soon be horribly evident that, contrary to the exigencies of science, we all (governments, industry, and consumers, in subjective complicity and abdicated responsibility) have again contributed to a continued rise of emissions, putting millions of people at existential risk in the near-, mid-, and long term.
- It will soon be painfully evident that the summer from hell which we have just experienced is the result of advancing climate change. Lest we forget, deadly floods have once again devastated Pakistan. The USA, Europe, and China broke all heat records concurrently in July, making it the first time in history that three continents suffered unprecedented heat indexes at the same time. And this is just the beginning.
There is no doubt that we are in the climate emergency scientists have been warning us about for years. And there is no doubt that this industry has an outsized responsibility to not only stop stoking the emergency, but to leverage its current profitability to actively contribute to the solution now more than ever.
You don’t need to be clairvoyant to see that if the industry doesn’t turn a significant part of its net profits into long-term remedies, social tolerance (already on the decrease) will sink even lower the day after tomorrow, if not tomorrow, followed by a cascade of litigations, increasing challenges to attract talent in the younger generations, difficulties purchasing insurance, reduced access to debt markets, and an increase in the cost of capital.
THE UNSTOPPABLE ENERGY TRANSITION
Despite current high prices, business continuity of the oil and gas industry will depend on a clear shift in business model. The case for a global energy transition is more solid now than before the invasion of Ukraine. Fossil fuel-importing countries have confirmed that their political and economic independence rests on their own energy independence. And once we are on the other side of the current Russian blackmail, no one will want to be hostage again to such autocratic governments, or to a handful of oil and gas exporting countries who control pricing.
The new Inflation Reduction Act in the USA will incentivize renewables. Europe is moving decisively away from all fossils. High prices are destroying the desire of Asian countries to build out new gas demand. Demand destruction or at least reduction is already underway due to high prices, and will continue due to loss of competitiveness.
The positive tipping point on electric vehicle sales has just been crossed in the U.S. and car manufacturers are adapting to follow suit. Gas generation can no longer compete with the constant innovation of renewable energy, including decreasing offshore wind costs, repowering onshore wind farms with mega turbines, nascent submarine turbine technology, and floating PV first inland and then at sea. Gas power station capacity has peaked. There is a silent but giant investment into batteries, including those with industrial capacity and bidirectional household storage, both of which will allow renewables to be managed beyond intermittency. Gas for heating is beginning to collapse because heat pumps are quickly becoming more attractive. Green hydrogen production and alkaline electrolysers are improving in capacity and dropping in price, as they seek to service the hard to abate sectors.
Bottom line: the future market of oil and gas may be smaller in size and shorter in timeframe than most in the gas industry - and beyond it - currently think.
Of course I recognize the shift away from gas is not that simple:
- Right now European governments want more short term gas to displace Russian gas, bringing a sigh of (short-lived) relief to oil and gas companies.
- Consumers want a diversification of supply right now to decrease prices.
- National oil companies want to extract and sell as much as possible now before the spigot is closed.
- Majors argue they will lose their shareholders if they are not sufficiently shareholder friendly in this bonanza period, and that more renewable energy projects are not available because administrations are not moving fast enough.
- Small independent and private equity-backed producers say nothing, as the more they hide, the better off they are.
In the end everybody can and does make their own valid argument. We are therefore back to a simple assessment: how capable are we of courage and leadership when facing so much short term complacency, contradictions, and adversity … but still a clear undisputable long term vital global threat?
The current net profits of the oil and gas industry have only escalated the responsibility for oil and gas companies to contribute their share to social and economic regeneration. And social and economic regeneration are after all the very founding principles that propelled the industry’s growth one hundred years ago.
FOUR URGENT ACTIONS
- To those who are still lobbying, stop lobbying governments to betray their number one responsibility of protecting their citizens. Don’t disingenuously complain about the lack of government climate change policies when you are increasing lobbying budgets for fossil fuel friendly policy. Irresponsible profiteering at the expense of humanity must stop.
- Use a substantial part of the windfall profits to lean heavily into the acceleration of renewables and their entire energy system. If the gas industry does not help to dramatically shift the energy mix in the short term from fossil fuel to renewables, the problems we face now - energy security, inflation, and worsening poverty - will be orders of magnitude larger in the future, and the culpability of the industry will only grow.
- Support Africa’s right to wellbeing. Africa has become the ideological battle ground in the energy transition. Gas has not been the solution to poverty in Africa and could hardly be expected to be, except in very particular coastal places with industry and high density populations. But the 500 million unelectrified people on the continent will not be reached by grid extensions. Have the courage and the vision to do the right thing for a continent that was left behind by the Industrial Revolution, and which now needs to be lifted into economic and social wellbeing.
- Develop a more robust and responsible transition plan for each oil and gas company than has been done over the past six to seven years; a glidepath toward net zero. The lifetime of gas as a major source of energy is more than five years but not more than 30. Be conscientious about business continuity by moving quickly into more sophisticated - i.e. non-fossil products and services.
Despite the bonanza of the last nine months, the fossil fuel era is approaching its expiration date. The International Energy Agency has unequivocally translated the devastating science for the industry and its investors: there is no more room for any new fossil fuel exploration or exploitation.
The oil and gas industry stands at the most crucial crossroads of its history. It arguably has more financial muscle and agency to act than many governments. In fact, there is no industry that has as much capacity for harm or as much potential for good at this moment. I would rather know it to be doing the second, but the choice is now theirs, and humanity is watching.