I admit it. I felt sorry for those poor, duped oil, gas and coal company investors back during the early part of 2015. Many of these guys, fed a constant stream of bad information from the financial news sources, at the time were still enraptured by the notion that fossil fuel stocks were then cheap and that the situation was nothing more than some kind of golden buying opportunity.
Now, six months later, 41 US oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt, powerful major oil companies like Exxon and BP are in the range of 20-40 percent losses in stock price year-on-year, most gas companies have seen even more severe losses, and most coal companies have been reduced to junk stock status (see Arch Coal declares bankruptcy). TransCanada, the parent company of the canceled Keystone XL Pipeline, is challenging United States sovereignty with its 15 billion dollar lawsuit. But it’s questionable if the company will even exist long enough to see the results of its NAFTA-based legal challenge.
(Arch Coal, one of the largest coal companies in the US, filed for bankruptcy today. The company’s stock price has plunged from 300 dollars per share in 2011 to 58 cents per share today. A total loss to investors of 99.88 percent. The dirtiest burning fossil fuel — coal energy faces headwinds from increasing competition by renewable energy, stronger national policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, as well as a strong push for fossil fuel divestment by environmentalists and those who have increasing concerns about the impact of human-forced climate change. Image source: CNN Money.)
It’s as if All of Fossil Fuels Were Solyndra
It’s like the curse of Solyndra has been revisited on the entire fossil fuel industry. But while the renewable energy industry is undergoing its biggest boom ever, the fossil fuel industry’s own bad investments, bad performance, bad decisions, and overall bad impacts on pretty much everything from the increasingly wrecked global climate, to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, to Oklahoma fracking earthquakes, to the debacle that is the Porter Ranch gas leak, are sinking it even faster than its carbon emissions are melting the Arctic sea ice.
Back during 2013 and 2014 we warned that continued investment in oil, gas and coal companies was a really bad idea — one that probably represented the worst malinvestment in the history of finance. A carbon bubble that was worse even than the bad real estate investments that led up to the financial collapse of 2008. Trillions-upon-trillions of dollars encouraged by more than 500 billion dollars worth of subsidy support globally from the world’s governments each year. And to what end? Producing fuels which, contrary to wind and solar, increase in price the more you use them even as they wreck the very natural wealth that is the basis for healthy economic systems the world over.
And now the markets are being driven to the brink by just such a terrible malinvestment. Now major fossil fuel supporters are crying crocodile tears to their friends in Congress — asking them to shore up these big, polluting, malinvesting fossil fuel special interests. In other other words — the fossil fuel industry has now gone panhandling to the US government for a bailout after a risky and speculative oil and gas production binge. The fruits of drill-baby-drill thinking resulting in both economic and environmental collapse.
The Cheap Energy Age and Saudi Arabia’s Use of the Cheap Oil Lever
How did this all happen? Well, much talk-talk has appropriately centered around the topic of Saudia Arabia. But, as with many issues covered in the news today, the current conversation over Saudi’s move to turn on the oil taps lacks the full and appropriate context. It’s probably true that Saudi Arabia opened up the spigots in an effort to tamp down competition from US fracking interests and from other high-price but high volume competitors overseas. An issue that short-sighted conservatives and Wall Street vs Main-Street blow-hards like Trump have used to drum up much misplaced rage.
(Fossil fuel cheerleaders like Donald Trump seem both outraged and perplexed by the fall in fossil fuel fortunes even as wind, solar and electric vehicles make new gains. Image source: Donald Trump Probably Hates This Wind Energy News.)
But the story often not told is the one where wind energy, solar energy, and efficiencies have now become an increasingly competitive player in the energy sector. If one considers jobs growth alone, a single US renewable energy sector — solar — added 35,000 jobs during 2015 growing to more than 208,000. By comparison, the entire US oil and gas extraction industry composed just 199,000 jobs at the start of 2015 and by its end had contracted by 14,000 to 185,000. This point is worth reconsidering for a few moments — just one renewable energy industry now supports more US jobs than the entirety of all the oil and gas extraction interests combined.
What’s going on in the US is part of a growing global trend. In many regions now, wind and solar are competitive with natural gas and coal as well as with diesel electric generation. In total, more than 106 gigawatts of new renewable energy capacity from wind and solar alone was likely installed globally over the course of 2015 (see wind capacity forecast here and solar capacity forecast here). Since over 3 million barrels of oil go to diesel electricity generation around the world, this new generation directly competes with that source. In addition, natural gas, which is fungible with oil in many markets, is also being increasingly crowded out by cheap renewables. With coal also under price pressure, the world was flooded with a glut — not only of oil, but of cheap energy sources of all kinds.
Perhaps even more of a threat to the fossil fuel industry was a growing shift within the auto industry toward renewable and high fuel efficiency vehicles. This shift was driven in large part by major countries and influential regions like the US, EU, and China providing ever-higher fuel efficiency standards for their vehicle fleets. The tip of the spear to this effort, of course, is in the growing expansion of electrical vehicle access. And despite ever-lower oil prices around the world, electric vehicle sales continue along at a rather substantial rate of growth — jumping from 320,000 total global EV sales during 2014 to 447,000 total EV sales during 2015. Marking the first time a major oil glut has not dramatically reduced the rate of electric vehicle sales growth.
In this global context of both fossil fuel glut and ramping renewable energy adoption, it was impossible for Saudi Arabia to defend the price of oil without losing much of its market share. And with so many new energy systems coming to the fore, it was all-too-likely that the kingdom would eventually see that market share whittled away entirely. Saudi’s only recourse to defend its markets was to open the pumps and flood the world with cheap crude. But as it did, the move shifted the burden of fossil fuel market erosion back to the highest price, and often dirtiest, producers. In other words — fracking, tar sands and the various marginal mines and fields around the world.
(Major disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Porter Ranch gas leak have aided in the fall of fossil fuel industry fortunes. But the pervasive and growing concern over human-forced climate change is likely to have an even broader impact. Image source: NOAA.)
So who’s really to blame? In all honesty, those currently seeking the bailout by Congress deserve at least as much of it as the Saudis. They were the ones who over-invested in oil, gas and coal and who failed to see a world in which even heavily subsidized fossil fuels couldn’t compete on the margins with emerging renewable energy and efficiencies. And they were the same fools who also denied climate change. A generation-spanning crisis that is now about to make the 2015 blow to the fossil fuel industry look like the proverbial tempest in a tea-pot.
COP 21’s Ongoing Influence
To this point, we should also be very clear that human-forced climate change is starting to have a serious impact on global policy-making. The storms, floods, droughts, sea level rise, glacial decline, ocean health decline, and mass displacements of human beings and wildlife related to climate change just keep getting worse and worse. So pressure on policy-makers from all corners for comprehensive actions to reduce the harm caused by human forced climate change is growing quite intense.
It is due to this increasingly urgent call to action that the recent stated COP 21 goals were the strongest yet coming from any climate conference. And though they are not yet enough to provide much hope for avoiding a very dangerous and deadly 2 C warming this Century, the goals, if applied, do shift the world solidly away from the ridiculously catastrophic business as usual fossil fuel burning path.
In total, the conference committed to a 40 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. Further emissions reductions commitments continue on through 2050 at 75 percent. The conference also aimed to increase the renewable energy share of the global energy market to 32 percent by 2030 even as it aimed to reduce total energy consumption by 50 percent by 2050. Adding in even a mild carbon pricing or carbon tax regime and what this means is that the fossil fuel industry is looking at decades of recession and retraction. And since most scientists are now saying that COP21 isn’t enough, that more stringent policy measures will be needed to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, it appears that the harmful practice of burning fossil fuels is being set on a path toward ending this Century.
So once again, as we warned before — the carbon bubble is bursting. The end of the age of fossil fuels is at hand. Fossil fuel investor — beware.
Hat tip to Greg