NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2020/08/10: A motorist fills-up at a BP gas station in Queens Borough of … [+]
For well over a year now, it has been apparent that much of the U.S. and global news media who focus on energy and the environment have engaged in a coordinated effort to push out stories on the “energy transition.” These stories all have a similar theme, one that promotes the ethos of achieving a carbon “net zero” society by a target date. Such stories have been pervasive since at least early 2020; thus it comes as little surprise that we are now seeing an impact on polling data, even among leaders in the energy business community.
One such survey hit my in-box this week in the form of a new report from the World Energy Council, titled “WORLD ENERGY ISSUES MONITOR 2021: HUMANISING ENERGY.” The report, based on surveys of more than 2,500 energy leaders from 108 countries, assesses the general direction of the global energy agenda, and predictably finds that attitudes among these energy leaders towards the energy transition have shifted dramatically over the past 12 months.
“While economic turbulence stemming from the ongoing reverberations of COVID-19 is the biggest area of uncertainty,” the WEC states, “with uncertainty around economic trends increasing by a third over the previous year, there is also a growing focus on the social agenda associated with a faster paced energy transition.” The report’s Executive Summary also finds “a re-alignment in energy leaders’ ambitions to decarbonise energy, secure climate neutrality and avoid climate change catastrophe.”
But – and there’s always a “but” – the report also finds that “the issue of energy affordability has rapidly risen up the industry’s priority list, with its impact and uncertainty perceived 20% larger than a year ago.”
That has always been the big catch where the energy transition is concerned: How do we make the transition away from fossil fuels, which are abundant, readily scalable and affordable, to renewable energy sources that, despite all the hype surrounding them, remain non-scalable and very expensive for many applications? As a result of their current limitations – which could be moderated over time with technological advances – making the transition to these renewable sources can be quite costly.
Here in Texas, for example, our grid managers at ERCOT have pointed with great pride to the fact that the state’s massive wind farms now generate upwards of 17% of the state’s electricity: But it cost $7 billion and took most of a decade just to build the power lines that now bring the energy generated by West Texas wind farms to the Dallas and Houston markets. That ultimate price tag was 7 times the original cost promised by wind power promoters. And as we saw during the mid-February freeze event and resulting blackouts, that wind power cannot be relied upon to provide baseload power on a grid, and still is not of much use during a winter weather emergency.
Thus, based on real-world experiences like this, it is perfectly reasonable for energy leaders surveyed by the WEC, especially those in developing nations, to remain concerned about the economic and affordability issues that surround the energy transition.
Amid this shifting mood and the uncertainties that surround it, oil and gas companies are struggling to find their footing in finding ways to make themselves relevant. It is an arena in which management teams at every company will have to determine the direction they take, and the choices are numerous. As Dr Angela Wilkinson, Secretary General of the World Energy Council, stated, “It is vital, that the connections between Planet and People are maintained and whole-energy-system change implications are thought through. There is no single ‘race to zero’, there are in fact multiple pathways being progressed with tremendous geographical and technological diversity.”
One of those pathways is via Carbon Capture, Sequestration and Utilization (CCSU), a growth area that Tesla TSLA +0.3% and SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently pledged a prize of $100 million for the person or company that can come up with what he deems to be the most promising new technology. It appears likely that this will be an area that attracts interest from oil and gas companies looking to make their mark in the energy transition world, given its nexus to the industry and the expertise possessed by its engineers and geoscientists.
Both ExxonMobil XOM -0.6% and Oxy have engaged for years in large-scale projects in this part of the business, and found ways to make it profitable. Just this past week saw announcements of two more big projects involving oil and gas companies. Liquefied natural gas company NextDecade Corp said it plans to develop a carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in conjunction with its proposed Rio Grande LNG export plant in Texas, one that it estimates will reduce the carbon dioxide emissions at Rio Grande LNG by more than 90%.
In the second new project, E&E News reports that “Valero Energy Corp. VLO 0.0%, BlackRock Global Energy & Power Infrastructure Fund III and Navigator Energy Services said they are planning to develop an industrial-scale pipeline system across five Midwest states — Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota — to move liquefied CO2 to a central sequestration facility.”
The “transition” to net zero carbon emissions does not necessarily mean an elimination of fossil fuels is inevitable. But, as the public mood moves increasingly in favor of the execution of this energy transition by whatever means available, albeit qualified by the concerns over affordability and security identified by the WEC, it becomes increasingly apparent that the oil and gas industry has a limited number of years remaining to demonstrate it can be part of the solution, rather than continue to be perceived as a part of the problem.
CCSU appears to provide one avenue for companies to try to make that journey. At the end of the day, it is a journey that all companies will have to make in one form or another if they hope to survive.
David Blackmon is an independent energy analyst/consultant based in Mansfield, TX. David has enjoyed a 39-year career in the oil and gas industry, the last 23 years of