SNAPSHOT: The Fossil Industry Goes for Broke

Full Story: The Energy Mix

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The top-line fossil sector news in 2018 made it tough to imagine the collapse of one of the world’s most powerful and politically connected industries. But while fossils held onto their considerable financial and political control over energy worldwide, deep cracks started to appear for the first time that will ultimately challenge their long-term dominance.

Coal closures were commonplace in 2018, oil and gas prices fluctuated wildly, and the realization increasingly dawned that proven hydrocarbon reserves can and must stay in the ground. But while the industry began to buckle under the weight of a global transition it could not stop, that shift was not keeping pace with countries’ commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement, much less the urgent 1.5°C target set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in early October.

The Collapse of Coal

The most obvious, pervasive sign of fossil industry distress was the accelerating collapse of what was once a dominant coal industry. But coal plants were still operating in 2018, new ones were still being built, and the industry’s decline fell far short of the Paris targets. While momentum was quickly shifting away from the electricity source that will have to be the first phased out in any reasonable post-carbon pathway, there was still much more to be done as 2018 drew to a close.

The year opened on news that renewable energy in the European Union had outpaced coal in 2017, but the continent was still short of a full phaseout. Germany faced increased pressure to make the phaseout happen. France declared a 2021 phaseout deadline, less than a month after introducing a fossil production ban that would keep five billion barrels in the ground. Finland set a 2029 coal phaseout date and offered subsidies for faster action.

Spain’s new government unveiled a €250-million job transition fund to support its plan to shut down most coal mines by the end of the year. Canada’s coal phaseout was expected to eliminate 16 megatonnes of carbon pollution by 2030 and 100 megatonnes by 2055, and the co-chair of its Just Transition Task Force asked for a longer time span for job retraining funds. Renewable energy installations exceeded fossil capacity for the first time ever in the United Kingdom, where subsidy-free renewables and affordable storage were expected to leave natural gas out in the cold by 2030, and private sector action was speeding coal’s demise in Australia, despite the intentions of its pro-coal Liberal Coalition government.

Coal’s dominance in India was threatened by falling solar costs and mounting air pollution. New research showed 40% of China’s coal plants losing money, though the country quietly restarted construction on 46.7 gigawatts of new capacity. In Japan, other big industrials were expected to follow Tokyo-based conglomerate Marubeni’s lead after it signaled its exit from coal. Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines were on track to lose US$60 billion on stranded coal assets in the next decade, and South Africa laid plans to replace coal and nuclear capacity with renewables and natural gas.

In the United States, power utilities hit an inflexion point, with solar and wind farms coming in less costly to own and operate than coal plants that were already built and paid for. Regional grid manager PJM Interconnection determined that power utility FirstEnergy Solutions could shut down four gigawatts—four billion watts—of existing coal capacity without compromising grid reliability, even as U.S. coal barons’ wish list became Donald Trump’s to-do list. Despite the former reality TV star’s best efforts, U.S. government data showed a promised coal recovery evaporating. Trump’s own appointees to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected his bailout plan for financially stressed coal and nuclear utilities, and the massive, 2,250-megawatt Navajo coal station in Arizona faced the reality of a 2019 closure date after a potential new owner backed out. Separate reports by the World Bank and the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to the futility of trying to rebuild the world’s rapidly failing coal industry.

Delegates to the IPCC meeting on low-carbon pathways in Incheon, South Korea, considered drastic coal cuts as a way to protect the 1.5°C target, and Bloomberg News analyst David Fickling said coal consumption just might achieve the required 60% reduction by 2030. But Carbon Tracker warned that coal plant retirements would have to triple just to match up with the Paris targets, and Oil Change International scorched the International Energy Agency for a set of future scenarios that would take climate change over the cliff.

Extreme Oil Meets Supply-Side Campaigning

After many years of determined, creative effort to reduce demand for fossil energy, campaigners pushed for a wider mix of decarbonization strategies, with a stepped-up focus on keeping known fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

Economists Fergus Green of the London School of Economics and Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute earned a thumbs-up from veteran Vox.com climate columnist David Roberts for their “cogent argument that the activists are onto something—that restrictive supply-side (RSS) climate policies have unique economic and political benefits and deserve a place alongside carbon prices and renewable energy supports in the climate policy toolkit.” The Stockholm Environment Institute said new fossil infrastructure imperils domestic and global climate goals. Earth scientist David Hughes showed that Canada will never meet its Paris Agreement targets if it keeps on scaling up oil and gas infrastructure, and Oil Change Senior Advisor Adam Scott pointed to Canadian fossils’ late-fall production cuts as a remarkable example of what a managed decline could look like. Fossil analysts at Wood Mackenzie concluded that a 2035 target for the off-fossil transition to reach the point of no return was too late to meet the IPCC’s 1.5°C target. Securing America’s Future Energy cast the country’s military spending as a minimum US$81-billion subsidy to the fossil industry

New Zealand banned new oil and gas exploration, while Danish Oil and Natural Gas renamed itself for noted Danish physicist and chemist Hans Christian Ørsted (over the legal objections of their new namesake’s descendants) and completed its transformation into an offshore wind powerhouse. California was told in no uncertain terms that it must phase out its fossil fuel production or lose its status as a climate change leader. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) looked askance at the business case for the new Teck Resources tar sands/oil sands megaproject in Alberta, and ExxonMobil subsidiary Imperial Oil announced a new bitumen project of its own, just as some of the province’s biggest fossils began cutting back production.

Renewables Win on Price

The other memo many fossils seemed to be missing was that the shift to renewable energy was continuing as the cost of renewables and energy storage continued to fall.

Oxford, U.K.-based Aurora Energy Research Ltd concluded that fossil companies stood to lose US$19 trillion in income by 2040, as cumulative electric vehicle sales hit 540 million and oil demand peaked in less than a decade. A Carbon Tracker analysis released at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco showed fossil demand peaking in 2023. The economics of new coal and natural gas plants crumbled, Denver-based Xcel Energy said renewables were already undercutting the cost of existing fossil generation, and a study in the journal Nature Climate Change cautioned that a carbon bubble driven by cheap renewables could trigger a global economic crisis. Investment executives advised oil and gas to “face its future as a declining industry” and leave it to financial professionals to allocate the US$29 trillion that will be needed by 2050 to decarbonize the global energy system

Fossils Fight Back

Several fossil companies faced sustained pressure from their own investors. An annual general meeting resolution asked TransCanada Corporation to assess the business risk it faces in the low-carbon transition, and Kinder Morgan shareholders demanded the company report on its sustainability practices and climate-related investment risk. “As you are probably aware, these proposals are non-binding,” Executive Chair Rich Kinder said in a statement following the vote. IEEFA said ExxonMobil shareholders committed a “failure of epic proportions,” after an earlier push to hold the company’s board to a higher standard of climate risk disclosure fizzled, and New York said it would see Exxon in court.

But the company was undeterred, with management doubling down on future oil and gas production even as a former executive urged fossils to get with the program. BP foresaw its emissions rising through 2040, with oil demand peaking at 110 million barrels per day, and CEO Bob Dudley called for trillions in new fossil spending. Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden refused to set a carbon reduction target after his company sustained a shareholder grilling on its greenhouse gas emissions, ultimately pursuing a strategy of extracting all its fossil fuel reserves before they become stranded assets. A lawsuit asserted that #shellknew about the dangers of climate change as far back as 1988. In early December, Shell became the world’s first colossal fossil to tie executive pay to greenhouse gas reductions. OPEC expected oil to draw US$11 trillion in new investment through 2040.

Carbon disclosure and pricing emerged as mainstream practices for investors and big businesses, and fossil-focused Houston, Texas, recognized that it faces Rust Belt status if it fails to embrace a renewable energy future. The Petroleum Services Association of Canada said it would lobby the Canadian government for an energy industry that includes renewables as well as fossils.

But taxpayers were still underwriting the fossil industries their governments needed to rein in in time to deliver on the post-carbon transition. The Trump administration used tax breaks and regulatory fixes to keep U.S. pipeliners and coal operators afloat; OECD countries issued fossil fuel subsidies worth at least US$373 billion as recently as 2015; and the average Canadian tax return included a $234 giveaway to Big Oil, even though two-thirds of those taxpayers opposed fossil subsidies. During midterm elections in November, U.S. citizens in 24 states seized control of the energy agenda with a total of 64 ballot initiatives, though fossils won big in Arizona, Colorado, and Washington State when they chose to throw their overwhelming financial weight around on specific ballot issues. U.S. fossils lost control of the climate denial network they had spawned, but still sought the right PR strategies to fight public opinion and slow down the shift away from fossil fuels.

Pollution in All Places

The fossil industry continued to do severe damage to the atmosphere and the environment, even as its business model became more and more tenuous.

NASA pointed a finger at natural gas as the clear culprit in spiking methane emissions, and Oil Change said G20 countries’ plans for new gas infrastructure would undercut their climate promises. Fracking needed a 329-fold reduction in its environmental impact to match the sustainability of renewables, and fossils geared up for a new wave of liquefied natural gas (LNG) expansion. The LNG Canada consortium approved a C$40-billion megaproject in British Columbia, three more Canadian LNG projects inched toward construction in 2019, and the Squamish Nation in British Columbia approved a C$1.1-billion impact and benefit agreement with the Woodfibre LNG project.

As the reality of declining gasoline demand began to set in, fossils launched a US$186-billion investment binge in future plastic pollution, betting big that plastics and petrochemical demand would be enough to offset emission reductions in other sectors. Tar sands/oil sands producers began searching for bitumen products “beyond combustion,” while some U.S. states looked to the petrochemical boom to turn the Rust Belt into the Plastics Belt.

After Canadian Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna approved oil and gas drilling off the Nova Scotia coast, it took less than four months for BP’s “safe” offshore drilling program about 330 kilometres east of Halifax to spill 136,000 litres of toxic mud into the Atlantic Ocean. U.S. risk mitigation specialist Dr. Robert Bea, leader of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group and co-founder of the U.S. Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, concluded that BP had underestimated the risk of a “sustained, uncontrolled blowout.”

After the Newfoundland and Labrador government set a 12-year strategy to step up its search for offshore oil, Husky Oil’s SeaRose offshore drilling platform lost 250,000 litres in a major storm, producing the region’s worst oil spill ever and putting seabirds at risk of an agonizing death. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers got special advance access to federal marine protection regulations for the Laurentian Channel, a biologically diverse portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence southwest of Newfoundland, and the 2018 federal budget included major funding for a protected areas strategy but no action on fossil fuel subsidies. European Union parliamentarians noticed a revolving door between public sector regulatory positions and the fossil industry.

A wave of opposition greeted a White House plan to expand offshore oil drilling, with coastal states worried about putting tourism and recreation businesses at risk. “Ain’t gonna happen. Not on my watch!” declared South Carolina state representative Nancy Mace, a newly elected legislator described by the Washington Post as a former Trump campaign worker and fiscal conservative.

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