Sharpe: Oil, gas, and climate change

George Sharpe

There is no middle ground in the climate debate. That is because the debate is being conducted by the two extremes, both of whom I believe are dangerous to our society.  
The Deniers, many of them in the oil and gas industry, point to a number of possible natural causes for the warming, dismissing even the possibility that man could be a contributing factor. Most people, I believe, dismiss the Deniers as a result. To “do nothing” is not an option.  

Equally extreme are the environmental groups on the other side of the conversation. They have declared war against oil and gas, exemplified by the “Keep It in the Ground” movement. This side of the argument, however, is much more appealing to the masses because the cause is righteous and the Big Oil Enemy is easy to hate.

Two problems. First, the enemy is us, the consumers, not our suppliers We shouldn’t blame Kroger for our weight problem just because they sell food. Second and more importantly, the “Keep It in the Ground” math just doesn’t work. If we shut Kroger down and all go to shop at the corner Kum-n-Go, it's going to run out of food.  

The math behind our energy consumption

I’ve previously discussed the math behind our inconvenient energy footprint. A quick review of the salient points…

1. ALL energy sources impact the environment.  Wind and solar require humongous surface footprints, and lithium batteries don’t grow on trees.

2. Since over 80 percent of our energy comes from carbon sources, most energy consumption comes with a carbon footprint.  Although we are moving towards reducing carbon's piece of the energy pie, the math below will show that is not going to happen as quickly as we might wish.  In the meantime, to significantly reduce our carbon footprint, we must significantly reduce our energy consumption.    

3. Energy drives the economy and our standard of living.  All the stuff we have and everything we do takes energy.

4. Nobody wants to kill the economy or reduce their standard of living, so few Americans are going to really want to reduce their energy consumption, no matter how much they want to reduce their carbon footprint.

The math behind wind and solar

The most abundant non-carbon energy sources are nuclear and hydro power. 

Unfortunately, those are not acceptable to the environmental community either, where wind and solar are the solutions of choice.  As a result, in 2017, a record 18 GW of wind and solar were added to the US system, more than replacing the 6 GW of coal power that was retired. However, even at that record growth rate, it will still take 41 years to replace the 749 GW of carbon based electricity sources assuming no growth in energy demand. 

If one accounts for the fact that wind and solar only have an average 25 percent capacity factor due to the intermittent nature of the power, make that 160 years to become our sole electricity source.  Further, electricity only supplies 39 percent of America’s energy needs.  If we want to replace ALL of our energy use, we are now up over 400 years.  And that is assuming the battery issue is solved and we don’t run out of lithium.  

My point isn’t exactly how many years it will take before we can rely solely on wind and solar.  I know that it is going to happen a lot faster than 400 years.  My point is that it is not going to happen tomorrow.   And who knows what other solutions might develop during that time, from carbon sequestering to hydrogen energy.  As Yogi opined, predictions are difficult, especially about the future!

Total U.S. Electric Generation Capacity

The fallacy of the ‘keep it in the ground’ movement

Meanwhile, back here in the present, we still need oil and gas.  But despite our need to consume it, the "Keep it in the Ground" agenda is to eliminate the domestic production of oil and gas.  Ironically, it is the consumption of oil and gas that generates the bulk of the carbon emissions.  We can eliminate all domestic production, but unless we reduce the consumption, America will just buy their energy from foreign sources.  

I have previously discussed the graph below of US crude oil production and consumption, but its truth is worth repeating. Time Period 2 on the graph covers from 1986 to 2004, a period of relatively low, stable oil prices. During this time, US production declined dramatically while US consumption rose unabated. It turns out that the Middle East was more than willing to fill the vacuum, as imports increased from 4.3 MMBopd to 12.6 MMBopd.  Therefore, restricting production in the US clearly had NO effect on reducing our consumption. 

U.S. crude oil consumption

Higher energy prices will change habits

Looking at the consumption graph, Time Period 1 (1979-86) and Time Period 3 (2004-2013) are a primer in Economics 101.  Oil prices spiked during both periods, and as a result, the ever-increasing US consumption curve took a hit.  In addition, the higher energy prices in Time Period 3, combined with some Obama incentives, resulted in unprecedented investments in wind and solar.  You may not like this answer, but if we are going to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we should expect to pay more for energy.  Higher prices are what will cause us to temper our consumption, and they will stimulate even more investment in alternatives.  

The solution requires a balanced approach

The right solution lies somewhere between “do nothing” and “consume nothing.”  If the masses can at least agree on that, we have a chance.  Our withdrawal from the Paris Accord notwithstanding, we are moving in the right direction, as US carbon emissions have dropped 12 percent over the last decade.  Defying the “Keep it in the Ground” movement, the expanded use of clean burning natural gas has been and will continue to be part of that solution.  

U.S. carbon emissions

Oil & Gas – we aren’t the enemy

In closing, I do think we need to do more to reduce our carbon consumption. There are no easy answers, because all will require higher energy prices and some economic sacrifice. But no matter the solution, it won’t happen overnight.  In the meantime, we are still going to need oil and gas.  The effort to “Keep it in the Ground” here in the U.S., even if successful, won’t necessarily accelerate the reduction in carbon emissions because as long as we consume it, someone will provide it. So ask yourself... until the day comes that alternatives provide all of our energy, from whom do you want to buy your oil and gas… your neighbor Bob, trying to support 5 kids, or Sheik Ali Baba, trying to support who knows what?   

George Sharpe of Farmington is an investment manager with Merrion Oil & Gas.