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Local Economy

Governments Need to Face Reality — the Fossil Fuel Industry Is Collapsing

From Saudi Arabia to Alberta, the numbers are clear. But we still shovel taxpayers’ money at oil and gas companies.

Mitchell Anderson 29 Nov 2019 |

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer based in Vancouver and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

While Canadian politicians keep up their parochial posturing, a global storm is brewing.

Around the world there is early evidence of a seismic shift. Capital is moving away from fossil fuels, and regions that have let their economies become dependent on oil revenues are showing signs of authoritarian abuses of power. (Sound familiar Alberta?)

Saudi Arabia, for example, planned to sell up to five per cent of state-owned oil company Aramco in what was supposed to be the largest IPO in history, raising $100 billion to improve services and diversify the economy.

Instead, the sale has been scaled back. Only 1.5 per cent of the company will be sold, and the share offering may only raise $25 billion — enough to cover the Saudi government deficit for about six months.

The precarious balance in Saudi society is maintained through lavish government spending that has relied on oil prices of $85 a barrel to drive revenues. But Brent oil prices have not been at that level in the last five years. Saudi Arabia is running deficits of around $60 billion a year to maintain services — and head off unrest.

Former CIA director David Petraeus noted ominously, “It’s a fact that Saudi Arabia is gradually running out of money.”

Even though Aramco is the most profitable company on the planet, with proven reserves of 270 billion barrels of the world’s cheapest oil, private equity investors so far have taken a pass on the IPO. Oil is a cyclical business, but their reluctance is not due to downturn slump in the sector. The reasons investors snubbed the sale seem more existential.

If Saudi Arabia is in trouble, the rest of the oil-producing world should probably start to panic.

The International Energy Agency just released its annual energy outlook with sobering news for oil producers. Even though the IEA has consistently underestimated adoption of clean energy, this year’s report predicted that growth in global oil demand will “slow to a crawl” by 2025 due to the increased market share of electric vehicles.

The IEA report also warned that any increases in demand will lead U.S. shale oil and gas producers to ramp up production, which will keep oil and gas prices low. “Countries whose economies are exclusively reliant on oil-and-gas reserves are facing serious challenges,” the report warned.

That should be particularly worrying for Alberta. A recent report from the University of Calgary noted that despite Premier Jason Kenney’s corporate tax cuts and promises to restore the “Alberta Advantage,” the province has always relied on high oil prices for prosperity. And structural changes in the sector means the days of expensive oil and gas are over.

The Wexit Albertans aspiring to create their own petro-state are doing so at the very moment in history when that would be a terrible idea. Before Alberta nationalists busy themselves designing new flags and passports, it would be wise to notice signs elsewhere that the oil and gas party is winding down.

The market value of the U.S. energy sector is down almost nine per cent this year. The entire sector is now worth less than Apple. Exxon Mobil’s credit rating was just downgraded by Moody’s due to concerns of “substantial cash burn.” Fracking giant Chesapeake has shed 98 per cent of its stock value since 2008 and recently warned investors it may not be able to make scheduled payments on its crushing $10-billion debt.

Here in Canada, we hear a lot about the value of pipelines, but the economics of oil infrastructure elsewhere are collapsing. A recent report predicted the $160-billion global oil tanker fleet could lose 30 per cent of its value as the world shifts away from fossil fuels. “Shipowners and people that finance these ships could see their market is sinking,” said Stuart Nicoll, a director at Maritime Strategies that authored the study. “This just hasn’t had any attention.”

An ultra-deep water drilling platform worth $683 million in 2011 was just sold for scrap at two cents on the dollar after receiving no bids at auction, driven by diving investor interest in expensive offshore projects.

Even the Bank of Canada recently warned that some global oil reserves will become worthless in the future. “Maintaining the warming below 2.0 degrees Celsius implies that some of the existing fossil fuel reserves will become stranded assets,” wrote bank senior research director Miguel Molico in a recent report.

None of this news seems to have penetrated the information bubble in Alberta. The Kenney government just seized control of the $18-billion teachers’ pension plan and is looking at taking control of another $40 billion by pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan. Critics worry the pension will be invested in the oil sector — an exceedingly unwise investment.

A report on New York State pension investments found that failing to divest from fossil fuels 10 years ago cost the fund US$22 billion.

Albertans would be wise to ensure politicians don’t squander the money they’re saving for retirement on a dying industry.

Alberta is not the only province having trouble accepting energy realities. Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he was “proud” of his government’s decision to cancel hundreds of previously approved green energy projects — including a fully completed wind farm — at a cost to taxpayers of $231 million.

“If we had the chance to get rid of all the windmills, we would,” he said.

Back in the real world, the S&P renewable energy index was up 24 per cent in the last year. The IEA predicts the wind industry could be worth $1 trillion by 2040.

Meanwhile, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to “phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” Ottawa and the provinces still shovel $3.3 billion a year at the climate-destroying sector. This year, an additional $320 million was spent propping up the money-losing Trans Mountain pipeline.

Populist rhetoric portraying the past as our future might play well with partisan supporters, but it is extraordinarily irresponsible — especially when public money is being wasted in the process.

Worse are the anti-democratic moves from the Alberta government attacking free speech and accountability, which will do nothing to respond to global changes to the energy economy.

Can Canada still become a global climate leader, or will we be just another compromised petro-state?

We ignore the gathering storm at our peril.  [Tyee]

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