‘Time is not on our side’: Big Oil is bracing for future after petrol

Saudi Arabia is bowing to the inevitable. Aramco, the state-owned oil giant, is launching radical plans to switch its oil output from cars to petrochemical use over the next decade, implicitly accepting that the curtain is coming down on the era of petrol and diesel.

Amin Nasser, head of the giant state producer, said the global oil industry “faces a crisis of perception” and is failing to convince the opinion elites – or rising millennials – it has any place in a world imperilled by climate change.

“Time is not on our side,” he told the annual IP Week gathering of oil and gas chiefs in London. “Our stakeholders are clearly tuning out. There is a worrying and growing belief among policymakers and regulators, investment houses, and NGOs, that we are an industry with little or no future.”

Mr Nasser said the ferocity of the backlash against Big Oil last month in Davos – where Sir David Attenborough was the superstar – came as a shocking revelation.

“One senior financial figure I spoke to confidently predicted the end of our industry in about five years!” he said. “Another speculated that most vehicles on the road would be electric in five to 10 years.”

Mr Nasser dismissed such views as preposterous, arguing that cars make up just a fifth of the 100 million barrels a day (b/d) of oil consumed each year. The rest goes to planes, ships, trucks and petrochemicals, “for which there is no alternative yet”.

‘Future-proofing’ the kingdom

But he acknowledged the political reality that these opinions are “sincerely held” and reflect the prevailing zeitgeist since catastrophic warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year.

Saudi Aramco is moving to “future-proof” the kingdom at breakneck speed. The company will switch 2 million to 3 million barrels a day to petrochemical production over the next 10 years, and potentially 7 million barrels a day over two decades. “We’re going to be global leaders,” he said.

This is a staggering amount. Saudi Arabia’s entire oil exports in January were 7.2 million barrels a day. In October Aramco and Total agreed on a massive ethane project in Jubail to make polymers for China and Asian markets.

Mr Nasser said the kingdom is also launching a $US150 billion ($210 billion) dash for natural gas, the bridging fuel endorsed by the IPPC to displace dirtier coal.

Production is to reach 23 billion cubic feet per day within a decade, equal to 60 per cent of today’s global market for liquefied natural gas.

“We have a lot of gas coming,” he said.

‘Stormy and uncharted waters’

Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive, said the oil industry faces a blizzard of hostile myths and is “heading into stormy and uncharted waters” as climate targets tighten.

Mr Dudley said the policy elites are in denial over how hard it will be to decarbonise the world economy and public opinion is looking for easy scapegoats.

The task is forbidding. For every thousand Americans, there are 900 cars. The current figure is closer to 150 for China and 25 for India and these nations want their bite of the cherry.

Under BP’s greenish “evolving technologies” scenario energy use will rise a third by 2040. “It’s like adding a whole new China and US to the world’s energy system,” said Mr Dudley.

This is the case even assuming that wind, solar and renewables achieve the fastest penetration of any energy source in history.

Mr Dudley said this would at best lead to a 7 per cent rise in CO2 emissions when we need to cut drastically to have any hope of achieving a two degree world, let alone 1.5 per cent now deemed the maximum safe ceiling by the IPPC.

Zero net emissions? Not for decades

BP says achieving the 45 per cent cut in emissions to meet the Paris agreement requires the near total decarbonisation of the world’s power grids, mass use of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and a switch to hydrogen for heating and long-distance transport.

Andy Brown, Shell’s upstream director, said zero net emissions are technologically and economically possible by 2070 but to get anywhere near this oil demand must first peak as soon as the mid-2020s. That is six years away and far sooner than anybody sitting anxiously at IP Week dares to contemplate. Electric power would have to jump fivefold.

Wind and solar would have to increase by 50 times. It would require 10,000 CCS projects able to sequester six gigatons of carbon each year, accompanied by sweeping reforestation. “All this has to happen,” said Mr Brown.

In Shell’s “Sky Scenario” solar panels become the backbone of the world energy system and cover land equal to the territory of Spain. Industry and long-haul aircraft would have to switch to hydrogen. Coal’s share of the energy mix would have to fall to 6 per cent from a quarter today.

What is clear is that the world is not going to tolerate anything close to business as usual.

“We have to clean up our backyard,” said Mr Brown.

The Opec cartel is under less immediate pressure to adapt than private companies. It does not have to answer to shareholders or to the fossil disinvestment movement. It can happily insist that oil demand will ratchet up to fresh peaks of 112 million barrels a day by 2040.

This is based on the shaky premise that there is no other viable fuel for trucks, ships, and aircraft, and no political pushback against single-use plastic and chemical fertilisers.

‘Total failure of imagination’

“It is a total failure of imagination by incumbents; of course you can switch to electric trucks,” said Kingsmill Bond from Carbon Tracker.

“It is already happening with vans. Amazon has just announced that it is converting its delivery fleet and will halve its carbon footprint by 2030.

“The cost of batteries has dropped to $US126 per kilowatt-hour in China (it was $US1,000 in 2008) and Chinese EV sales have just crossed the threshold of 5 per cent.

“When this happens you get into a virtuous circle of acceptance and falling prices, and from then on the market penetration for new technologies is typically 80 per cent within 15 years.

“We think we passed the point of peak petrol and diesel sales worldwide in 2018. This year will be lower.”

The Saudis seem to swing back and forth: at times denouncing fossil criticism as ill-informed hysteria, and at other times conceding epic disruption is barrelling down upon them.

Aramco’s Mr Nasser captured both almost in the same breath, at one moment denouncing the “pressure and hype” of the climate fraternity, while the next vowing to “further lighten the carbon footprint of our fuel products, and do so fast”.

He cited cutting-edge Aramco technology that will “capture the carbon, turn it into valuable products, and in the process move oil towards near-zero carbon emissions”.

What speaks loudest is the company’s urgent move to reinvent itself as the supplier-in-chief of Asia’s petrochemical needs.

It does not mean peak oil but it certainly smacks of peak petrol.

Extracted from The Sydney Morning Herald