Don’t Blame the Suppliers, Unless They Are Big Oil

Bill Luyties, OWOE Founder and Technical Editor: Last year OWOE published a blog titled “Don’t Blame the Suppliers. It was intended to help focus the narrative related to climate change from attacks on the supply side of the contributors to climate change, i.e., the big oil companies, to the demand side, i.e., consumers who want big cars and to buy lots of everything. However, since that time I have come across several articles published by the BBC: one published in 2020 titled “How the oil industry made us doubt climate change” and another published earlier this year titled “The audacious PR plot that seeded doubt about climate change“. These articles document the efforts of the fossil fuel companies to engage in a public-relations campaign to sow doubt in the science of climate change by following the playbook of the tobacco industry from several decades earlier. Thus, I would like to update the title of that blog to “Don’t Blame the Suppliers, Unless They Are Big Oil”.

Figure 1 – Public disinformation campaigns – left: Big Oil 1990s; right: Big Tobacco 1980s (ETS = Environmental Tobacco Smoke, i.e., second-hand smoke)

The first of these articles takes us back 40 years when a scientist at Exxon created a computer model that showed the earth was warming from the burning of fossil fuels. Exxon chose to disregard their own science because of the risk it posed to their business and instead start a campaign to spread doubt about the dangers of climate change. It then goes into the link back to the tobacco industry campaign starting in the mid-1950s to confuse the public about the danger of smoking cigarettes. The second article addresses the efforts of an organization called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), started in 1989 by energy companies and fossil fuel dependent industries, to aggressively lobby US politicians and media to persuade the public that climate change was not a problem. This included finding and funding climate sceptics to give speeches or write op-eds and arranging media tours so they could appear on local TV and radio stations. It was all about deception and sowing doubt in an American public that would quickly become confused when supposed experts disagreed on the science (see Figure 1).

Much of this was happening while I worked for a Big Oil company. I spent 30 years as an engineer, engineering manager, and project manager working on the development of offshore platforms used to develop oil and gas fields around the world. I was never privy to high level corporate communication strategy, but I should have been knowledgeable and intelligent enough to sift through the disinformation. I remember discussing climate change issues with my wife and using arguments such as “we’re only talking small possible changes in earth’s temperature compared with the planet’s history”, “carbon dioxide levels were much higher in the atmosphere in the past”, “volcanoes and forest fires spew out much more greenhouse gasses in a year than automobiles”, and, of course, “oil and gas are critical to the world economies and any alternative forms of energy are less effective and much too expensive”.

Looking back now, although much these beliefs might have been correct, they truly missed the point – burning fossil fuels is increasing the earth’s temperature, and it doesn’t take very much of an increase to have a major impact on human life as we know it. So now I am looking back and recognizing that I had been deceived along with hundreds of millions of others. I remember stories about oil companies purchasing early electric vehicle technology and burying it. I guess I can accept that – it is a time-honored practice to protect one’s business by all means necessary. But to know something that will have a fundamental negative impact on the entire world, lead to sickness and death and likely wars over diminishing resources, and then to obfuscate the facts seems criminal. Just as the tobacco industry’s effort to promote smoking against all science has been determined to be criminal.

Will Big Oil ever be held truly accountable? Very unlikely. And the reality today is that we still need fossil fuels in the interim until renewable power can replace it across the globe. The OWOE recommendations from that previous blog to make a major push on the demand side of the equation still apply and summarized here in three broad strategies.

Strategy 1 – implement programs that truly reward low carbon energy: establish a carbon tax that truly captures the cost of greenhouse gas emissions; develop markets to trade these emissions with the aim of reducing and eventually eliminating them; clarify what big companies can claim as being green; curtail the current scam in carbon offsets; and, of course, continue to invest in renewable energy technology.

Strategy 2 – capture low-hanging fruit: focus on energy efficiency; and regulate industry to eliminate fugitive methane emissions as quickly as possible.

Strategy 3 – change behavior: stop the political bickering that is driven by individuals and organizations that choose to ignore the science of climate change for greed; rein in the utilities so that their financial objectives align with world needs; and create a public service campaign that helps all Americans understand the benefits of such plans.

But now I will add one more, surely to be very controversial, recommendation – implement a windfall profit tax on the oil companies. Global oil fields currently under production break even on average with oil prices between $18 and $28/barrel (as reported by Reuters) while projects currently under development will break-even with oil prices between $25 and $35/barrel. At today’s cost of over $90/barrel for Brent crude, such projects will be enormously profitable. Who knows what the future price of oil will be, but allow the oil companies a reasonable profit on their investments and then collect the remainder to pay for the tremendous costs to mitigate against global warming, a phenomenon that they helped create in search of past profits.

A real NIMBY problem

OWOE Staff: The battle against climate change is not going well. President Biden’s climate agenda has fallen apart. Russia’s war in Ukraine and its fallout within Europe has led to an increase in coal power and a push to increase world oil output. Germany is proceeding with plans to shut down its last 3 nuclear power plants in December which will eliminate 6% of its annual electricity generation and 11% of its non-fossil based generation. World oil production which peaked in 2019 at 99.7 million barrels per day before the Covid pandemic slashed demand has risen back almost to pre-pandemic levels and is expected to exceed those levels in 2023. We can all lament those factors as lost opportunities, but there are two factors driving Americans’ behavior that make OWOE seriously question whether any real progress can be made. We call them NIMBYism and IWINYism. We will address NIMBYism, or the Not in My Back Yard syndrome, here and cover IWINYism, or the I Want it Now or Yesterday syndrome, in a future post.

Continue reading A real NIMBY problem

A Personal and Very Real Example of Climate Change

OWOE Staff: The world recently celebrated Earth Day on April 22 – 52 years after the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. Unfortunately, like pretty much all the prior Earth Days, very little concrete progress was committed to addressing the world’s global warming crisis. If I may paraphrase  my favorite environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, it was all “bunny, bunny…blah, blah, blah“. Perhaps the biggest news in the fight against climate changes was Denmark’s proposal for a new corporate carbon tax, which would set a value of 1,125 Danish crowns ($164.21) per tonne of carbon equivalent and make it the highest such tax in the world if implemented. But again, that’s just a proposal. In the meantime, fossil fuel use has recovered from its Covid lows, CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets continue to melt, and environmental damage from storms, fires, and rising sea levels continue. I personally witnessed a real-life example of that the very week of Earth Day when I visited one of my favorite beaches in the world, Cancun. I have been going to the beaches of Cancun almost every year since the early 2000s, and the change to the beach caused by the increase in seaweed over the past few years is dramatic. We all tend to miss the big picture when all we see are incremental changes, but after skipping two years because of pandemic travel restrictions, the magnitude of the beach changes was more obvious and led me to look back at my earlier visits and take a broader perspective. Figure 1 shows the change over the last 8 years, with a) from April 2014 and b) from April 2022, both the exact same stretch of beach.

Continue reading A Personal and Very Real Example of Climate Change

The Ghosts of Energy Decisions of the Past

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: Governments’ penchant for wasting taxpayer money and harming the environment is not a recent phenomenon but it went industrial in 20th century at all levels. At the beginning of the century Mother Nature and society had a tremendous capacity to forgive bad decisions even when some such decisions resulted in millions of deaths over the span of several decades. Human, sorry, people-kind abused Mother Nature and the pocketbooks of taxpayers in the name of progress and energy transition but managed to overcome crises such as anthropogenic acid deposition and the oil embargo of the 1970s. People-kind barely limped out of the 20th century into the 21st century. In all likelihood Mother Nature and taxpayer pocketbooks are now beyond the capacity to forgive our shortcomings and bad decisions for much longer.  Who is to blame for this? Big business has big shame, but most blame lies entirely before the governments who are elected to be wise but are faddish populists with inherent graft and “ism” agendas. Difficult and complex solutions require deep thinkers, not pot-addled Princes of Privilege (shout-out to Justin Trudeau, see notes 1 and 2).

Continue reading The Ghosts of Energy Decisions of the Past

2022: Continuing the Year of Bad Government Decisions

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: It is very difficult to keep up with all the energy changes in the world. Every week, some Big Government Agency, NGO, International Think Tank or Big Company proclaims some new solution to the looming global energy problem of too much of the wrong kind of energy and too often from the wrong place. While most of the analysts and prognosticators seem knowledgeable and well intentioned, OWOE analysts cannot conclude for certain that the resultant big government plans foisted through bureaucrats onto ordinary citizens are based upon sound knowledge and understanding of energy markets, resources, technology and costs.  I emphasize technology and cost because most government edicts are based more upon woke and vote political expedience than anything technically attainable without causing significant long term economic pain, e.g., recent decisions to shut down nuclear reactors. Nor have governments shown themselves to understand the political issues of energy supply, as we now see with Europe stuck paying for Russia’s conquest of Ukraine. We have some insightful and interesting comments about the Russian war, but these won’t be discussed in this blog – maybe later.

Continue reading 2022: Continuing the Year of Bad Government Decisions

More interesting energy stories that you might have missed

Guest blog by Mr. R. U. Cirius: Here are some interesting and somewhat offbeat energy stories that haven’t gotten much media attention that OWOE readers might have missed.

Very Small Modular Reactors There has been a lot of press coverage for Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) recently, with some touting them as the solution to the world’s energy challenges to others expressing doubt that they can actually be successful (see also OWOE blog Nuclear Power: Climate Solution or Hype). However, a new version of these nuclear reactors has just been announced that may actually meet the high expectations. William Fences, the entrepreneur and philanthropist, and his company MicroPower, claims to have developed the first Very Small Modular Reactor (VSMR). This is a stand-alone suitcase-sized micro nuclear reactor for both private and commercial use. The reactor includes: molten salt nuclear fuel module, molten salt pump, thermo-electric battery with inverter to export power at 480v, water coolant system that connects directly to the home or business water supply, and auxiliary air cooling motor that plugs easily into a standard 220v power receptacle, all enclosed withing an easily movable case (see Figure 1). Although not yet available for purchase, MicroPower is planning to sell units with power generation capability ranging from 5kW to 50kW.

Figure 1 – Very Small Modular Reactor (VSMR) (courtesy MicroPower)
Continue reading More interesting energy stories that you might have missed

Can we turn the Ukrainian tragedy into opportunity for the planet?

OWOE Staff: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy on many fronts – for the civilians caught in the crossfire, for the concept of democracy, and for the rest of the globe that will certainly feel the impact of economic sanctions imposed in an interconnected world. One impact of those sanctions in the US can be seen in the sharp rise in gasoline prices. In high-priced gasoline states like California, gas prices at the beginning of this week reached an average of about $5.40/gal (up about 10% from the previous week – see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Gasoline Price Increases from March 1 to March 8

Such a sharp increase, especially coupled with inflation stemming from the Covid pandemic stimulus packages and more recent supply chain issues, is certainly going to have a significant impact on Americans. Other impacts of the sanctions, including the US banning of Russian oil imports will create another round of challenges. US companies curtailing business in Russia will see impact to their financial bottom lines which will have a follow-on effect on the stock market. And now we are now getting warnings that prices for other commodities that Russia exports to the world have become volatile and are surging. But can something good come of this?

OWOE believes that the world can use this opportunity to step back and reassess how it moves forward to address the challenges of energy security, energy transition and climate change. In particular, how we can change our dependence on fossil fuels from a supply-focused approach to a demand-focused approach? This has been a recurring OWOE theme (Don’t Blame the Suppliers; The Fundamental (and Somewhat Existential) Source of Climate Change – and How We Might Overcome It). And just recently, Hal Kvisle, a former chief executive of TransCanada Corp., was quoted in BNN Bloomberg as saying: “Until consumers have other alternatives, other ways of getting around, or other ways of heating their homes effectively – until we address the demand on the consumer side – we’re not really going to change the balance”. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, the Covid pandemic dominated not only the news cycle but our daily lives. In 2020 the demand for gasoline (i.e., oil) dropped dramatically to a level not seen since the mid-1990s. This was driven in part by the economic stagnation during the first year of the Covid pandemic, with many people losing their jobs or being forced to take time off work and many others forced to work from home. As a result, transportation by both vehicle and plane dropped dramatically. Figure 2 shows petroleum consumption history from 1950 through 2020, with consumption by the transportation sector dropping from a yearly average of 14.1 million barrels/day in 2019 to 11.9 million barrels/day in 2020.

Figure 2: Petroleum Consumption (EIA February 2022 Monthly Energy Review)

But we managed to survive. Then in 2021 as many of the Covid restrictions were lifted, people started to return to a normal life, and, driven by the pent-up demand from the prior year, oil consumption surged. In November 2021 consumption in the transportation sector jumped up to 13.7 million barrels/day, or just 3% under the 2019 peak, as shown with the added data points.

The first conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers is that, with the right behavior, banning Russian oil imports should have essentially no impact on the US economy. In 2021 average oil imports from Russia were 672,000 barrels/day. That was only 5% of transportation needs (and only 3% of total oil consumption of 23.2 million barrels/day across all sectors). Loss of all Russian barrels would mean the November 2021 transportation consumption would have been about 13 million barrels/day, which would still have been well above the 2020 value. Given that Americans in 2022 are now driving on average 14,263 miles/year (on track for 3.2 trillion miles total) and that the average car in the US gets 23 mpg, it would only take a decrease of about 25 miles per year per vehicle to eliminate completely the need for the Russian oil imports. Certainly, support of Ukraine against Russian aggression is worth driving 1/2 mile less each week.

The second conclusion is that we now have a very good data point for what behaviors can quickly result in a 10-15% reduction in oil consumption, i.e., the 2019 to 2020 drop. This drop was not driven by the cost of gasoline; it was driven by a much broader reduction in demand. While a Covid-scale drop might be too aggressive and costly to the economy, an intermediate value seems very doable. Let’s continue to support clever ways to work remotely and reduce commuting; let’s focus on energy efficiency with electric vehicles, LED lights, home insulation, etc.; let’s scale back our rampant consumerism; let’s walk and bike more in place of driving. These are easy technology changes that can be made with minimal impact to lifestyle and the overall economy and could be greatly enhanced with government encouragement, including ad campaigns and incentive programs. The result would be a huge step forward in the US effort to reduce oil imports, and, concurrently, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help slow global warming.

OWOE also notes that we have been pointing out the risk that dependence on oil supplies from non-democratic countries creates for several years now. See OWOE blogs: Is There Any Limit to How Dumb Can Governments Get?, It’s a Mad Mad World of Energy,  Time for a New Energy Policy, etc. This crisis appears to be the catalyst might make that a reality. The European Commission just published plans to cut EU dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year and end its reliance on Russian supplies of the fuel “well before 2030”.

Hopefully, the Ukrainian tragedy can be used to change the mindset and approach of governments around the world. We’ve proven that we can live with less oil; now we need to make that the norm. It is time to eliminate dependence on Russia for any commodity, moderate our seemingly limitless demand for fossil fuels, and save the planet!

Is There Any Limit to How Dumb Can Governments Get?

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: The answer is no, there is no limit to how dumb governments can get in terms of irrational legislation, fanciful proclamations and of course impossible energy policies. There are a few fundamental things that governments need to do right for society to survive, let alone thrive. Amongst them are protecting their citizens from external threats (military or viral, for instance) and protecting individual rights to conduct commerce or disagree with the government. After that, arguments start about everything else that people think governments should do or not do. I won’t argue those points, but I will argue that governments all around the world, except for China, are being complete idiots when it comes to energy trade and transition.

Continue reading Is There Any Limit to How Dumb Can Governments Get?

Where Does the World Stand with Respect to Oil Production at the Start of 2022?

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: In early November of 2021, the UN’S COP 26 climate conference wrapped up in Glasgow with all sorts of politicians pledging this or that with respect to greenhouse gas emission reductions, renewable tech investments and invoking equity across the world. But really, what are the actions that followed those ballyhoo words bantered about in public? The staff at OWOE took at look at some of the subsequent oil production announcements away from the public spotlight. The following summarizes planned increases / decreases and shares what we found is the most amusing quote associated with each country’s plans.

Continue reading Where Does the World Stand with Respect to Oil Production at the Start of 2022?