It’s been a persistent drumbeat for many years: Fossil fuels are obsolete, and the facilities that produce them, along with any further facilities that might be built for that purpose, will shortly become worthless. These facilities will be “stranded assets.” And any energy company stupid enough to make further investment in fossil fuel extraction or use will inevitably suffer a total loss.
Do you believe that prediction? Those making it are among the aggressive promoters of an energy transition to supposedly superior sources like the wind and sun. The prediction has been widely used in the attempt to bludgeon energy companies into reducing or ending their coal, oil and gas investments. But if fossil fuels were really obsolete, and renewables superior and cheaper, why would such bludgeoning be needed? Wouldn’t the investment just flow naturally over to the wind and solar facilities?
For starters, here is a sampling of some of those staking out the position that fossil fuel assets will shortly become “stranded”:
- Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, at a hearing March 29, 2023: “[T]he world is moving away from oil and gas, but truculent and politically connected market actors persist in fossil fuel investments, which crash in value when their unsustainable economics overwhelm the artificial politics that supported them. The operative term of today’s hearing: stranded assets.”
- From an article by Semieniuk, et al., in Nature Climate Change, May 2022: “The distribution of ownership of transition risk associated with stranded fossil-fuel assets remains poorly understood. We calculate that global stranded assets as present value of future lost profits in the upstream oil and gas sector exceed US$1 trillion under plausible changes in expectations about the effects of climate policy.”
- From MIT News, August 19, 2022: “As the world transitions away from greenhouse-gas-emitting activities to keep global warming well below 2 C (and ideally 1.5 C) in alignment with the Paris Agreement on climate change, fossil fuel companies and their investors face growing financial risks (known as transition risks), including the prospect of ending up with massive stranded assets.”
- From the New York Times, March 21, 2022, quoting a speech by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “In his speech, Mr. Guterres said wealthy nations should be dismantling coal infrastructure to phase it out completely by 2030, with other nations doing so by 2040. . . . ‘Their support for coal not only could cost the world its climate goals,’ he said. ‘It’s a stupid investment — leading to billions in stranded assets.’”
Meanwhile, out here in the real world, fossil fuel investments are looking very much the opposite of “stranded.” Here’s a brief summary from AP on May 2 of some major oil company earnings for the first quarter of 2023:
Exxon earned a record $11.4 billion in the first quarter, and Chevron raked in $6.6 billion. Saudi Aramco said in March that it earned $161 billion in 2022, the highest-ever recorded annual profit by a publicly listed company.
And for the full year 2022, here are the earnings of Exxon and Chevron, as reported by NPR:
ExxonMobil earned nearly $56 billion in profit in 2022, setting an annual record not just for itself but for any U.S. or European oil giant. Buoyed by high oil prices, rival Chevron also clocked $35 billion in profits for the year, despite a disappointing fourth quarter.
NPR quotes Exxon CEO Darren Woods as to the reason for Exxon’s recent success: “We leaned in when others leaned out.”
Woods was referring to Exxon’s decision to continue investing in producing oil and gas, while several other oil majors were cutting back and making ridiculous commitments to reduce their “emissions,” as if they had forgotten what business they are in. Leaders in the category of seeking climate virtue were the two European giants, BP and Shell. How has that been working out? Britain’s Daily Telegraph (behind pay wall) reports on June 15 on the latest from those two:
First BP, now Shell. One by one, the oil giants are returning to what they know best – doubling down on fossil fuels and prioritising shareholder returns – in u-turns that inevitably have to come at the expense of climate pledges.
It seems that BP and Shell had been lagging the competition in oil and gas profits, while they invested in various politically-favored green energy projects. No more. Here is the Daily Telegraph describing Shell after its recent pivot:
Shell privately concedes that biofuels, hydrogen, electric vehicle charging and carbon capture storage – the four areas it has earmarked for investment – are at the more speculative and unproven end of the renewables spectrum. The absence of any plans to invest in other, far more established clean energy sources such as wind and solar – which are attracting record investment around the world – is glaring.
And for the latest on coal, you can check out Robert Bryce’s Substack column from June 17. Here are a few statistics provided by Bryce from Vietnam and China:
Vietnam is now getting about 60% of its juice from coal-fired power plants. Since 2009, Vietnam’s coal-fired electricity output has grown tenfold and more growth is on the way. Last year, according to Global Energy Monitor, Vietnam commissioned about 1,900 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity.
Much . . . coal growth is happening in China, which accounts for more than half of all global coal consumption and a shade more than half (52%) of all the electricity generated from coal. Yesterday, June 16, Reuters reported that during the first five months of this year, coal-fired generation in China jumped by 6.6%. And that trend will continue. In February, Global Energy Monitor reported that China permitted about two new coal-fired power plants per day in 2022.
And here is a chart from Bryce showing the overall trend of generation of electricity from coal:
As between oil, gas, and coal assets on the one hand, and wind, solar, and battery assets on the other, I think it’s a very easy call which ones are going to end up “stranded.” On the first day when any government withdraws its subsidies for any wind, solar or battery asset, that asset becomes “stranded.”