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Energy sector pushes back on transition pace, warns of price shocks and shortages at WPC conference

The 23rd World Petroleum Congress in Houston focused on “the future of energy” and the ongoing transition from fossil fuels, but oil and gas executives and OPEC leaders repeatedly pushed back on the “transition” narrative and warned of years of price shocks and energy shortages if the world shifts too quickly.

Energy executives acknowledged the threat of climate change and the need for action, but they also highlighted that crude oil is needed for decades to come and argued that natural gas should serve as much more than a so-called bridge fuel, especially as methane leaks and flaring are eliminated.

OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Barkindo said Dec. 8 that too many of the conversations about the energy transition are misguided and not based in fact.

“Public discourse around energy climate and sustainable development continues to be extremely emotive,” Barkindo said, speaking virtually because of an Austrian COVID-19 lockdown, and criticizing much of the recent COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland. “Parameters of public discourse were at times reduced to, ‘Are you for or against fossil fuels?'”

OPEC’s recently released World Outlook 2021 report sees global energy demand expanding 28% by 2045, and underlines a need for a holistic view of the energy sector. For example, OPEC only projects electric vehicles’ global market share to grow to 20% by 2045, although other studies disagree.

Houston itself dove willingly into the theme. Long having touted itself as the “energy capital of the world,” Houston is pushing the phrase, “energy transition capital of the world,” during the World Petroleum Congress.

However, in one Dec. 8 panel at WPC, Enterprise Products Partners co-CEO Jim Teague and Tellurian Executive Chairman Sharif Souki even took offense at the term “transition.”

“We hate the word transition,” said Souki, a pioneer in US LNG exports through his previous company, Cheniere Energy.

“What we use at Enterprise is ‘evolution’,” added Teague.

Enterprise is studying potential projects for carbon capture pipelines, hydrogen and plastics recycling, but they must be commercially viable. “It’s got to make money. We’re not going to do it for the hell of it,” Teague said, and there is simply more demand and value in fossil fuels.

Taking aim at EVs, Teague said so much of the processing for so-called clean energy materials goes through China — rare earth metals, lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. “Are we changing (US) energy independence to metal dependence … and dependence on China? I don’t understand it.”

Souki added, “The need for new investments has never been more acute,” warning of more rampant pricing spikes as seen in parts of Europe and Asia this years, and ceding more power over to OPEC and national oil companies.

Oil and gas investment declined in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. In 2019, E&P companies spent $525 billion, an amount which plummeted to $341 billion in 2021, said Joseph McMonigle, secretary-general for the International Energy Forum. “We have to get back to $525 billion over several years until 2030 to restore market balance,” McMonigle said. “I’m afraid what we’re seeing with the energy crisis is on our doorstep.”

As Suncor Energy CEO Mark Little said, “I think the issue is this conversation gets out of balance. It’s easy to demonize but, OK, what are the solutions?”

Change is coming

But the transition is still underway, and more countries are embracing goals for net-zero emissions by 2050 to help meet the Paris climate accord goals.

President Biden on Dec. 8 signed executive orders, mandating the federal government become net-zero by 2050, including stopping buying gasoline-fueled vehicles by 2035.

The world’s top oil and gas companies must embrace the ongoing energy transition and invest in cleaner solutions — and profit as a result — or face financial failure if they stand pat, US Deputy Energy Secretary David Turk said at the conference.

“I don’t think we’re going to be successful unless major companies step up and are part of solution,” Turk said, noting that some will and some will not.

To reach net-zero emissions by 2050, annual clean energy investment worldwide will need to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion, according to the International Energy Agency.

“We’re already in 2021 … and 2050 is not that many years away,” Turk said.

And a lot of the oil and gas sector is getting on board. A top Permian Basin oil producer, Occidental Petroleum, is embracing direct air capture and net-zero power plants with major investments.

Oxy CEO Vicki Hollub said the energy transition will require thinking that goes beyond finances and analytics modeling — and involves an emotion not often used by energy providers: passion.

Oxy is building a direct air capture project in West Texas coupled with carbon storage and enhanced oil recovery. The project involves building large fans that will pull CO2 from the atmosphere. The emissions injected and stored are greater than those generated through the production and use of oil, Hollub said.

Even Enterprise’s Teague acknowledged, “We want to do it better; we want to do it cleaner. I think, if you look, people are investing to do it cleaner in every basin. I know we are.”

In the Middle East, Saudi Aramco is embracing solar power, but it is not about to abandon its core crude oil and petrochemicals. Alternative energies are “no way near ready to carry a big enough load,” said Aramco CEO Amin Nasser.

“Right now, the world is facing a ever more chaotic, highly unrealistic scenarios about the energy transition that are clouding the future,” Nasser said. “It’s increasingly assumed the entire world can run on alternative fuels, and the vast energy system can be transformed virtually overnight.

“It’s also assumed that the right transition strategy is in place,” he said. “It is not; it’s deeply flawed.”

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