The slogan for London’s prestigious International Energy Week now going on is “Transitioning out of Crisis,” reflecting the focus of the conference on the post-Ukrainian-War energy industry and the transition to renewables. As their website says, it is “the global conference focused on transitioning out of the geopolitical and environmental crises facing energy….Climate change impacts and projections are worsening; international prices post-COVID are volatile and hitting consumers hard; and the effects of Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine are rippling out across the global economy. The energy transition offers enduring solutions, some immediate, others longer-term.”
Most of dozen primary speakers are from the renewable energy industry, or renewable/low carbon executives in the fossil fuel industry, with only two ‘pure’ oil executives, the CEOs of BP and Petronas. Presumably, the organizers would argue, the future is a transition to renewable and low-carbon energy, thus the emphasis.
But at the same time, though, we had industry executives commenting: “Demand is expected to hit record levels in the second half of the year,” Vitol Chief Executive Officer Russell Hardy said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “The prospect of higher prices in the second half of the year, in the sort of $90-$100 range, is a real possibility.” International Energy Week Returns to London With Talk of $100 Oil – Bloomberg
As I have written recently, oil prices could be higher later this year, but they could also be lower, depending on what happens to supply from Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Angola, Libya and Nigeria, not necessarily in that order. But record levels of demand are much more certain for the simple fact that the heavy investments in renewables and electric vehicles have had marginal impact to date on oil demand, or fossil fuel demand overall, as the figure below shows.
Careful scrutiny does show a couple instances when demand fell, namely the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 pandemic, however, it seems unlikely that policy-makers will promote those as solutions to climate change. To paraphrase the famous quote from the Vietnam War, “We have to destroy the economy in order to save it.”
To date, it appears that renewables have largely supplemented not replaced fossil fuel consumption, despite large-scale investments and much enthusiasm about the glowing success and prospects for the renewable industry (including electric vehicles). This resembles past transitions where consumption of the dominant fuel such as coal does not disappear but new demand is met from its successor, such as oil and gas.
One problem with the conference’s approach is the long-standing tendency for pundits to embrace consensus, sometimes without regard for reality. One famous energy pundit in 1983 remarked “But then, in late 1981 and early 1982, U.S. consumers, encouraged by some unknowing writers and economists, began to believe that OPEC members were no longer able to hold up oil prices and that all of America’s energy problems were over. This misperception, which was encouraged by the desire for a simple view and a simple solution, obscured the nature of the energy situation.”[emphasis added; citation from “A Cautionary Tale for Oil Companies Navigating the Energy Transition,” on realclearenegy.com Cautionary Tale for Oil Companies in the Energy Transition | RealClearEnergy] Two years later, the price collapsed and remained low for fifteen years, as if a host of experts had not predicted otherwise.
Additionally, at most conferences the ‘sexy’ is favored over the boring. This is reminiscent of the way Enron was the darling of the media for its insistence that “Vertically integrated behemoths like ExxonMobil
Larry Goldstein and I have written about the possible failure of the energy transition, but it is hardly a popular view. Like Midas’ barber, we could be whispering into a hole in the ground: the potential failure is not so much secret as unwanted. Perhaps there should be a sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” focusing on the difficulties of the transition and the potential that it would not live up to even the more modest expectations of some advocates.
This probably sounds like the many eccentrics who point out that the scientific community has often been wrong, for example, refusing to accept the theory of continental drift. But that doesn’t mean that the scientific consensus should be ignored, rather that skeptical views should be considered rather than rejected out of hand. And by considered, I do not mean cherry-picking opposite views as evidence. (Something my peak oil critics often did.)
The lesson of the current energy crisis is not that acceleration of the transition is needed, but that renewables are not capable of stepping up in a crisis and that consumers cherish cheap energy much more than ‘clean’ energy. Imagining a conference that provides much more realistic assessments of our energy future is easy; imagining those arguments given serious consideration by most media and pundits, not so much.
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