About those “stranded petroleum assets”…a new catch phrase that Canada subscribes to but no one else

I’m sure everyone is aware of the current state of renewable energy, because you’d have to live in the Mariana Trench not to be. The great god Google makes this clear; searching for “wind energy” coughs up 420 million results; “solar energy” finds 620 million references. Poor old “fossil fuels” yields only 88 million, despite being the backbone of the world. While that is a sign of the times, fossil fuels, no matter what one wants to hear, still dominate the global landscape, and attempts to diminish that through words alone are unhelpful to say the least.

A new narrative has popped up in the mainstream, continuous references to “stranded petroleum assets.” This is the second half of a bigger strategy, whereby activists are dissuading the world from investing in fossil fuels, and based on the success of that project, trying to embed in the public’s mind the concept that petroleum assets will be “stranded”, that they will rapidly become worthless, so invest at your peril. This devious tactic is applied full force with Canada’s oil sands; blockade market access by any means necessary and then declare the oil sands “stranded assets” because they are uneconomic. As with many of eco-activist campaigns, it is strategic, extremely well executed, ethnocentric, and almost comically misguided. But that never gets in the way of a good strategy. So let’s look at what’s really happening in the great big world, and when you hear the phrase “stranded assets” again maybe we’ll be able to see something other than the illusion being perpetrated.

The International Energy Agency recently released 2018 data showing that “demand for all fuels increased, led by natural gas, even as solar and wind posted double digit growth.” US natural gas consumption rose by 10 percent in 2018. Coal-fired power plants emitted more than ever in 2018 as “a fleet of relatively new coal plants located in Asia…led the way toward a record for emissions from coal-fired power plants – exceeding 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide for the first time.” Some news outlets posted weird environmentally celebratory headlines such as “global coal plant pipeline shrinks for third year” as can be read here but apparently some adult stepped in to calm the frothing/propagandizing headline writer and replace the title with a more fitting “Global coal plant construction rises in 2018,” as it now appears on the website.

Meanwhile, back at the well head, much of the world continues to act in accordance with these growth statistics. Ivory Coast “seeks to increase crude output amid rising interest from super-majors…seeking to diversify an economy whose exports are dominated by [cocoa] and gold.” European energy company Eni reports a major oil discovery offshore Angola, the country being a key country in Eni’s growth strategy, along with developments offshore Indonesia. Total is busy starting production from giant Egina field offshore Nigeria. Swedish E&P company Svenska Petroleum is drilling the first-ever deepwater well offshore Guinea Bissau. Not to be outdone, fellow Scandinavian oil fanboy Equinor is drilling in the North Sea again, in multiple areas. Fellow Norwegian company Aker Energy last month reported successful drilling results offshore Ghana, and ExxonMobil is active in offshore Guyana (and let’s hope the ex-pats are able to keep Ghana and Guyana straight when booking flights). Finally, it hardly seems necessary to point out what is happening in the US petroleum sector; in the past decade, the US has added more production than Canada’s total output, for both oil and natural gas. All that petroleum, not just for the US but every other jurisdiction, has managed to find a route to market. To add a comical footnote to that circumstance, recall that Pakistan and India (arch-enemies that shoot at each other periodically) joined forces with Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and, incredibly, the Taliban (who shoot at everything periodically) to build a natural gas pipeline.

Now, with all that going on, we know what’s happening in our own back yard. A quick scan of the energy headlines for Canada shows us, here we go: “Canadian oil industry takes fresh hit with key pipeline delayed.” Over on BNN Bloomberg the wet blanket news continues: “Canada’s energy crisis: BNN Bloomberg’s 2018 Story of the Year.” Investor groups are warning Prime Minister Trudeau that “investors and companies will continue to avoid the Canadian energy sector unless more is done to improve market access.”  Wonder why they’d think that? Oh here’s a clue in Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail: “It’s time for an exit strategy from oil and gas.” 

That last article sums it up, in our own Canadian let’s-tie-our-shoelaces-together-and-try-to-catch-the-bus way. Three factors are at play here: first, an overarching, overwhelming desire for the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Second, it’s not happening; global energy consumption continues to rise as the world strives to improve its standard of living (and the west – all of us – show little interest in lowering ours). Third, the whole world is reacting to market forces by building pipelines and energy infrastructure, and bringing new petroleum products to market. Countries that are at the forefront of the climate change movement like the Netherlands, who shut in their own large gas field, are simply now importing more gas from Russia via new pipelines.

We do things differently in the Great White North. Through some bizarre combination of shame at our own resources and determination to be the world’s boy scout, we are pretty much the only place on earth that is buying into the concept of “stranded petroleum assets.” We are saying to the activists of the world, oh, you mean like this? As/if/when commodity prices rise, capital will flow to develop resources wherever they may be, with one notable exception.

Canada stands alone, a pariah and a sap at the same time. Making that point crystal clear is the picture above, showing what Canada is “saving” relative to what is happening in the world. The red markers are oil tankers in transit at a recent point in time. If it seems like a lot, remember that over 50 million barrels per day is moved safely on waters, every day. If it weren’t so serious and harmful the image would be the funniest thing since SCTV.

From a global emissions perspective, we can see where priorities should lie. Coal remains the biggest problem from an emissions standpoint, The IEA in the 2018 report noted that coal “remains the largest source of electricity and the second –largest source of primary energy in the world.” Between reduced coal usage and sensible efficiency promotion – such as hybrid vehicle promotion rather than pure electric vehicle mania – the world could go a very long way towards meeting emissions targets. But where’s the fun in that when the second largest nation on earth markets itself as a piñata?

About the Author

Terry Etam is an independent senior consultant for small and midsize oil and gas companies. His website Public Energy Number One is dedicated to energy education and he is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity.