The fossil fuel divestment campaign is picking up steam.
Often dismissed as unwise by oil industry proponents and criticized as a distraction even by supporters of action on climate change, the divestment movement is no longer being ignored.
Look no further than CeraWeek, an annual get-together of North America’s fossil fuel elite. On April 22, amid discussion panels such as “Asia: Still the Promised Land for New Energy Investment?” or “Canada’s role in the rising North America energy powerhouse,” there was also a session dedicated to divestment and the implications for energy companies. The conversation analyzed how sustainable the business model is for fossil fuel companies as the world moves towards regulating carbon emissions.
The attention paid to the divestment at CeraWeek suggests that the growing publicity and success from the environmental movement’s ability to secure divestment commitments from universities, banks, pension funds, churches, and other wealth funds are starting to be perceived as a threat by the fossil fuel industry.
A few weeks earlier, The Guardian made a splash with its “Keep it in the Ground” campaign, a very firm declaration in support of divestment. The Guardian Media Group vowed to divest its £800 million fund as well.
The growing concern over carbon pollution raises the possibility of a regulatory or tax crackdown, both at the national and international level. Newsweek reported on April 21 that HSBC wrote in a private note to its clients that there is an increasing risk that fossil fuel companies will become “economically non-viable.” As a result, HSBC advised its clients to divest from fossil fuels because they may be too risky. If investors fail to get out of fossil fuels, the bank says, they “may one day be seen to be late movers, on ‘the wrong side of history.’” As the divestment campaign builds up steam, major oil and gas companies are starting to see the writing on the wall.
But there could be a way to adapt. The Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) just published a “blueprint” for fossil fuel companies to adapt to a carbon-constrained world. The blueprint provides several recommendations. For example, oil companies should avoid high cost projects such as the struggling Kashagan field in Kazakhstan or expensive oil sands projects in Canada. High-cost projects put companies at risk when they are hit with unforeseen events, such as an oil price crash, a decline in demand, or a change in tax regimes. Instead, companies should invest in lower risk projects with higher rates of return, CTI says. CTI also insists that corporate governance within fossil fuel companies is critical – management needs a clear-eyed prognosis of how exposed their assets are to a potential scenario in which their oil and gas reserves are no longer wanted.
It is far from clear whether or not the oil majors will heed CTI’s advice on adapting their companies. In mid-April, 98 percent of BP’s shareholders voted in favor of an initiative that would force the company to disclose which of its assets would become “unburnable” in a low-carbon world. The results of that analysis will be much anticipated. ExxonMobil undertook a similar study, but summarily dismissed the likelihood that its assets would be affected in the future by climate action.
“Our analysis and those of independent agencies confirms our long-standing view that all viable energy sources will be essential to meet increasing demand growth that accompanies expanding economies and rising living standards,” William Colton, ExxonMobil’s vice president of corporate strategic planning, said in a March 2014 statement. In other words, investors have little to fear — ExxonMobil will be fine.
However, much has changed since then. The divestment movement has gathered quite a bit of momentum as protests hit more campuses and city halls. The U.S. and China reached a landmark agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. More countries will set policies to reduce energy demand ahead of international negotiations in Paris later this year. Oil prices have crashed, highlighting the vulnerabilities of many over-leveraged oil companies. And clean energy continues to make inroads, amid falling costs for solar, wind, and energy storage.
Oil companies ignore the divestment campaign – and other threats to their business models – at their own peril.
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