The oil industry is pinning its hopes on natural gas. To hear oil executives tell it, natural gas is a veritable “bridge between a fossil fuel past and a carbon-free future,” as Bloomberg News put it recently.
It’s a story that makes sense on its face: natural gas emits about one-half of the carbon dioxide of coal and about three-quarters that of gasoline. Power plants can get more electricity per BTU of natural gas than coal, giving it a further advantage. And in an electric vehicle world, the future of gas could look bright.
But natural gas is not our climate savior. The fuel—which consists primarily of methane—is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is by no means carbon-free. For regions of the world potentially new to gas, expensive investments in pipeline or ocean transport and distribution infrastructure are required.
At best, any “bridge” that the fuel provides to a future where zero-carbon-producing power generation technologies take over is short and narrow. True, gas generation may help firm up intermittent renewables, but the goal would be to operate these as little as possible, minimizing the use of gas. And yes, gas could come back with success of carbon capture and storage (CCS), but advances in this technology have so far not panned out.
Are big investments in new gas infrastructure worth it if fully utilized for only 20 years or so? The gas bridge is getting shorter and narrower as we delay serious action on fighting climate change.
Scott Pruitt’s confirmation last week as chief of the Environmental Protection Agency was a setback for environmentalists and scientists who waged a fierce campaign against the nominee.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt led or took part in 14 lawsuits that sought to block EPA regulations and policies intended to tackle climate change. In addition, his views on global warming put him at odds with both the stated positions of many companies and their current policies toward climate change.
Pruitt is one of many announced appointees who is hostile to efforts aimed at reducing emissions linked to global warming. Many in the administration are skeptical that climate change is caused by human activity or doubt its consequences will be significant. President Trump has expressed extreme skepticism about climate change, calling it a hoax created by China.
The crash in the price of oil — from $108 a barrel in June 2014 to below $27 earlier this year — has rattled the stock market, triggered layoffs across the energy sector, and plunged many oil producing countries into crisis.
Oil has since rebounded significantly from its lows, to above $40 a barrel, but the price plunge since 2014 has put much pressure on oil companies. Reports have pointed to an increase in debt among oil producers, raising the specter of default on bankruptcy and default on debt, withfollow-on effects beyond oil producers.
Looking at the numbers, the mortgage-debt crisis dwarfs what is currently happening in oil. According to a report in the Financial Times, the global oil and gas industry’s debts rose to $3 trillion from $1.1 trillion between 2006 and 2014. Compare that to the $10 trillion of housing debt weighing on Americans in 2008.
The price of oil has fallen nearly 60% since peaking in June, and lately there’s been a lot of ink and pixels devoted to the question of whether oil prices will plunge even further or whether they will shoot right back up. An even bigger issue is whether prices will stay at these very low levels.
While I doubt oil prices will fall much more — how much further could they reasonably tumble? Perhaps another $20 or so? — history suggests we can expect prices to remain low for the foreseeable future. What’s playing out right now in the oil market is likely the same supply-demand dynamic we’ve seen over and over: several years of extremely high oil prices followed by decades of low prices. The twin oil shocks of the 1970s, for instance, resulted in 20 to 25 years of low prices.
Of course, things are different today — but not that much different. Over the past six or seven years, oil has been relatively expensive, often trading at over $100 a barrel. During that time, both the supply and demand sides of the equation have responded.