Gradually, then Suddenly: The Two Ways Oil and Gas Will Go Bankrupt

“How did you go bankrupt?”
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises 

The oil and gas industry believes itself immortal – we’re about to see

Latest scenario planning from an oil industry leader, Shell, suggests that fossil fuels will dominate the primary energy landscape up to 2060 and perhaps to 2080 and well beyond, to add to its hundred years of energy dominance.

This echoes forecasts from valued analysts such as Vaclav Smil and Daniel Yergin, who cannot foresee that energy – by which they mean fossil-fuel based energy – can move in anything other than vast century-long cycles.

The immortality assumption creates a deep confidence: counter-arguments or initiatives or even business context that challenges this longevity are quickly downplayed or discounted.

The Stranded Asset and Unburnable Carbon concepts, the Paris climate change agreement, investment fund withdrawals, and explicit targets by governments to limit or ban fossil fuel development and fuels, continue to have limited impact.

Even with an oil price collapse of over 60% since 2014, and a primary energy demand drop of almost 50%, the oil and gas industry still spends far more on exploring than on field retirements: in 2016 it spent $60bn on exploration for new oil reserves, and only $3bn on decommissioning of late-life assets, a 20:1 ratio in favour of eternal growth.

Last year, even in mature, technically-expensive basins such as the UK North Sea, Oil and Gas companies spent over $10bn in capex, $4bn in mergers and acquisitions, and increased the number of exploration, development and appraisal wells,  all in line with the basin’s Maximising Economic Recovery (MER) program driven by OK Oil and Gas, a regulatory body.

Expectations are for eight new greenfield projects next year with associated capital of over $7bn – a figure about four times the level of expected decommissioning.

And UK production levels are now over 200,000 b/d higher than 2014 as projects from that age of over $100/bbl start to come through.

But rather than being seen as a negative issue, as yet more supply arrives as demand slows, the local industry looks upon this as a renaissance.

In oil and gas mythology this is the “cycle” returning; by which is meant the price will move up again through some restorative interplay between OPEC, geo-politics, technology and unyielding demand.

Structural concerns, and existential anxieties are fleeing once more.

The industry-wide vocabulary is also shifting to reinforce it’s belief in indestructability: jargon such as “baseload” is being co-opted from aged power utilities by OPEC to suggest only fossil fuels are reliable, long-term energy options.

Competitor technologies such as solar and wind are always referred to as “intermittent”, a more fey form of energy, not as steadfast and reliable as the traditional (CO2-emitting, polluting, cartel-controlled ?) sources that we will need for our energy future.

To see this ideology at work, take the US EIA latest update to the long-term (2040) projection for coal demand. Although the new forecast is 40% lower than before, the EIA can’t bring itself to predict that this clearly declining industry can contract before 2040: so coal will “grow” smoothly at 0.04% pa for the next 23 years. Closing in on, but never, ever, quite touching zero.

source: Ed Crooks, FT after EIA

All the analytical and conceptual tools are now in place to reinforce the incumbent oil and gas industry’s muscular instincts toward endless investment and endless growth, and dismissal of any competitor threat.

As long as we require energy – which is always – we will require oil and gas (plus coal) as the dominant, baseload fuels.

This way of thinking is an illusion.

Energy may be immortal – but oil and gas is certainly not.

The gradual phase of oil and gas bankruptcy is over – the sudden era has begun

The technical break-even price for new oil and gas fields is about $50/bbl, and for national oil company producers in the Middle East, the fiscal break-even is $100/bbl. 

These are likely the best numbers the industry will ever achieve.

Technical extraction costs outside the Middle East have risen over time as oil fields become more complex and depleted, and in the Middle East the cheaper, large oil fields have fallen victim to expensive fiscal dependency structures that will take many decades to undo.

The chart below shows how major oil economies such as Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Russia and Nigeria, with technically cheap oil fields,  are now in major shortfalls to cover sovereign debt.

source: EY

As Chris Goodall notes in this excellent blog post, the most dangerous time for an incumbent industry leader is when overall demand is growing (but slowing), and its main competitor is growing much more quickly.

The global energy industry is now poised at this point.

Primary energy demand is still growing – at about 1% pa – but over 60% of marginal growth is now being swallowed up by scalable and capture and conversion technologies, able to offer innovative energy solutions whose costs are fast-declining.

Wind, solar and the new energy platform of battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) are the disruptive new energy forms.

Their growth rates are in the range of 20-40% per year, and they have now breached the critical barrier of over 1-2% primary energy market share that moves them in to the region of high-impact growth.

As Goodall points out, humans and industries are particularly poor at dealing with exponential growth.

But the basic premise is straightforward; right now, after an incubation phase of the past ten years in which they were ignored, wind and solar and EV batteries have managed to reduce their costs by over 90%.

As a result their technologies have become very deployable: wind and solar and have taken over 7% of the global electricity market, and battery EVs well over 1% of the new car sales market.

At today’s growth rates that will make wind and solar the number one global generator of electricity, with about 35% market share, in less than 8 years.

Similarly battery EVs, on this trajectory, will capture over 25% of the car sales market by 2025, and 100% of car sales annual growth by 2020-21.

Such average growth rates are not assured of course. Equally, because the changes will not happen smoothly they will happen disruptively as various countries observe various important milestones achieved at different times: the doubling of solar capacity or charge points and so on.

And as soon as the technology is seen as feasible at some important scale, other regions or firms  will adopt them more confidently.

This is very dangerous territory for an incumbent, especially one insouciant about future competition, and structurally unable, because of asset-intensity and fiscal regimes, to react quickly.

It puts them on a direct collision course with a high-growth, technically diverse energy alternative, increasingly backed by high-growth markets such as China and India who wish to extract themselves quickly from the existing fossil-fuel system.

There are many reasons the incumbent industry will provide to explain why all this will not happen; policy reversals, infrastructure delays, low margins, consumer indifference – even the century-long cycles required.

But this is looking more like advocacy than economic argument, with projections, like the EIA one above, increasingly at odds with actual developments (and common sense).

Major technology disruptions follow a sudden path, because as soon as events move in a clear direction, supportive elements such as investment, media coverage and sentiment quickly reinforce and accelerate the up-and-coming trend.

So, despite incumbent skepticism, China will deploy more solar energy in 2017 (45GW) than existed on the planet in 2010.

A recent report by consultants DNV show how this could dramatically play out in the country’s power sector:

Similarly, wind power in the large UK offshore market is now lower in cost than gas and nuclear at £57/MWh, which is over 50% lower than the UK government estimated it would cost in 2030.

And once more in China (the world’s largest car market) a total ban on fossil fuel engines is proposed, perhaps in line with its aim to put a cap on emissions, by  2030.

And no wonder, China is increasingly dominant in global EV design and manufacturing – with the US big three GM, Ford and Chrysler now looking to spend much of their EV R&D dollars there.

In fact, with over 200 EV models projected to be available globally in 2017-18, this Bloomberg analysis shows that by the end of next year the term EV may be outdated.

By then they may just be known as – cars.

And that is how the fossil fuel era ends, suddenly.

World is Suddener than we Fancy It

Energy is much grander and more complex than the familiar oil and gas structures we assume will always be here.

The growth of wind, solar and EVs is shifting our understanding of energy from being one-sized, asset-heavy, based on pipes and various fuels toward being centered around scalable, capture and conversion technology platforms, globally manufactured and fuel-free.

As DNV forecasts, wind and solar dominated energy does not have to follow the trajectory of the past centuries: it can grow more far more efficiently than GDP and population, and vastly reduce emissions at the same time.


Or the unemotional consequence of learning curves applied to  scalable energy technologies rather than eternal reliance on extracted fuels.

source: DNV

If any energy form has the right to declare eternity, solar and wind have the strongest claim.

And the exponential growth of these new technologies has huge consequences: in a giant global rebalancing, the decline in fossil fuel demand has to fall exponentially too.

The sudden era of oil and gas bankruptcy has begun.

And the immortal companies of the incumbent industry are determinedly unprepared.

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Dominance vs Growth: The Battle for 21st Century Energy

The energy transition ahead is unlikely to be a straight-line substitution of one fuel source by another.

It’s more likely a vast disruption, globally, as solar and wind smoothly capture power growth, and  incumbents can only downscale via a succession of large retirements.


In 2016, global energy demand grew just 1%, 50% less than in the previous decade.

Yet, in the single month of July 2017, China installed 10.5GW of PV solar power capacity, and began connecting it to the sprawling Chinese grid.

In power generation terms, that is the equivalent of constructing a large nuclear station, such as the UK’s proposed Hinkley Point C (slated for start up in 2027), in the space of four weeks, at about half the cost (1).

At current installation rates, by year-end China will be generating over 350 TWh of electricity using solar plus wind, which is more than the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy, consumes in total over a year.

It’s worth noting that in 2009, China generated practically no electricity from solar and wind at all, relying mainly on coal. In 2016, existing Chinese plans for over 120GW of new coal generation were cancelled.

This is how energy is changing.

As Liam Denning notes in his recent Bloomberg View, as overall energy demand flat-lines but new energy supply surges, there is now an intense rivalry between different energy sources – and it’s turning the head of investors:

“Capital likes dominance, but it also has an enduring affinity for growth”

Solar and Wind, Different in Kind from Other Energy

It’s convention to categorise wind and solar with nuclear and hydropower as “renewables”, due to their carbon-free nature.

But this confuses how wind and solar differ from other major energy sources – it’s their rapid, scalable, manufactured, high-growth nature that truly sets them apart.

The dominant carbon-based and carbon-free energy sources of today – coal, oil, gas, hydropower and nuclear – generate energy only in one-off, large, time-consuming and expensive projects.

This is because they have to combine two complex supply chains: one to make the fuel (think coal mines, oil and gas platforms and refineries, dams and uranium mines), and one to create the energy delivery system (think thermal power plants, gasoline stations, storage facilities, pressurized pipelines, hydropower and nuclear plants).

Because of this energy companies or utility providers tend to operate economically only by adding huge new increments of fuel or plant to generate enough energy volumes, over extended periods, to repay investments.

In turn this forces them to rely on giant custom-designed construction projects, which habitually over-run in cost and schedule, often dramatically.

As a result, they are inflexible to changes in energy demand, producing classic energy commodity cycles of over and under-supply: think OPEC’s current dramas in the oil market.

The dominant energy industries are all big, but they are extremely fragile – they can only scale up in single sizes, and scale down the same way.

Wind and solar are an opposite form of energy: they are manufactured, assembly-line technologies dedicated to simple, standardized components: PV solar panels and wind turbines.

They are fuel-free, relying on the efficient capture and conversion of the earth’s (infinite and in-place) solar and wind energy.

This makes them highly scalable: they can operate effectively at capacities from a few MW to several GW, over three orders of magnitude. Think roof-top solar, small-scale wind arrays, offshore giant turbines and the behemoth solar farms that China is now deploying.

And it means the energy they produce can be deployed quickly, and in phases, creating steady growth, with declining costs. In other words, flexible and robust.

Using BP’s Statistical Review, and focusing on the annual growth in consumption by each energy source, 2007-2016, the difference between dominant cyclical commodity energy and high-growth scalable energy becomes clear:

Note wind/solar’s steady growth versus the cyclical commodity energies:  by the end of this year it’s almost certain that wind and solar will be the largest provider of global energy demand growth, at over 50% of the total.

The problem for single-size commodity energies is that as demand tends to zero, the ability to add any new capacity stops dead: one-off large additions are no longer required when solar and wind can provide widespread flexible supply.

Scalable Energy, Scalable Investment

In a new paper published in Nature, the authors note how even supportive agencies such as the Independent Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Greenpeace are underestimating the real-world growth of solar technologies – see below:

The paper forecasts that solar could provide up to 50% of the world’s electricity requirements by 2050. In that case, emissions would drop far below 50% pa, and the Paris target of 2°C becomes achievable as fossil fuel emissions are shoved aside.

Similarly wind technology is scaling rapidly; the average size of offshore UK turbines, at 8MW, is over twice the size of those originally installed just 10 years ago.

Solar and wind seem to be benefiting from positive reinforcement of capacity deployment and technical research – in turn accelerating cost and performance improvements above forecasts.

Reinforcing this, smaller-scale (but mega-scalable) energy stimulates a variety of new investment options.

In the US, Xcel Energy’s recent early move from coal to wind and solar, and Duke Energy Florida’s decision to replace nuclear with solar and EV charging networks illustrates the overall change.

Meanwhile auctions for solar and battery storage projects in Australia have attracted several hundred participants.

The dominant fossil fuel, hydro and nuclear model of investment via huge balance sheets and internal cash-flows looks slow-paced and high risk by comparison.

A New Sort of Dominance

It’s common wisdom that the dominant fuels system is too established to be quickly deposed: long dominance creating long-term dependency.

But as solar, wind and battery projects advance MW by MW, week by week, they are assembling a vast new global, learning network of manufactured energy.

Once in place its running costs will tend toward zero, and its energy source will be free.

So the transition ahead is unlikely to be a straight-line substitution of one fuel source by another.

It’s more likely a vast disruption, globally, as solar and wind smoothly capture power growth, and incumbents can only downscale via a succession of individual large retirements.

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(1) – this was calculated using a capacity factor of 0.2 for solar and 0.75 for nuclear, with costs as estimated so far for Hinkley, and solar at $1,000/kw capacity (see here)

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The EV Transition: The Quick and The Dead

The transition from the internal combustion engine (ICE) to EVs is now more post-event rationale than prediction.


A new Economist leader – Roadkill – outlines the inevitability and accelerating pace of the switch to electric vehicles (EVs), suggesting the era of the dominant ICE is now effectively over.

We agree.

This blog adheres to the hypothesis that the EV transition will follow a typical new technology S curve, not simple linear growth. And it believes most analysts are still under-estimating how quickly the EV transition is taking place.

Major new (successful) technologies often follow a pattern of slow incubation and low growth until a tipping point is reached: then explosive growth follows as widespread adoption suddenly occurs. Growth surges in non-linear ways as multiple events combine.

And an S curve trajectory has as much as cultural and emotional element as it has a mathematical one – it reflects how a slow phase of deep investment in manufacturing know-how, market testing, policy development and fashion change all tend to accumulate and then suddenly combine.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, has referred to the painfulness of an S curve in his own manufacturing facilities, as $6-7 billion of capital cost over the past 5 years has to be rapidly transformed into mass-produced vehicles and batteries.

However, many analysts still focus on the overall sales of cars, rather than immediate growth trends – thereby missing the point that this marginal growth not only impacts costs and investment, but also drives investor strategies, and consumer sentiment.

So, what won’t happen in this living transition is the orderly linear process of central projections, even those from new energy advocates such as Carbon Tracker and BNEF, let alone the more conservative forecasts of the fossil fuel industry.

A Vast Prime Mover, Suddenly, Comes Online

Until a couple of years ago ICE vehicles held an almost pure monopoly on road transport, one they had held for over a hundred years.

But EV sales today command about 1.2% of global car sales, and along with mildly-electrified hybrids clearly break the pure ICE monopoly. However, this sales percentage is often used to suggest that EVs will take many, many years to impact the car market, and may even just remain niche.

Yet the history of S curves show that 1% market share is major milestone for any contender technology – it marks the threshold between the experimental phase and the move to mass market. When a technology achieves this, economies of scale, supporting infrastructure, advertising effort and so on tend to click in, reinforcing expansion.

To see how the orthodoxy of smooth change is probably underestimating EV demand by a long way, we need to delve in to the world of first derivatives – change in growth – for a minute, to see how quickly the ICE dominance of passenger cars could disappear almost overnight – that is, by 2021-22.

We can do this not be relying on long-term projections, but just using numbers that are sitting in front of us.

EV sales are growing very, very quickly, at 40-50% pa globally.

In 2017 the growth in EV sales will therefore be around 350,000 units, as total sales increase from 750,000 in 2016 to about 1.1 million this year.

According to investment house Macquarie, world-wide passenger and light commercial car sales (EV plus ICE) grew an impressive 4.8% in 2016, from 84 million to 88 million – driven by over 13% growth in China.

However, future passenger car sales growth going is expected to slip to a more modest 2-3% pa as China’s purchasing moderates (IHS Markit suggest closer to 1.5%), and sales in other large markets (eg UK and USA) flatten out or decline – see below.

2016 Global Car Sales – Rise and Fall

So now we have enough real-time numbers to extrapolate just a couple of years out – to 2022 – to see how profoundly the global car market is about to shift – by focusing on the marginal growth of new car sales.

Let’s assume that total vehicle sales globally increase at 2.0% pa from MacQuarie’s 88m 2016 start point, and that EVs stay at around the 40-50% growth over that period, in line with today’s estimates.

We’ll use the S curve model we proposed in this post which predicts around 40-45%pa EV growth 2017-2022, rather than just choosing fixed growth rates.

In any event, here’s how those two simple projections of current data work in terms of the picture of international car sales growth, 2016 actual – 2022 estimates.

source – / Macquarie

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Energy’s Demand Shock, and The Acceleration of the Fossil Fuel Transition


Oil, gas and coal prices have fallen up to 50% over the past three years, yet according to BP’s latest Statistical Review, total energy demand growth has collapsed 45% at the same time.

The average annual energy demand increase of 1.8% pa over the past ten years has fallen to just 1% pa  in the past three.

Weak energy  prices are often attributed to supply-side issues, but a fall in global demand is now a far greater factor. 

And it has wider implications.

This fall in demand coincides with the rise of new energy technologies – wind, solar and electric power-trains – allowing them to seize increasing shares of remaining incremental growth.

Ten years ago fossil fuels generated 95% of the energy demand increase; last year they provided just 35%.

The incumbent energy industry is now forced into a fierce competition for limited new demand, but it remains focused on a high growth agenda – attempting to force prices up and investing in more expensive production.

In contrast, the costs of new energy technologies are dropping rapidly, speeding up their deployment.

The slowdown in global demand is accelerating the energy transition as fossil fuels become less competitive in a market with lower-cost energy options. 


So Big it’s Invisible

Global energy demand is so big, it’s almost invisible.

So when demand shocks occur, they are never as obvious as supply ones.

They tend to happen gradually, but everywhere, building into a sudden widespread transformation

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May/June Newsletter


The May / June Newsletter has been added in the newsletter page  – see here

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