Oil Industry Risks Trillions of Stranded Assets on US-China Climate Deal
Comment of the Day

November 20 2014

Commentary by David Fuller

Oil Industry Risks Trillions of Stranded Assets on US-China Climate Deal

China is already shutting down its coal-fired plants in Beijing. It has imposed a ban on new coal plants in key regions after a wave of anti-smog protests. Deutsche Bank and Sanford Bernstein both expect China's coal use to peak as soon as 2016, a market earthquake given that the country currently consumes half the world's coal supply.

The US in turn has agreed to cut emissions by 26-28pc below 2005 levels by 2025, doubling the rate of CO2 emission cuts to around 2.6pc each year in the 2020s.

Whether or not you agree with the hypothesis of man-made global warming, the political reality is that the US, China, and Europe are all coming into broad alignment. Coal faces slow extinction by clean air controls, while oil faces a future of carbon pricing that must curb demand growth far below what was once expected and below what is still priced into the business models of the oil industry.

This is happening just as solar costs fall far enough to compete toe-to-toe with diesel across much of Asia, and to reach "socket parity" for private homes in much of Europe and America. The technological advantage is moving only in one direction only as scientists learn how to capture ever more of the sun's energy, and how to store the electricity cheaply for release during the night. The cross-over point is already in sight by the mid-2020s.

Mr Lewis said shareholders of the big oil companies are starting to ask why their boards are ignoring so much political and technological risk, investing their money in projects that are so likely to prove ruinous, and doing so mechanically as if nothing had changed.

"Alarm bells are ringing. Investors can see that this is unsustainable. They are starting to ask whether it wouldn't be better to return cash to shareholders, and wind down the companies," he said.

David Fuller's view

Will the fossil fuel companies become fossils themselves?

Yes, but the all-important question for investors is when?

The giant international oil companies - Autonomies such as Royal Dutch Sell ‘B’, Exxon Mobil and Chevron – have long been among the most favoured assets for pension funds and other high-yield portfolios.  They supplied the world’s most important commodity and have been prized for their comparative reliability and competitive valuations.  In recent decades we have become accustomed to their share buybacks and frequent dividend hikes as oil prices moved remorselessly higher.

Most long-term forecasts for crude oil prices are considerably higher than what we see today.  Giants of the oil industry remain resolutely bullish on a long term basis.  Oxford Economics latest report: Oil price outlook to 2030 forecasts $180pb for Brent by 2030, slightly below the IEA forecast of $190pb (page 12).  Those are above OPEC which predicts $160pb by 2035.

If they are correct, the oil share Autonomies should do reasonably well, assuming no serious management blunders.  However, my own view remains that prices will be lower in real terms relative to the approximately $110 average that we saw from 2011 until three months ago.  Briefly, there will be too much competition from renewables, led by solar, plus new nuclear and natural gas.  We will also be much closer to the holy grail of nuclear fusion. 

Currently, oil is short-term oversold and steadying ahead of next week’s important OPEC meeting.  That will be interesting but the once all-powerful cartel is no longer in control.

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