Grant Cooke: Big Oil’s endgame: What it all means for Benicia

Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: Benicia’s own Grant Cooke has written a highly significant three-part series for The Benicia Herald, outlining the impending fall of the fossil fuel industry and concluding with good advice for the City of Benicia and other cities dependent on refineries for a major portion of their local revenue stream.  This is the last of three parts.  Read part one by CLICKING HERE and part two by CLICKING HERE.  – RS]

Big Oil’s endgame: What it all means for Benicia

October 12, 2014, by Grant Cooke

P1010301IN APRIL 2014, THE HIGHLY RESPECTED Paris-based financial company Kepler Chevreux released a research report that has rippled through the fossil fuel industries. In it, Kepler Chevreux describes what is at stake for the fossil fuel industry as world governments’ push for cleaner fuels and reduced greenhouse gas emissions gathers momentum.

The firm argues that the global oil, gas and coal industries are set to lose a combined $28 trillion in revenues over the next two decades as governments take action to address climate change, clean up pollution and move to decarbonize the global energy system. The report helps to explain the enormous pressure that the industries are exerting on governments not to regulate GHGs.

Kepler Chevreux used International Energy Agency forecasts for global energy trends to 2035 as the basis for its research, and it concluded that as carbonless energy becomes more available, and as government policies make steep cuts in carbon emissions, demand for oil, natural gas and coal will fall, which will lower prices.

The report said oil industry revenues could fall by $19.3 trillion over the period 2013-35, coal industry revenues could fall by $4.9 trillion and gas revenues could be $4 trillion lower. High-production-cost extraction such as deep-water wells, oil sands and shale oil will be most affected.

Even under business-as-usual conditions, however, the oil industry will still face risks from increasing costs and more capital-intensive projects, fewer exports, political risks and the declining costs of renewable energy.

The report continues: “The oil industry’s increasingly unsustainable dynamics … mean that stranded asset risk exists even under business-as-usual conditions. High oil prices will encourage the shift away from oil towards renewables (whose costs are falling) while also incentivizing greater energy efficiency.” Eventually, fossil fuel assets will be too expensive to extract, and the oil will be left in the ground.

As far as renewables are concerned, Kepler Chevreux says tremendous cost reductions are occurring and will continue as the upward trajectory of oil costs becomes steeper.

Kepler Chevreux’s report is consistent with others released in 2014. One report from U.S.’s Citigroup, titled “Age of Renewables is Beginning — A Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE)” and released in March 2014, argues that there will be significant price decreases in solar and wind power that will add to the renewable energy generation boom. Citigroup projects price declines based on Moore’s Law, the same dynamic that drove the boom in information technology.

In brief, Citigroup is looking for cost reductions of as much as 11 percent per year in all phases of photovoltaic development and installation. At the same time, they say the cost of producing wind energy also will significantly decline. During this period, Citigroup says, the price of natural gas will continue to go up and the cost of running coal and nuclear plants will gradually become prohibitive.

When the world’s major financial institutions start to do serious research and quantify the declining costs of renewable energy versus the rising costs of fossil fuels, it becomes easier to understand the monumental impact that the Green Industrial Revolution is having.

Zero marginal cost

Marginal cost, to an economist or businessperson, is the cost of producing one more unit of a good or service after fixed costs have been paid. For example, let’s take a shovel manufacturer. It costs the shovel company $10,000 to create the process and buy the equipment to make a shovel that sells for $15. So the company has recovered its fixed or original costs after 800 to 1,000 are sold. Thereafter, each shovel has a marginal cost of $3, consisting mostly of supplies, labor and distribution.

Companies have used technology to increase the productivity, reduce marginal costs and increase profits from the beginning. However, as Jeremy Rifkin points out in “Zero Marginal Cost Society,” we have entered an era where technology has unleashed “extreme productivity,” driving marginal costs on some items and services to near zero. File sharing technology and subsequent zero marginal cost almost ruined the record business and shook the movie business. The newspaper and magazine industries have been pushed to the wall and are being replaced by the blogosphere and YouTube. The book industry struggles with the e-book phenomenon.

An equally revolutionary change will soon overtake the higher education industry. Much to the annoyance of the universities — and for the first time in world history — knowledge is becoming free. At last count, the free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) had enrolled about six million students. The courses, many of which are for credit and taught by distinguished faculty, operate at almost zero marginal cost. Why pay $10,000 at a private university for the same course that is free over the Internet? The traditional brick-and-mortar, football-driven, ivy-covered universities will soon be scrambling for a new business model.

Airbnb, a room-sharing Internet operation with close to zero marginal cost, is a threat to change the hotel industry in the same way that file sharing changed the record business, especially in the world’s expensive cities. Young out-of-town high-tech workers coming to San Francisco from Europe use Airbnb to rent a condo or an empty room in a house instead of staying at a hotel. They do this because they cannot find a room with the location they need, or because their expense reimbursement cap won’t cover one of the city’s high-end hotel rooms. Industry analysts estimate that Airbnb and similar operations took away more than a million rooms from New York City’s hotels last year.

A powerful technology revolution is evolving that will change all aspects of our lives, including how we access renewable energy. An “Energy Internet” is coming that will seamlessly tie together how we share and interact with electricity. It will greatly increase productivity and drive down the marginal cost of producing and distributing electricity, possibly to nothing beyond our fixed costs.

This is almost the case with the early adopters of solar and wind energy. As they pay off these systems and their fixed costs are covered, additional units of energy are basically free, since we don’t pay the sun to shine or the wind to sweep around our back wall. This is the concept that IKEA, the Swedish furniture manufacturer, is exploiting. IKEA is test marketing residential solar systems in Europe that cost about $11,000 with a payback of three to five years. Eventually, we’ll be able to buy a home solar system at IKEA, Costco or Home Depot, have it installed and recover our costs in less than two years.

All three elements — carbon mitigation costs, grid parity and zero marginal costs — and others like additive manufacturing and nanotechnology are part of the coming Green Industrial Revolution. It will be an era of momentous change in the way we live our lives. It will shake up many familiar and accepted processes like 20th-century capitalism and free-market economics, reductive manufacturing, higher education and health care. More to the point, it will see the passing of the carbon-intensive industries.

Like the centralized utility industry, the fossil fuel industries and the large centralized utilities have business models predicated on continued growth in consumption. Once that nexus of declining prices for renewables and rising costs of extraction and distribution is crossed — and we are already there in several regions of the world — demand will rapidly shift and propel us into “global energy deflation.”

Think about it: No more air pollution strangling our cities, no more coal ash spills in rivers that our kids swim in, no more water tables being poisoned by fracking toxics. Better yet, think of no more utility bills and electricity that is almost free. These are among the unlimited opportunities that extreme productivity can provide.

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SO WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR BENICIA? Our lovely town, along with some of our neighbors, has enjoyed a stream of tax revenue from the fossil fuel industries for several decades. This will end as these industries lose the ability to compete in price with renewable energy. After all, if my energy costs drop to near zero, I’m not going to pay $5 for a gallon for gas or 20 cents per kilowatt hour. If Kepler Chevreux, Citigroup and the prescient investment bankers are right — and they usually are — oil company profits will begin a death spiral accompanied by industry constriction and refinery closings. Losing $19.3 trillion over two decades is a staggering amount even for the richest industry in world history.

Benicia should begin a long-range plan to replace Valero’s current tax revenues. Two decades from now this town will be very different — we are headed toward a city of gray-haired pensioners and retired folks too contented with perfect weather and amenities to sell homes to wage earners who, in fact, may not be able to afford big suburban houses and garages full of cars.

Instead, the Millennials are choosing dense urban living that’s close to work, and they prefer getting around by foot or bicycle, with some public transportation and the occasional Zipcar to visit the old folks in ‘burbs. The last thing pensioners want to do is pay extra taxes for schools and services they aren’t using, so raising taxes to meet the tax revenue shortfall is probably out of the question.

A similar revenue shortfall is probably facing the thousands of fossil fuel and utility industry employees who are thinking of retiring in the East Bay. Many plan to live on their stock dividends and pass the stock along to their heirs. This will be difficult as the industry begins the attrition phase of its cycle. They should see a financial planner and diversify.

To gamble Benicia’s safety and expand GHG emissions by approving Valero’s crude-by-rail proposal is illogical given that the oil industry is winding down and fossil-fuel will soon not be competitive with renewables. It would better for the Bay Area if we start to help Valero and the other refineries begin the long slow wind-down process, and gradually close them while the companies are still profitable. If we leave the shutdown process to when the companies start to struggle financially, they will just lock the gates and walk away, leaving the huge environmental cleanup costs to the local communities much the way the military does when they close bases.

There’s no good reason why Benicia residents should be saddled with the burden of a shuttered and vacant Valero refinery. We should begin the process as soon as possible and work with the refinery to not only find a way to replace the lost tax revenue, but to identify who will pay for the hazard waste and environmental cleanup.

At the very least, Benicia City Council should understand the move to a carbonless economy, read the Citigroup and Kepler Chevreux reports and the other emerging research, and accept the fact that Big Oil has begun its endgame. Leadership is about looking forward, not back, and identifying and solving problems at the most opportune time.

Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is co-author, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Woodrow Clark, of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics,” set to be released in October by Elsevier.

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