Coronavirus crisis could cause $25tn fossil fuel industry collapse

Value of reserves could fall by two-thirds as Covid-19 hastens peak in demand, study shows

The coronavirus outbreak could trigger a $25tn (£20tn) collapse in the fossil fuel industry by accelerating a terminal decline for the world’s most polluting companies.

A study has found that the value of the world’s fossil fuel reserves could fall by two-thirds, sooner than the industry expects, because the Covid-19 crisis has hastened the peak for oil, gas and coal demand.

The looming fossil fuel collapse could pose “a significant threat to global financial stability” by wiping out the market value of fossil fuel companies, according to financial thinktank Carbon Tracker.

The report predicts a 2% decline in demand for fossil fuels every year could cause the future profits of oil, gas and coal companies to collapse from an estimated $39tn to just $14tn.

It warns that a blow to fossil fuel companies could send shockwaves through the global economy because their market value makes up a quarter of the world’s equity markets and they owe trillions of dollars to the world’s banks.

Kingsmill Bond, the author of the report, said: “Now is the time to plan an orderly wind-down of fossil fuel assets and manage the impact on the global economy rather than try to sustain the unsustainable.”

The report says the world is “witnessing the decline and fall of the fossil fuel system” owing to the quicker-than-expected growth of clean energy alternatives coupled with the collapse in demand for fossil fuels amid the pandemic.

It follows findings from the International Energy Agency, which forecast the Covid-19 fallout would lead to the most severe plunge in energy demand since the second world war and trigger multidecade lows for the world’s consumption of oil, gas and coal, while renewable energy continued to grow.

The world’s demand for fossil fuels has plunged by almost 10% amid the coronavirus lockdown, and many energy economists believe it may fail to recover from the crisis.

Bond said fossil fuel companies and their investors had failed to realise the current decline of the fossil fuel industry may prove terminal.

“The bizarre thing is that the fossil fuel incumbents have been so resistant to the idea of change for so long, and put out so much bogus PR, that they risk falling victim to their own rhetoric,” he said.

“There is far more risk inherent in the fossil fuel system than is conventionally priced into financial markets. Investors need to increase discount rates, reduce expected prices, curtail terminal values and account for the clean-up costs.”

Let Putin and MBS Both Lose

The American shale industry will almost certainly outlive either man’s rule.

Not for the first time, let’s wonder how much Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman really know what they’re doing.

Oil has crashed to $35 a barrel thanks to a sudden feud between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which comes amid the Covid-19 shock to the global economy. The upshot could bankrupt a lot of U.S. shale companies, if that’s either man’s thinking. But their equipment would survive, the drilling rights would survive. Employees would retain their skills. All would end up in hands of lenders who have every incentive to preserve value and keep applying technology to lower the price at which operations become profitable again.

The U.S. has deep pools of entrepreneurial capital. It has highly sophisticated private equity that can scoop up bargains and bring assets back into play in a way that, as has been happening for a decade, tends to cap any cyclical rebound in oil prices that the Saudis and Russians may be hoping for.

More important, the U.S. may be the world’s biggest producer but oil is a tiny share of its economy. What America loses in terms of oil-industry wages and profits it gains in lower gas prices for consumers and energy costs for downstream industries. Plus our political system at all levels is geared to assuage unhappiness from dislocated industries. We have a national election coming up in which bums can be thrown out and new bums installed.

The strongmen’s desperation is understandable but nothing else about their feud is: Saudi Arabia and Russia have zilch to offer the world except oil and gas. Their political systems are poorly designed to handle the shocks coming their way. Russia needs an estimated price of $50 a barrel to keep its budget afloat given limited borrowing options under sanctions, and that $50 price hardly sustains the millions of Russians not directly on the government’s payroll.

Saudi Arabia is said to have the world’s lowest production costs—$3 a barrel—if costs are construed narrowly. But throw in the subsidies habitually required to keep restive princes and social classes in line and the Saudi government needs $90 to sustain the political model it has foisted on itself.

MBS’s role at least can be explained: His legitimacy is obviously in question judging from this weekend’s arrests of members of the royal family amid accusations of a coup plot. To be seen surrendering the Saudis’ role as price leader to the Kremlin right now would hardly strengthen his claim to the throne he wants to inherit from his father.

Mr. Putin rode an oil boom to power 20 years ago but the degree to which he has mastered the energy politics of even his own country is debatable. He has often seemed at a loss and fearful of taking sides in oligarchic disputes, even when they threatened his carefully prepared come-hither to Western oil companies such as Shell and BP. His crushing of Yukos and its impresario in 2003 took care of a personal threat from a democracy promoter but also began the slow strangulation of ties with the West, which has been costly to him and his cronies. It took only a flick of Donald Trump’s finger recently to scuttle Mr. Putin’s precious Nord Stream 2 pipeline as it neared completion.

No part of Mr. Putin’s plan was provoking an oil price collapse on the eve of Tuesday’s carefully scripted parliamentary kabuki. Valentina Tereshkova, an 83-year-old lawmaker and throwback to the glory days of the Soviet Union as the country’s first female cosmonaut, proposed a constitutional change to let Mr. Putin serve in de facto perpetuity.

The president is the guarantor of the constitution,” said Mr. Putin in a speech accepting the idea, his sentence structure apparently confusing subject and object.

These changes must pass a Russian court in a system where judges are beholden to Mr. Putin, and a plebiscite that may test even Mr. Putin’s highly accomplished election rigging. His popularity has been eroding in polls of voters who don’t kid themselves that their phone calls aren’t monitored. A heavy ding to oil revenues that account for 30% of gross domestic product will not improve his standing. Remind yourself what it was about the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that so threatened Mr. Putin: a post-Soviet public standing up against a corrupt and impoverishing dictatorship.

Enthusiasts for free trade and free flow of people, whom Mr. Trump sometimes derides as globalists, cherished the idea of a planet growing richer and freer together. Some of us still do.

But, ironically, it’s the authoritarian states that are most hurt by the retreat. China is dependent on the world to absorb its superfluity of manufactured goods. Russia and Saudi Arabia are economic pygmies that need a fast-growing global economy to buy their oil. A retrenching world would be less prosperous and harmonious but in such a world you would also rather be the United States than anybody else.

Inside Saudi Arabia’s Decision to Launch an Oil-Price War

Riyadh prepares emergency budget for $12-20 a barrel oil; “It’s all about egos now.”

Saudi Arabia and Russia intensified an escalating oil-market war on Tuesday, with Riyadh set to raise output to record levels and Moscow saying it was ready to pump more crude.

State-run Saudi Arabian Oil Co. said it would boost production to 12.3 million barrels a day in April, some 300,000 barrels a day over the company’s previous maximum sustained capacity.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, meanwhile, said his country could rapidly open its own taps.

Oil prices lost a fifth of their value Monday, after Saudi Arabia over the weekend slashed its crude prices and signaled it would boost its output next month. The move followed Russia’s rejection of a Saudi-backed plan by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut crude output in response to dwindling demand in China and elsewhere.

Even as the price war escalated with fresh salvos from both sides, former Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih was in talks with Mr. Novak in an attempt to reverse the production hikes and revive the collective OPEC-Russia output curbs, according to Saudi-government advisers and officials.

Mr. Falih, who negotiated the initial production cuts in 2016, is now Saudi Arabia’s minister of investments. His outreach to Mr. Novak is done with the approval of Saudi authorities, the advisers said. If Mr. Falih’s mediation succeeds, the advisers and officials said, OPEC and its allies including Russia will convene an emergency meeting in April.

Mr. Novak said Moscow isn’t ruling out further cooperation with OPEC, adding that the next scheduled meeting is planned for May or June.

“The doors are not closed,” he said.

Amid the escalating fight, President Trump called Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman on Monday to discuss global energy markets, the White House said Tuesday morning. The leaders also discussed “other critical regional and bilateral issues,” according to a statement.

Global GlutOil prices have fallen as demand from China has slowed and Saudi Arabia haspledged to pump more.

Saudi Arabia and Russia’s decisions to flood markets are surprising, as China—the world’s largest oil importer—has been hobbled by the deadly coronavirus, which has hurt its demand for oil after refineries and factories were forced to shut.

Saudi Arabia’s struggle for oil-market supremacy might earn it a sliver of market share at the expense of Russia and rival U.S. shale producers, but the cost of a price war might be too much for the kingdom to bear, analysts and oil officials say.

The combination of declining global consumption and rising supply pushed Brent crude, the benchmark for global prices, to its sharpest decline since the first Gulf War in 1991 on Monday. Some of these losses were recouped Tuesday as the Brent oil price gained 8% amid a broader revival in markets.

Saudi Arabia’s aggressive discounts are targeting some of Russia’s core markets in China and Northern Europe. The kingdom is also taking aim at U.S. oil producers, Saudi and OPEC officials said.

The Russian energy minister declined to comment and the Saudi energy minister didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some oil officials say theystruggle to see the logic behind Saudi Arabia’s decisions. Others see the battle as tied to Prince Mohammed’s recent efforts to tighten his grip on power and raise his international clout, according to people involved in the OPEC talks.

Russia’s failure to find common ground with Saudi Arabia and OPEC on oil cuts was preceded by talks in early February between Riyadh and Moscow that focused on the possibility of forging a broader, long-term alliance. Under one scenario, Saudi Arabia would have sped up its investments inside sanctions-hit Russia and backed the Kremlin’s military efforts in Syria, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ultimately, the crown prince didn’t commit to a deal, say the people familiar with the matter, because he didn’t want to alienate the U.S. Weeks later, roughly at the same time that Russia was refusing to endorse the Saudi-backed plan to cut oil output, Mr. Putin was initiating a rapprochement with Turkey, a Saudi foe, the people said.

“It’s all about egos now, not about the oil market,” said a Saudi-government adviser.

Meanwhile, Prince Mohammed saw the OPEC debate as a way to assert his broad influence over the kingdom’s oil policies and to prove to his older brother, Saudi energy minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, that he could force Russia’s hand, according to people familiar with his thinking.

In a terse phone call to Prince Abdulaziz late Thursday, the crown prince overruled his brother, who had agreed to a three-month production cut with OPEC, and extended the proposed cuts through the end of the year, these people said.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, on Thursday.

PHOTO: CHRISTIAN BRUNA/SHUTTERSTOCK

The crown prince ordered the minister to force OPEC to adopt the decision—even if that meant risking any hope that Russia would join in, they said.

Now the kingdom is pursuing a strategy of undercutting its rivals by drowning markets with cheaper oil—a move that has a tendency to backfire, say longtime market watchers.

On Saturday, the Saudi energy ministry told Aramco officials that instead of cutting production, they should pump more oil and lower the price. Saudi Arabia soon spread the word throughout the market. “It was the Saudi declaration of war against Putin,” said a senior Saudi official.

Within hours, officials at the finance ministry were tasked with preparing a budget scenario that envisions benchmark Brent crude prices dropping into a $12-$20 a barrel range. All Saudi ministries were also asked to cut their spending significantly to prepare for this scenario.

But the strategy has backfired before.

In 2014, then-Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi persuaded OPEC to pump at will to compete with U.S. shale producers. His rationale was that the cartel’s members had the ability to produce at extremely low costs. But after the price of Brent crude fell below $28 a barrel in early 2016, the Saudi royal family fired him. His successor, Mr. Falih, negotiated a pact between OPEC and Russia to cut production in the first OPEC+ deal. Within months, oil prices more than doubled.

The move to depress prices also missed its mark in the 1980s and led to a period known in oil circles as the “Lost Decade.” In 1986, OPEC faced competition from rising North Sea production. Saudi Arabia’s delegation was so upset about OPEC members flouting the group’s production agreements that it unleashed a flood of oil that sank prices for a prolonged period.

Eventually, Saudi Arabia backtracked and cut production, but the move wasn’t a complete failure, as it helped score a political victory against the Soviet Union. Riyadh had been backing insurgents battling Russia in Afghanistan—many of whom would later found al Qaeda. As the oil price fell to around $30 a barrel, Russia faced a budget crisis that contributed to food shortages and an end to its war in Afghanistan. Its then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev retreated from Kabul and launched the restructuring of Russia under his perestroika policy.

Russia is better prepared to weather low oil prices than in the past. Oil is now accounts for less than a third of budget revenue. The country has also accumulated massive reserves. The Russian finance ministry said Monday that it could withstand 10 years of prices at $25 to $30 a barrel.

Still, some Russian producers say the oil-market war is excessive.

“I’m in shock. This is a very unexpected, irrational decision to put it mildly,” Leonid Fedun, vice president of Russian private producer Lukoil was reported as telling Russian newspaper the Bell. Russian oil companies would like to increase production, he said, but that won’t make up for losses from falling prices.

The mood is more somber in Saudi Arabia, which needs oil prices over $60 a barrel to balance its budget, according to Saudi officials. The kingdom is now contending with its own coronavirus outbreak, moving Monday to suspend all air travel with many of its neighbors.

Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Aramco fell about 7% to 27.95 riyals ($7.45) a share on the Saudi domestic exchange Monday. The Saudi price decrease has “literally burned all global energy investors,” said a Saudi official. “[Saudi Aramco] Won’t sell a share to foreigners again,” he said, referring to the Crown Prince’s plan to list Aramco internationally.

Charmian Gooch: Meet global corruption’s hidden players

When the son of the president of a desperately poor country starts buying mansions and sportscars on an official monthly salary of $7,000, Charmian Gooch suggests, corruption is probably somewhere in the picture. In a blistering, eye-opening talk (and through several specific examples), she details how global corruption trackers follow the money — to some surprisingly familiar faces.