Securities of fossil fuels firms, as an economic sector, may soon be on the decline.
Predictions as to when oil and gas will become a smaller part of the investment society makes into its total energy mix, in favor of renewables such as solar, wind and ocean energies, vary, ranging from 2060 on the long side (this prediction from oil industry powerhouse Shell) to 2030 or even sooner on the shorter side (as reported by Bloomberg). But so far, markets appear to be mispricing the risk this presents to fossil fuels companies, and their share prices for now remain high. In our opinion, it’s not too soon to consider divesting from fossil fuels while one might still recover significant value.
Coal, oil, and natural gas, though, are the main sources of energy that have gotten civilization this far (at least since the late 1700s, or the entire industrial revolution), so why are many expecting them to so quickly diminish in importance?
Mostly because of recent innovation and renewables’ efficiency and cost gains. Our ‘next economy’ thesis and methods of portfolio construction assert that energy and material resources we need to host an indefinitely thriving economy exist in more than sufficient quantities (particularly energy), if we would only collect and use them in smart and efficient ways. The innovations required to put world economies on a long term sustainable path largely exist today. For example, the various forms of solar energy collection have become so efficient over the last 20 years that all of civilization’s energy requirements could presently be met by covering 0.3 percent of the earth’s land surface with solar panels and concentrated solar thermal systems. Our models insist that through promoting true sustainability solutions in materials and energy, we can indeed maintain a healthy, thriving biosphere, all while growing our economies and improving standards of living everywhere, for everyone.
This in mind, we put together 10 primary reasons why fossil fuels investments, in next economy terms and indeed in general economic terms, no longer appear to be the attractive source of risk-adjusted returns they have historically been.
Fossil fuels are economically becoming subprime because:
1. Fossil fuels have the capacity to threaten basic systems.
Warming and its sequelae such as severe weather, droughts, floods, more frequent and intense storms and attendant uncertainties all undermine our basic economic foundations. A recent World Bank report conceded that “There is … no certainty that adaptation to a 4° C world is possible,” referring to a global average temperature increase of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit from pre-industrial times that is considered likely by scientists over the next few decades if fossil fuels’ use is not soon severely limited. To rephrase what this means, the traditionally conservative World Bank believes that human economies may not be able to adapt to a world that has on average warmed four degrees Celsius or more. Note that the global temperature has risen nearly one degree Fahrenheit since 1975.
Millions of pages have been written on the underlying reason for the unsustainability of fossil fuels. Their power to disrupt basic climate and therefore world societies is vast, complicated and is a topic best left to our best specialists. I suggest to the interested reader the works of more qualified practitioners including Dr. James Hansen, Lester Brown and Bill McKibben.
2. Fossil fuel assets present abandonment risk.
Fossil fuels companies are now confronted by the risk that many of the still-in-the-ground assets they count on their balance sheets and/or in their future revenue projections may never be recovered or realized. As this becomes the apparent, their asset valuations and revenue guidance may be revealed as currently far too high, and the values of their companies and stocks overvalued. Citing abandonment risk, Bloomberg recently reported that “Investors in carbon-intensive business could see $6 trillion wasted as policies limiting global warming stop them from exploiting their coal, oil and gas reserves.” Carbon Tracker reports that, “Between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are ‘unburnable’ if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C.”
The press down under is reporting that “Australian based analysts at Citigroup says fossil fuel reserves in Australia face significant value destruction in a carbon constrained world, with the value of thermal coal reserves likely to be slashed dramatically if governments get serious about climate action…fossil fuel asset owners could be best advised to dig the resource up as quickly as they can.”
Over at HSBC they recently pushed up a similar report, encompassing a global scale, essentially saying we can’t count all the fossil fuel reserves on firms’ balance sheets because we cannot burn them all and therefore “Oil and gas majors, including, BP, Shell and Statoil, could face a loss in market value of up to 60 percent should the international community stick to its agreed emission reduction targets.” (As reported by GreenBiz.com.) I don’t believe most policymakers in governments around the world currently have the wherewithal to honor their various carbon reduction treaties, but I also don’t believe that matters. Peak oil demand is upon us because the alternatives are simply becoming far more competitive and because awareness of fossil fuels’ dangers is rapidly advancing.