What Bloomberg, Citi and HSBC are saying, in sum, is that infinite growth of a known harmful asset — in this case an asset with the ability to disrupt climate and civilization — must come to an end, and soon. And shares of the firms exploiting this asset are at risk.
3. Renewables are becoming too competitive for fossil fuels.
Forbes has quoted Rick Needham, director of energy and sustainability at Google saying, “While fossil-based prices are on a cost curve that goes up, renewable prices are on this march downward.” That pretty much sums it up. In just the last five years, solar photovoltaic module prices have fallen 80 percent and wind turbines have become 29 percent less expensive. Moreover, after the initial investment, renewables such as wind and solar, having no cost of fuel, will prove far too competitive for fossil fuels no matter how cheap those may appear to be. Cheap fuel is still more than free fuel.
One of the first major investors to recognize this was Warren Buffett. Via his MidAmerican Energy subsidiary, he has quietly made Berkshire-Hathaway America’s single largest owner of both solar and wind electrical power generation capacity. Patrick Goodman, Buffett’s CFO of MidAmerican said simply “we believe renewables is the better investment right now.” Warren Buffet, who believes that once a good investment has been identified it’s time to “back up the truck,” is showing no signs of giving up his leader status on solar, having just begun construction on the “largest solar plant in the world.”
All this is happening now, today, with today’s technologies and today’s economics. That the smart money already sees renewable energies as more competitive long term than fossil fuels is obvious. The ‘smart money,’ by the way means individuals as well as institutions. Solar crowdfunding pioneer Mosaic in April of this year sold out the first tranche of $100 million in solar project investments to Californians in just hours.
Further technological advances aren’t required to make renewables competitive, but advances are occurring. Fossil fuels will represent only a small percentage of all energy investments in just a few years for a simple reason: few will want to invest in the less profitable technologies of the past.
4. Fossil fuels firms are beginning to have to pay for their externalities.
Fossil fuels companies have never had to pay for their economic externalities such as pollution, warming, health effects and contaminated water and farmland. There are signs that this is beginning to change, and firms will increasingly be liable for damages in the tens if not hundreds of billions. The highest profile example is BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, the worst oil spill in U.S. history. BP has already been required to set up a US$20 billion fund to cover cleanup and damage costs, and perhaps far more significantly, is facing potentially “tens of billions” in additional damage payments pending the outcome of what the Financial Times is (in a dedicated section) calling the “trial of the century,” now underway in Louisiana. The FT is also reporting that BP is facing an additional 2,200 lawsuits related to the spill.
Even if BP should prevail in most or even all of these suits, the massive costs of these litigations will start to become a drag on the firms’ traditionally easy profitability. Newsweek has a longform piece covering many details including additional BP liabilities such as: “that BP lied about the amount of oil it discharged into the gulf is already established. Lying to Congress about that was one of 14 felonies to which BP pleaded guilty last year in a legal settlement with the Justice Department that included a $4.5 billion fine, the largest fine ever levied against a corporation in the U.S.” BP’s continuing potential liabilities from this one incident, including “uncapped class-action settlements with private plaintiffs” and “civil charges brought by the Justice Department” and “a gross negligence finding [that] could nearly quadruple the civil damages owed by BP under the Clean Water Act to $21 billion,” show the danger to shareholders. Any representative of an asset class carrying this kind of risk can justifiably be labeled a subprime investment.
Other firms facing liability issues surrounding the dangerous nature of their products include Chevron, which has had to abandon Ecuador altogether to avoid paying a $US19 billion settlement there in a “nightmare case” that threatens to drag on around the world as Ecuador seeks payment via Chevron’s assets in other nations.
5. Fossil fuels are likely to have to face carbon taxes.
There will be carbon taxes in many if not most countries that will directly impact the profit margins of fossil fuels firms. The New York Times op-ed framed the argument like this: