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Economy

Oil Companies Are Preparing for a Lucrative Decline

The industry is not doubling down on the future of fossil fuels. Far from it.

An oil barrel in a man's pocket.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The oil industry is not telling a credible story about its own future. Far from doubling down on the future of oil — as they’d have us believe — and as climate action advocates fear – the most powerful oil producers are planning for obsolescence, but they’re hoping to do it on their own, lucrative, terms.

The end of more than a century of growth in oil use is almost here, but it’s not straightforward.

One of the world’s leading forecasters of energy trends is now emphatic that the amount of oil, gas, and coal used around the world each day will begin to taper off within a few years. According to the International Energy Agency, global oil consumption, currently just over 100 million barrels per day, will peak later this decade at around 102 milllion barrels per day even without any new climate policy measures. We are at “the beginning of the end of the era of fossil fuels,” IEA chief Fatih Birol wrote in September.

None of this is adequate to stay within safe climate limits, but it’s hard to overstate what it means for the oil industry, which has enjoyed almost uninterrupted growth for its 150-odd-year existence.

Oil producers vigorously pushed back on the IEA’s outlook. OPEC+, the oil producers’ cartel, accused the agency of being “ideologically driven.” Chief executives of Exxon and state-controlled Saudi Aramco insisted that demand will continue to grow for decades to come.

But while the biggest and most successful oil producers rail against the IEA’s forecast, hinting that the agency is some kind of woke climate activist, their own actions tell a different story. Oil producers know that their industry is on the cusp of an inexorable decline, and they are preparing for it.

That might seem counter-intuitive given the spate of merger and acquisition news this fall. Last month Exxon made an $65 billion bid for Pioneer Natural Resources, which owns a swathe of Permian shale, and a couple of weeks later Chevron offered $53 billion for Hess Corporation, which includes a chunk of deepwater oil fields off Guyana. “Fossil fuels aren’t going anywhere,” declared The New York Times after the Exxon-Pioneer announcement. Like many other stories, the Times’ article pointed out that Exxon is choosing to invest in more oil, but not renewable energy. Earlier this year Shell cut its target for renewable energy growth. It looks like another vote in favor of oil’s strong future.

But neither the oil industry’s protestations, nor the big U.S. acquisitions, nor the lack of enthusiasm for green investments by oil majors, tells us that oil’s rise will continue for decades. In fact some of these developments point in the opposite direction.

Let’s start with the acquisitions. They’re certainly big; Exxon is preparing to buy Pioneer for shares equivalent to a sixth of Exxon’s own market capitalization; and Chevron’s Hess acquisition is of similarly huge proportions. Big corporate takeovers, however, do not indicate a growing industry. In boom years anyone can raise capital; when things get tough it’s time for “consolidation” because only companies with scale can survive.

To understand how these deals are conservative bets on the future of oil, look at what in the commodities world is called the "production cost curve” — a way of analyzing the financial logic of anything that’s mined or pumped out of the ground.

Production cost curve.Carbon Tracker

The curve shows total oil production capacity, ranked horizontally from the cheapest to the most expensive to extract. (The colored dots represent different International Energy Agency scenarios, with the first more climate-aligned and the last being simply “business as usual,” but they’re not particularly important for our purposes.)

The oil industry consists of a panoply of producers, each owning assets with different geological features, chemical compositions, and financial flexibility that put them on different parts of the curve.

Now, the greater the world’s total oil consumption, the more likely it is that prices will be high enough that those at the highest end of the production cost curve — everyone on the steep incline on the curve’s right — can still make money.

But while prices for oil are currently high, the acquisitions are not counting on them remaining so. Wood Mackenzie noted that Chevron’s Guyana fields would have “highly competitive breakeven costs.” Another energy consultancy, Rystad, pointed out that Exxon-Pioneer would have the lowest breakeven costs of any Permian producer; whereas previously they’d only rank second and fourth, respectively. In other words, Chevron and Exxon are rationally trying to position themselves on the left-hand side of the curve — the safe demand zone — where they hope to outlast competitors whose breakeven costs per barrel are too high to survive a world weaning itself off oil.

So the beginning of the end of oil doesn’t mean game over for Exxon, Chevron, or Saudi Aramco – if they play their cards right. Some oil will be sold for the next couple of decades at least. The trajectory down, however, is unprecedented, and it’s not clear that even the canniest producers won’t get caught out by the speed of transition to electric vehicles, for example.

But what about backing away from green energy? If fossil fuels’ heyday is over, surely everyone should pile into the next big thing?

Not necessarily. Consider where their money comes from. Big oil companies like Exxon and Chevron have plenty of cash, but they have to keep shareholders happy. Those investors are in those companies for various reasons; but one reason some of them actively choose it is for its specific characteristics: long capital-intensive investment cycles and high profits when things go well.

Green energy investments are different. The rates of return can be lower, but risks are also lower, particularly over a longer time horizon.

In fact it’s a conventional tenet of investing that if companies see their entire industry shrinking, they should not necessarily pivot into a new sector that is replacing it. The principles of “shareholder value,” for example, holds that companies should return cash to shareholders if there are no credible investment opportunities, so they can divert that money into new sectors.

That’s exactly what those massive share buyback programs are doing. The world’s biggest oil companies ramped up purchases of their own shares — which returns cash to investors — to the value of more than $135 billion last year, according to investment manager Janus Henderson; Bloombergestimates it was a more than 10-fold increase on the previous year and many U.S. and European majors are extending or expanding their buybacks this year.

The buybacks, as much as they might be a repellent illustration of windfall profits arising from wars, are being conducted instead of investing in more upstream investment. Of course, this logic doesn't align with the much-repeated idea that “oil companies will have to be involved in the transition,” but neither do the actions of oil companies.

Finally, it pays to question the messenger. It would not be in oil companies’ interests to say out loud that demand is peaking soon, even if they and their investors all know it.

Imagine if Exxon or OPEC+'s secretariat said “yes, oil demand is probably close to peaking; it might plateau for awhile but the era of growth is over.” Money would flow out of the sector. Smaller, more expensive producers would stop investing in finding and producing more oil, which would lead to more volatile price spikes, driving the world to switch to clean energy even faster (JP Morgan says the recent high prices has already provoked “demand destruction” — in part explaining why prices haven’t spiked as much as recent world events might suggest.) Governments and other companies might even step up efforts to cut their dependency on oil. It would become a self-fulfilling prophecy with challenging implications for countries and companies whose existence is based on pumping oil and gas.

OPEC is typically optimistic about oil demand in its own publications. It predicted back in 2006 that oil demand in 2025 would be 113 million barrels per day — a number that’s 10 million above what has ever been reached. (It’s now forecasting that oil demand will reach a similar level — 116 million/day — only 20 years later, in 2045.) But OPEC, and particularly its most powerful member Saudi Arabia, has long been quietly anxious about demand destruction. With the IEA saying recent prices suggest that is already happening now, thanks to the rise of electric vehicles, OPEC has further reason to keep their fretting private.

Oil producers are — again, rationally — planning to extract the last bit of profits from a declining sector, while hoping that energy users everywhere remain dependent upon a volatile, expensive, and polluting – but very profitable – energy source. If newer sovereign producers try to get into the game late (such as Barbados, Senegal, and Mozambique) they might well get caught out by the shrinking oil market. That would leave the cheaper and better-capitalized producers — Gulf countries, or the U.S. majors — to continue selling at a comfortable profit, albeit slightly lower than they’d receive in the pre-peak era.

The oil majors are settling in for a long, comfortable decline.

Kate Mackenzie profile image

Kate Mackenzie

Kate Mackenzie is an independent researcher, journalist and advisor to organizations pursuing the Paris Agreement goals. She is a contributor to Bloomberg Green, editor of "The Polycrisis" series at Jain Family Institute's Phenomenal World journal, and a non-resident fellow at the Centre for Policy Development, a non-partisan Australian policy thinktank.

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