Diversification Chronicles – New Realities Facing Fossil Fuel Based Energy

solar, renewable energy diversification

Source: U.S. DOE

In my previous Diversification Chronicles post I covered some of the high level reasons why the time is right for fossil fuel and electric utilities to pursue profitable diversification into the renewable energy industry. Below, I outline recent events and news that further highlights the legal, regulatory and market drivers that should create urgent diversification strategy development or expansion for companies with large CO2 and GHG negative externalities as a result of their business operations.

On August 9th, the federal 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the first time on the legality of the Obama administration’s estimated social cost of carbon (SCC). SCC was determined by federal agencies who worked together starting in 2008 to create an accurate SCC, a metric that represents the long-term economic damage to society, in U.S. dollars, from each incremental ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The latest estimate placed the SCC at $36 per metric ton of CO2.

The recent ruling upheld the Department of Energy’s use of the SCC metric in its analysis of standards for commercial refrigeration equipment.  DOE used them for issuance of 2 rules in 2014: one of the rules set energy efficiency standards for 49 classes of commercial refrigeration equipment, while the other stipulated test procedures for the standards.

The refrigeration industry challenged DOE’s use of the social cost of carbon, but DOE’s use of the SCC metric, “was neither arbitrary nor capricious” according to senior federal judge Kenneth Ripple, who was appointed to the bench by President Reagan. The ruling was definitive in its entirety.

While this ruling only applies to the refrigeration industry in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, the implications are enormous for the oil & gas and electric utilities. The SCC metric as established by the US government is now a benchmark going forward. This may well be the first domino falling which would affect all CO2 & GHG emitters in near term.  

For the first time ever, CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants will drop below those from natural gas in 2016, according to a new analysis from the federal Energy Information Agency. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, historically low prices for natural gas, and other factors have driven coal use down by >30% while natural gas has been replacing that fuel for generation.

It was always assumed that natural gas would be a solid 50-year bridge fuel combined with renewables, energy storage and other technologies. But with its rapid rise in use, less energy density, and methane issues, natural gas is becoming a larger CO2 & GHG contributor with projections putting it past coal emissions in its heyday.

In addition to overproduction, very low oil prices, and legal challenges surrounding potential prior knowledge of the impact of their industry on climate change, the oil & gas industries are facing a potentially game changing problem of how Wall Street will value each company’s fossil fuel reserves.

Typically, an oil & gas company’s stock market valuation is weighed heavily on proven reserves and ability to extract. With many countries looking at putting a price on CO2 and limiting extraction of oil & gas as a result of the COP 21 Paris Agreement, this becomes a crucial data point for both the investment community and the operating companies themselves.

Industry observers believe that it’s only a matter of a few years before the investment community significantly reduces the value of oil & gas companies and limits their equity positions. Additionally, the Securities and Exchange Commission is coming under pressure to change its rules to require energy firms to be more clear on what their material climate change risks are.

Combined with climate change symptoms seemingly accelerating over the last few years, these market and regulatory challenges make diversification into renewables an imperative.  Short-term and weak green-washing strategies of the past will not stand up to public or government scrutiny going forward. The time is now for government and corporations to lead the transition to renewable and clean energy.

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