Oil (and) slick: Of corporate citizens and the great energy transition.

Whose ego needs are being met? That, imho, is the key question, in almost any gathering, whether it dresses itself up as academic (aka ‘intellectual’), activist, capitalist, whatever. If you ask that question (at least to yourself – it’s a CLM to say what you think, after all), then a whole lot probably becomes clearer. Whatever the organisers tell you the meeting is about (energy transitions, flower arranging, something equally will-pass-the-time-until-the-apocalypse), it is always about (at least) both that and ego needs. Hidden curriculum, hidden agenda, yadder yadder yadder… Oh, and organisations have ‘egos’ too (Dr Freud, meet Professor Schumpeter; Joe, Siggy…).

Tonight,  Manchester Business School, – so sorry, Alliance Manchester Business School – deployed some extra security because it was hosting Dr Brian Gilvary, the chief financial officer of BP no less (the company formerly, albeit briefly, known as Beyond Petroleum). And the topic? That great mystical and mythical beast, the “energy transition”. Or rather, the energy transition that is indeed unfolding (especially over the last 18 months) but seemingly cannot/will not be accelerated to get us within spitting or dying distance of “two degrees” above pre-industrial global average temperatures (yeah, because two degrees is sooo safe.). You know, that energy transition. The one over which ink is spilled and careers builded here, in this green and pleasant land. The new Jerusalem. That one.

So, back to the beginning: whose needs? The attendees, with a need to feel informed/send ‘I came to your lecture it was fab please gizzajob’ emails. Or to be a Known Quantity. Or to virtue (or cynicism) signal. And of course to do the whole money/legitimacy fungibility thing. Whatevs.

Just about now you’re thinking how much more of this is there? So here is the tl:dr Dr Gilvary was very very clear – and admirably keen to be clear. Despite the long list of technologies on which it is keeping a watching brief (see below), for the benefit of any pension-holders who may be worried, for the next 5 years (at least) 90% of what BP does will be oil and gas. What that says about the so-called two degree target? That’s ‘not for us to do.’ Habitable planet? Even thought they’re number one oil trader in the world, ditto… But of course, the dinosaurs will tap dance, if we show them there’s a buck in it. Of course they will.

Right, feel free to give up (on the blogpost, not the living – mortal sins/imagine Sisyphus happy blah blah) at any point. Onwards with it, mostly just a chronological drive [Easiest framing, if not the best]. Apols for any innacuracies, please check against transcript, video etc. [Digressions and editorialising will be in square brackets like this].

The audience- very diverse (not sarky) crowd from all corners of t’planet. Gender mix about 45% women. Some old farts (author’s age and older) but lots of young ‘uns (doing MBAs and so on).

Opening remarks from the head of MBS. Sorry, AMBS; strategic partnership, 100 million (pounds or dollars?) in collaborative project with five partners, range of global energy industries, benefit to industry and supply chains [shades of Matt Canavan and his self-perceived job?]

Gilvary, who did a maths PhD at Manchester, has been with BP since 1986 (41 years), started by observing how exciting the times are for energy transitions folks (practitioners and scholars) and argued that the next 10 years will see historical changes. The last 18 months along have had a huge impact. However, there is a heck of a lot of installed infrastructure, so how we will be transitioning using that is anyone’s guess re: the years 2050-2100. ([Ed: this is why the word palimpsest should be taught in kindergartens].

The speech was structured around a) Energy globally, 2) BP in that (since Lord Browne’s 1997 speech at Stanford) (31 years ago) , 3) BP’s strategy and 4) what you need to do [we didn’t actually get to that]

That presentation, bullet pointed

Energy as driver of economic growth [Hmm – chickens, eggs and practice theory and creating demand to make centralised plant profitable blah blah. Grok ‘Fossil Capital’ and the that ‘Energy, Work and Finance’ piece by the Cornerhouse folks. Whatevs. Nowt on the Great Acceleration (named, it turns out, for the Great Transformation. Who knew?]

Heading towards 9 billion people. Most energy growth will come from non-OECD countries, because we’re getting ‘efficient’ (Yom Kippur war, 55mph speed limit, unless you’re cannon-balling). But China, India, and especially Africa.
Some leapfrogging of dirty tech (i.e. renewables) will be done. Oil and coal will decline, gas will increase. It is, says Gilvary, a ‘transition fuel. [Oh for a Tyndaller to heckle…] Cleaner than wood, he says.
BP invested heavily in solar 40 years ago, got out out of it five years ago (a mistake). Invested 3.5bn and wrote it off. Solar will be a great source. Hydro will ‘tick along’. Meanwhile Germany is closing down nuclear post-Fukushima and importing US coal to plug the gap (oops). [Energiewende is not done…]
Gilray thinks “we’re going to see some pretty strange things”.
US India and China continuing to use coal (hmmm, we will indeed see).
Renewables solve OTHER problems – e.g. air quality in cities [a real problem if you’re a Chinese technocrat who can’t send the army in like they did in ’89 when the little emperors start dropping like asthmatic flies].
The renewables boom not driven by Paris Agreement [indeed, pre-dates it. Overcapacity in production of PV etc.]

Gilvary recounted that when he joined BP in 86 Peak Oil was being put at 1990, then pushed back and back. He reckons there is no shortage of mostly accessible oil [would be interesting to know what his EROI numbers are]and points out that the crucial factor will be ‘societal demand’ and that therefore policy matters.

BP Energy Outllok assumptions, ‘relatively conservative’ – decline in oil demand to 2035, (I think he meant/said per capita?) offset by population growth in China, India, the Middle East, where gas previously exported is being reserved for aircon).
Oil will come from usual places, not so much from Canada (I think he was saying). US is now an exporter of course, thanks to shale/fracking.

So, to BP – has modelled scenarios around what they think will happen, fast transition, even faster transition. Why? So they have a business model that can cope with whatever seems likely. Oh, and 1 in 7 quid in pensions is connected to BP [I think?]
[Hmm. Scenarios bless them and Shell. Meanwhile, Kodak moments do happen…]

Anyway, to be verbatim “it will be policies that will make a difference”. E.g. Britain and its 2040 “ban” on internal combustion engines.

Then again “technology will get us through the transition” [Not a contradiction, but possibly a tension though not one that anyone explored in the Q and A . Me?  I was too busy virtue signalling]

So, BP; Turning to gas, because, there is a ‘fun fact’ that if you replaced all coal with gas you’d apparently come in under two degrees. [I wonder if that includes all the leakage that so often doesn’t get counted….]

Renewables are a competitor for this, and there are interesting moves re: storage..
Impact of the tech will be transformational.
And here is a list of some of the 400 technological advances that will be ‘disruptors’ in a positive or negative way.
Advanced materials, biofuels, solar, unconventional oil and gas, quantum computing, fuel cells, autonomous vehicles, bioproducts, battery systems, enhanced oil recovery, hydrogen as vector, 3D printing, perpetual motion machines, electrofuels, transport efficiency, advanced nuclear, block chain, advance wind, non mechanical ?) drilling, artificial intelligence. [NB one of them is made up. Can you tell what it is yet?]

Accelerated by (global) government policy decisions. Investors will follow -e..g lead in paint and lead in petrol not going on anymore. Therefore, he says, we need carbon pricing.

Five areas BP particularly looking at. – renewables (but not solar), advanced mobility, bio and low carbon products, carbon management, digital transformation, , power and storage.

Then followed a rather unclear ‘energy quiz’, which probably needed some piloting.

And no time for the ‘what are we to do’?

Those Q and As, bullet pointed

So, how much are you investing in renewables compared to renewables?
Lots more in oil and gas….

Has BP modelled the 350ppm atmospheric concentration that James Hansen says is needed to keep below 2 degrees? If not why not?
How would you respond to the claim that fossil fuel incumbents are calling for a global carbon tax because they know it can’t be delivered?
What can we expect to see incumbents – not the nice and cuddly BP – do to protect their stranded assets as policymakers try to policymake us to the sunny uplands of technotopia?
These three were welcomed as “loaded” [because apparently when you ask if this ‘bridge to the future’ is actually a bridge to hell, that’s loaded. Go figure.]. Like those well-known radicals Friends of the Earth do at AGMs.
And the answers were [and these are paraphrases, NOT direct quotes] “not for BP to do. Not BP’s responsibility.” [Hmm. So, happy to appear a ‘responsible corporate citizen’, but as soon as it gets a bit hot, then retreating into ‘nothing to do with us old chum’. If only there were a TV show where the phrase ‘the Game’s the Game’ was standard. Not so much the new Jerusalem as the new Hamsterdam. So it goes.]
“Global tax? Well, there are twelve US states were there is a carbon tax.”
“Not a question for us.” [See question one. What incumbents will do to delay, defer, block the transition is THE question, no? But silence is an answer all of its own…]

What premium does BP place on customers who want green instead of standard projects?
Since 2000 carbon neutral offset thing, but don’t like to shout about it because would rather underpromise and overdeliver

What products are you producing that are attractive for energy transitions?
BP  bought an outfit called “Beyond Limits” which does AI stuff, like on that Mars probe [think Wall-E]
And BP got a data mining company to come in and do in 30 seconds what would have taken them three or four months to do with only in-house expertise, so it has 2000 wells now controlled from one spot.

How is BP going to grow in the transitional space?
Proprietary efforts and tech, but also ‘things that are good for the sector’.

So, now, we know BP as an oil and gas company. What will we know it as in 2040, and you’re not allowed to say “energy”.
Gilvary did well here, since his most obvious answer was verboten, and eventually, after touching on Deepwater Horizon, came out with some stuff about adaptability and relationships. Because, yes, if you want to be any good at this transitions thing, and getting people on board, and keeping them on board, you have to be good at relationships. If you aren’t, well, sooner or later, you will in fact be found out. So it goes.
Oh, and BP is the world’s number one oil-trader.

And then everyone left, presumably most or all of their ego needs met.  And we all lived happily ever after. Until we didn’t.


Other reading.  Oh, email me.  Meanwhile

Big Oil’s Grip on California.


So, in other news, went to a truly fantastic, far smaller messier and less slickly presented presentation just before this one. Incredibly fruitful, so much to chew on. Massive props to the presenter, the chair and everyone else.  Watch this space for a review imminently.


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