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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Peak Oil Stocks

We've mentioned this idea that much of the fossil fuels now counted as reserves owned by oil companies may never be burned due to their effect on Earth's temperature. It seems the mainstream press is beginning to pick up on the theme, which suggests that oil company shares may be overpriced if they are based upon reserves. Unburnable fuel takes a look at the subject:

Either governments are not serious about climate change or fossil-fuel firms are overvalued

MARKETS can misprice risk, as investors in subprime mortgages discovered in 2008. Several recent reports suggest that markets are now overlooking the risk of "unburnable carbon". The share prices of oil, gas and coal companies depend in part on their reserves. The more fossil fuels a firm has underground, the more valuable its shares. But what if some of those reserves can never be dug up and burned?

If governments were determined to implement their climate policies, a lot of that carbon would have to be left in the ground, says Carbon Tracker, a non-profit organisation, and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, part of the London School of Economics. Their analysis starts by estimating the amount of carbon dioxide that could be put into the atmosphere if global temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C, the most that climate scientists deem prudent. The maximum, says the report, is about 1,000 gigatons (GTCO2) between now and 2050. The report calls this the world's "carbon budget".

Existing fossil-fuel reserves already contain far more carbon than that. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in its "World Energy Outlook", total proven international reserves contain 2,860GTCO2—almost three times the carbon budget. The report refers to the excess as "unburnable carbon".

Most of the reserves are owned by governments or state energy firms; they could be left in the ground by public-policy choice (ie, if governments took the 2°C target seriously). But the reserves of listed oil companies are different. These are assets developed using money raised from investors who expect a return. Proven reserves of listed firms contain 762GTCO2—most of what can prudently be burned before 2050. Listed potential reserves have 1,541GTCO2 embedded in them.

So companies and governments already have far more oil, gas and coal than they need (again, assuming temperatures are not to rise by more than 2°C). Logically, the response to this would be for governments to leave their reserves untouched and for companies to run theirs slowly down, returning more of what they earn to shareholders. Neither of these things is happening. State-owned companies are taking an increasing share of total energy output. And in 2012, says Carbon Tracker, the 200 largest listed oil, gas and coal companies spent five times as much—$674 billion—on developing new reserves as they did returning money to shareholders ($126 billion). ExxonMobil alone plans to spend $37 billion a year on exploration in each of the next three years.

Such behaviour, on the face of it, makes no sense. One possible explanation is that companies are betting that government climate policies will fail; they will be able to burn all their reserves, including new ones, after all. This implies that global temperatures would either soar past the 2°C mark, or be restrained by a technological fix, such as carbon capture and storage, or geo-engineering.