Davos: Fracking won't avert energy crisis
25th January 2014
UK solar entrepreneur tells world leaders at Davos: fracking for shale oil and gas cannot help to avert a global energy crisis - and a global oil crisis could strike in 2015. Alex Kirby reports.
Investors who think governments may agree stringent and strictly-enforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions might decide their investments in oil and gas are at risk of becoming worthless.
Jeremy Leggett, a former Greenpeace staff member who founded a successful solar energy company, has been invited to the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos from 22 to 25 January.
"The WEF likes to deal in big ideas, and last year one of its ideas was to argue that the world can frack its way to prosperity", said Leggett. "There are large numbers of would-be frackers in Davos.
"I'm in Davos to put the counter-arguments to Big Energy, and I'll tell them: You're in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the financial services industry in pushing a hyped narrative."
Oil a 'sunset industry'
Leggett says the conventional oil industry is facing an imminent crisis, because existing crude oil reserves are declining fast, it is having to find the money for soaring capital expenditure, and the amount of oil available for export is falling.
"Big Oil is still extremely powerful and well-capitalised, but it is fast approaching sunset. The profitability of the big international groups - like Exxon, Shell and BP - is a real worry for investors, and they've been largely locked out of the easy oil controlled by national companies - just look at BP and Russia.
"Gas? Unless the price goes up, the whole US shale gas industry is in danger of becoming a bubble, even a Ponzi scheme. All but one of the biggest production regions have peaked already, and losses are piling up. This is an industry that's in grave danger of committing financial suicide."
A linked message is that there is a growing danger of a carbon bubble building up in the capital markets.
He says investors who think governments may agree stringent and strictly-enforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions might decide their investments in oil and gas are at risk of becoming worthless.
Crunch next year?
There is little sign yet that such limits are likely any time soon. But Leggett says that is to miss the point:
"You don't have to wait until agreement is close, or even probable. You have to believe only that there's a realistic chance of policy making which means assets might be stranded."
He adds: "to take out insurance on the risk of an oil crisis, by accelerating the very things we need to deal with climate change."
Chief among these is the need to channel funds withdrawn from oil, gas, and coal into clean energy instead - though he acknowledges that, as a renewable energy entrepreneur himself, he may be accused of self-interest.
The security dimension
Leggett fears a world oil crisis could occur as early as 2015. And when it comes, it will certainly mean "ruinously high prices", for a start. But it will also mean considerably more.
Last December he worked with a US national security expert, Lt-Colonel Daniel Davis, to organise the Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue. Leggett has a regard for the views of people like Davis.
"The military are better than your average politician or consultant to Big Energy at spotting systemic risk", he says.
Leggett says military think-tanks have tended to side with those who distrust "the cornucopian narrative" of the oil industry. To back up his poiint he quotes a 2008 study by the German army:
"Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusing to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable."
Alex Kirby writes for the Climate News Network.
Jeremy Leggett founded Solar Century, the UK's fastest-growing solar electric company since 2000. He also established the charity SolarAid which aims to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020, and chairs the Carbon Tracker Initiative.
His book Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis was published in 2005, and his latest, The Energy of Nations: Risk blindness and the road to renaissance, in 2013.
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