“Steer clear of the charlatans and the toxic. You become who you know.” – Mindset of Stoics via Twitter
Ever finished a home project, like making a table from scratch, and maybe it’s kind of gimpy and imperfect, but nevertheless you stand back with a sense of satisfaction, and feel good about what you did?
Now imagine multiplying that feeling a thousand-fold by producing something that benefits countless others in an existential, life-giving way.
Farming is one example. Unloading a truckload of grain into a bin, a bin that can feed a town for months, is an incredibly satisfying feeling. It is a solitary and unappreciated kind of feeling; other farmers get it, others in the business get it, but not in the same way as the ones that fill those bins.
At the risk of provoking much howling, it is nonetheless accurate to point out that oil and natural gas producers can and should feel exactly the same way. A small company producing 5,000 barrels of oil per day is providing the lifeblood for a decent-sized town. A company producing that equivalent of natural gas is providing heat/fuel for, at a typical 10 GJ/month average, some 100,000 homes. A hundred ancillary businesses make that all happen.
By and large, the industry has forgotten the magnitude of the benefits it provides. There have been too many days in the foxhole, under attack, singled out as some monolithic, deceitful beast that is hellbent on ‘destroying the climate’. The industry doesn’t help itself; the politically astute/politically correct utter soothing balms to opponents, they seek pacification, they seek ‘political license’ in a feeble struggle to ask for permission to continue to exist.
And then there are the politically incorrect. God bless ‘em.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had coffee on separate occasions with two brave souls that are actually running into the fire – to start oil companies. Both are true characters that can captivate an entire coffee shop with enthusiastic four-letter-language that is equally peppery whether discussing their favourite TV show or their least favourite politician. Not rudeness, mind you; both offer graceful kindness to coffee shop servers but are quite content to issue blistering tirades towards pompous phonies.
They are down-to-earth, hard-working, straight-shooting, thoughtful, wonderful reminders of why I love the business. They are also very necessary.
Where is all our fuel going to come from in the next decade or two? The simplistic and loudly heard answer is that we are in an ‘energy transition’, that hydrocarbons are not just hopelessly bad but will also soon be irrelevant (CBC Radio recently aired on the evening 6 p.m. news an interview with a B.C. teacher that was heading out that evening to cast her union vote to have her pension fund divest from fossil fuels. “I can’t stand in front of my grade 4 class and tell them about the climate crisis without having done everything I can to prevent the cause.” That’s right – CBC deems this ‘news’).
The entire standardized thread of public discourse is that the scourge that is our current fuel system must soon be dispatched.
Where does such simplistic and flawed thinking come from? Well, right from the very top. In the US, Biden’s former climate advisor Gina McCarthy in 2022 got after social media companies for allowing misinformation to spread about the energy transition. What was that misinformation? Deemed to be lies were comments that the US needed to spend dollars on future fossil fuel development in the name of energy security.
The US government’s argument was that we have plenty right now, the US is a net exporter of crude oil and natural gas, and therefore future spending on fossil fuels has nothing to do with ‘energy security.’
How does one explain the concept of ‘tomorrow’ to people like that? And heaven forbid tackling anything more complex; the concept of decline rates would blow every fuse in those little craniums. (And we won’t even attempt to explain Canada, who has placed a Greenpeace activist in charge of natural resource development. History will look back quizzically at that odd nation state that attempted self-lobotomy but couldn’t even do that right.)
The fossil fuel “dark money” is out there spreading misinformation, McCarthy argued, including “seeding doubt” on the cost of clean energy sources. Her words, not mine.
Hmm. Let’s peek under that rock. To the end of 2022, the US has installed 74 Gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity, and 143 GW of wind power. Now, the US’ total power consumption in 2021 is about 3,930 Terawatt hours, so not a huge percentage, but a heck of a lot considering there was very little ten years ago. A natural gas intelligence service, Blue Gold Trading, estimated that at certain times in 2022, all this wind/solar displaced as much as 6 bcf/d of natural gas when both were performing well at the same time (not too often, that).
I don’t know what the total bill was for total US wind/solar capacity but this article pegs 2020 and 2021 spending alone at $200 billion. In light of that staggering sum, consider that the following year, 2022, the US set natural gas consumption records in 9 out of 12 months. That’s not including exports; that’s just raw demand.
Globally, the story is no different. Oil, natural gas and coal are all will set global consumption records in 2023. The world is in a desperate scramble for more LNG. China approved two new coal plants a week in 2022, and Pakistan plans to quadruple coal power because LNG is not available.
Or how about this guy, John Ketchum, CEO of NextEra, the world’s largest renewable energy company, saying that offshore wind is a “bad bet” and that “it’s just putting your head in the sand to believe that the energy transition that this country is embarking on will work without natural gas power generation.”
Throw the book at him! Right? Or no? Better not, he’s head of world’s largest renewable company…But wait a minute. That last quote – he’s a fossil fuel shill! Quick, cancel him! Oh, hold on, he’s also a solar shill – give him a microphone and a billion dollars! No wait…this is so confusing…
As even Mr. Ketchum realizes, there is every reason to be fearful of energy shortages, and an under-appreciated aspect is that the oil/gas workforce is diminishing. What are the odds that any of the students of the aforementioned CBC’s teacher would consider anything to do with hydrocarbons? Their classmates would abandon them, or worse, make embarrassing TikToks about them. Then pile on the federal government’s ‘just transition’ plans and…who is going to keep producing all that fuel?
Petroleum engineering schools are closing, and graduate numbers are way down. In the US, 25 petroleum engineering schools cranked out 2,600 graduates in 2017. This year, their total will be 655. Next year’s crop is expected to number 500.
Many of these PE graduates will not even enter the petroleum sector. At one large US school, 25 of 75 recruiters were from fields outside of petroleum. As the petroleum-engineering department head of the Colorado School of Mines – one of the top petroleum education institutions – put it, “Personally, I think we are heading to a bit of a crisis…we are not seeing enough petroleum engineers to fill the demand.”
The same holds true anecdotally here in Calgary. Many critical functions have seen dramatic reductions in working people, some as high as 75 per cent. Much of the technical expertise resides within greyheads that will be heading for Kelowna/Vancouver Island/anywhere warm as soon as the stock options percolate back to something meaningful. And there isn’t much coming up behind to replace them.
Which brings us back to the two unlikely heroes of the story. Both are like throwbacks. They see opportunity either in undervalued assets or in new exploratory plays. They put up their own money. They find investors and talent. They get to work, work hard, and don’t stop.
There is no safety net. There is the opposite of a safety net – the industry is being hounded out of existence. That’s not hyperbole. Imagine an industry that contributes so massively to government coffers, that provides the fuel that keeps everyone alive, and yet at the same time, the federal government is passing programs to get more workers to leave the industry.
If their ideas are right, and they work hard enough, they will succeed wildly. If they don’t, they will lose their investments.
One has to be just this side of insane to do it. In few industries can the price of one’s product collapse as violently as with oil and gas. Few industries see the price of their product go negative, as have both oil and gas.
No other industry gets singled out for such venom, the dispensation of which the world stands by and watches passively because it’s not worth the hassle of taking a stand. Better to just stay silent and hope the rage goes around you. Oh yeah, and hope also that those masochists will keep the fuel life-blood flowing.
These entrepreneurs’ fortitude and attitude and gumption is a reminder of the great spirit that powered the petroleum sector for decades. Not that long ago, the oil patch was a magnet for enterprising people from everywhere, those that wanted to join an ultra-dynamic industry, and those that wanted the thrill and challenge of winning in an ultra-cyclical business that rewarded initiative and hard work.
Of course, other industries welcome hard workers and offer substantial rewards for entrepreneurship and drive. This includes the greater energy industry itself, where many young people are fully aligned with the dominant cultural narrative that the energy transition is well underway, is imperative, and is going to be willed into existence.
Good for them. I hope they succeed. I hope one of them cracks a big nut and figures out a way to generate copious amounts of cheap, reliable energy that can compete with hydrocarbons. Or do even better. It could happen.
For anyone that has anything to do with energy in general for more than a few years, the realization dawns that there is very little truly new under the sun, and that some engineering hurdles have been known and wrestled with for a century or more. Pumping losses. Intermittency. Challenges of energy storage. Availability of critical minerals. New battery technology. Battling industrial and societal inertia.
The phrase “there is no free lunch” has never been more true than when applied to energy. Equally valid is Thomas Sowell’s observation that “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” The closest thing to a free lunch is nuclear – clean, reliable, baseload power, and maybe SMRs will succeed and proliferate.
One wouldn’t know that if one went by the number of energy transition businesses/conferences/consultants. I often see these S-curve analyses, how the adoption of new energy stuff like EVs will be slow, slow, slow, then accelerate like mad and become the new norm. Well, the only thing following that curve is the number of people on the payroll of energy transition schemes.
So here’s a salute to anyone brave enough to enter the hydrocarbon sector in this current decade. Misguided children will hate you. Politicians will downplay your value and hobble your business. An army of well-funded activists is working every day to hasten your demise, to destroy your credibility, to impugn your motives, and to break your system (two climate activist lawyer-packed ENGOs alone – Environmental Defense Fund and National Resource Defense Council – were funded for a combined $950 million in 2021; that’s a lotta lawyers, all on a seek-and-destroy-hydrocarbons mission).
You will hesitate to tell strangers what you do for a living, knowing there is a 40 per cent chance they will go for your eyes.
A spell of cold weather is nature’s way of reminding us to give thanks to the brave souls that provide fuel – across the entire hydrocarbon chain – so that we don’t have to gather sticks, dung, or peat for survival.
Hang out with brave, courageous people. Be inspired by their willingness to stand up against the pitchfork crowd, by the fact that they put their money where their mouth is, by the fact that they will continue to heat our homes and fuel our autos and provide the basic fuel of our lives.
Terry Etam is a columnist with the BOE Report, a leading energy industry newsletter based in Calgary. He is the author of The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity. You can watch his Policy on the Frontier session from May 5, 2022 here.