How low prices and technology are forcing big oil to change
Some of the world’s largest petroleum companies are investing in renewable energy. That’s partly due to public concerns over climate change and uncertainty about the future. And amid all this, once high-paying jobs in oil are at risk.
Bjorn Sverdrup works for Statoil, the Norwegian oil giant that racked up an annual revenue of over $46 billion last year. The company had pumped oil from wells dug up in rough terrains and deep seas across the globe for more than 40 years.
In its heyday, it was selling more than $100 billion worth of hydrocarbons a year.
But Sverdrup's job is not related to finding oil prospects or even to defending that business. Statoil pays him to explore ways to diversify away from its bread and butter. He's the Senior Vice President of Sustainability.
"Young people have become environmentally conscious. They don't want to own a car. In cities, people want to meet their energy needs differently," he says.
Oil companies have been flirting with plans to diversify their business for years. Some of them went all the way — setting aside substantial capital for investments in wind and solar power projects.
The combined onslaught of low oil price, technological advancements driving down the cost of renewable energy and global push to tackle climate change have led to intensification of those efforts. This is happening even as the US President Donald Trump has pulled his country out of the Paris climate agreement, which aims to control global warming.
"We'll be spending 20 to 30 percent of our resources on alternates in coming years," Sverdrup told participants of an international petroleum congress held in early July in Istanbul.
"That will go to projects such as building huge ships that can lift heavy wind turbines and on carbon capture [projects]."
Statoil has been running an offshore wind farm in the UK since 2011. It says 18 percent of the world's entire electricity supply could come from the wind by 2050.
It has also invested in an entirely new concept of a floating wind farm, underscoring the seriousness with which oil companies have taken up the cause of renewables.
Known as the Hywind project, these new wind turbines will not stand on fixed platforms, which are often costly and can only be constructed closer to shorelines in shallower waters.
Instead, Statoil has spent money on researching and developing turbines, which can work in the middle of the oceans on top of spars anchored to the seabed.
Other oil giants have diversified by going into the solar power business.
France's Total bought SunPower, a company that makes solar panels, for more than $1.3 billion in 2011. It made additional acquisitions of battery and power storage companies in the following years.
This transition from oil to renewable energy also stems from the need to secure future economic returns.
The price of oil has come down to around $50 per barrel from over a $100 since 2014 as a result of the shale oil revolution in the US.
Big oil companies have seen a slump in profits across the board and the countries reliant on oil exports, such as Venezuela, have come under severe financial stress.
Many oil giants have diversified by going into the solar power business. (AP)
Is peak demand really near?
Peak oil, the dreaded point for the petroleum industry executives beyond which production of the black gold is expected to decline, hasn't arrived yet. Instead, what now worries them is the gradual plunge of demand.
And chances are even that point won't be reached before the year 2040, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Governments around the world are imposing tougher limits on petroleum use to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Passenger vehicles, which run on petrol and diesel, are a major driver of oil demand — nearly 19 million barrels per day or one-fifth of global consumption, is in the transport sector.
Efforts have picked up to replace the internal combustion engine with electric cars. Britain just announced it will be phasing out diesel vehicles in the next 23 years.
Its European neighbours have made similar commitments. Major automobile manufacturers have already entered the electric car market, something that is set to drive down the use of petrol and diesel at the pumps.
In the backdrop of these developments, it's not hard to imagine why oil companies are in two minds about committing a lot of money to new exploration activities. Investments in oil and gas projects plunged by 44 percent between 2014 and 2016, according to the IEA.
But, some officials say, petroleum will find other uses.
The drive for electric vehicles will need lightweight materials such as plastic, says Sanjiv Singh, chairman of Indian Oil Corporation, which refines one-third of the petroleum products in the country.
"So in any case, all these electric cars would need moulded plastic. And this means they need the petrochemical industry."
He's optimistic about the future of the oil industry.
"For one thing, these disruptions won't happen overnight. In India we need one refinery every alternate year, considering the rate with which demand is rising."
India is one of the largest oil consumers and its appetite is set to keep growing.
The industry expects a major support for oil demand will come from the South Asian country of 1.3 billion people.
But it has also set an ambitious plan to sell only electric cars by 2030. "India remains not only committed to the Paris Climate Deal but will go beyond it," says Shri Dharmendra Pradhan, the energy minister.
How serious is the push away from oil?
Statoil's floating wind farm wouldn't be financially sustainable without the Scottish government's subsidy.
Much of the effort of the big oil companies to move towards renewables depends on political commitment to the Paris climate deal, which was adopted in 2015 by most of the world to counter global warming.
Back then, leading European oil giants expressed their support for the deal while their American peers weren't happy about it.
Some companies have also had a change of heart.
British Petroleum (BP) went into renewable energy in a big way, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research new technologies. But it retreated after a few years.
Across the Atlantic, Chevron has also sold its renewable energy business and Exxon also remains focus on its core oil business.
"Exxon expects demand for fossil fuels can continue to grow" the Financial Timessaid.
"Even though overall energy demand growth is slowing, oil use can rise by 19 percent by 2040 and gas use by 51 percent. Not much sign of a disappearing market there."
Despite the growth in use of renewables, Exxon says, wind and solar will provide just four percent of the world's energy by 2040. (AP)
Despite the growth in use of renewables, Exxon says, wind and solar will provide just four percent of world's energy by 2040.
Winds don't always blow nor does the sun always shine. For a steady supply of energy, conventional fuels remain the most reliable source.
This poses a challenge for regulators who want to cut the carbon footprint but need a reliable source of energy to fuel economic growth.
"In today's world, the only thing certain is uncertainty," says Alparslan Bayraktar, deputy undersecretary of Turkey's energy ministry.
But he cautions that governments will be hard pressed to create balance between fossil fuels and the alternates such as wind and solar.
"As a regulator, we can't support one industry over another," he told the conference.
Turkey imports natural gas and oil to meets its energy needs.
Government support can be vital to promote alternates.
Brazil is world's largest producer of biofuels and it has the biggest fleet of flex-fuel cars, which can run on ethanol.
But the country's move towards the biofuels was the result of the oil price rise of the 1970s. Back then, Brazil promoted ethanol as an auto fuel by heavily subsidising it.
"We had to push hard for the biofuels and we had to keep all the options open. We don't know what's going to happen in the future," Decio Oddone of Brazil's fuel regulator ANP told the petroleum congress.
"Disruptions have happened that we didn't see coming."
And the robots?
The oil industry has for years employed blue collar workers for rig jobs at relatively better salaries. But that is already changing.
After the oil price crashed in 2014, thousands of workers in petroleum companies lost jobs as companies moved to save costs.
But while the production declined marginally, the US oil and gas producers cut jobs by 30 percent.
This is happening as oil firms are relying increasingly on artificial intelligence to predict the best places to drill and then monitor the equipment.
The technological advancement has cut drilling times and costs.
Yet some countries are years away from embracing these changes.
Mohammad Rahro Ahmadi, who works in the human resource department of Iran's Pars Oil and Gas Company, doesn't give much weight to the onslaught of artificial intelligence.
"It comes down to culture of the country and the company. Can computers be accepted in place of people? I don't think we have reached that point," he told TRT World.
"We have engineers who don't know anything about the computer, but they know everything about their field of work. I think we need software to make their jobs easier, that's all."