Unburnable Carbon Bubbles

SUBHEAD: Uncertainties in the carbon industry will be enough to leave a lot of carbon unburnable.

By Raul Ilargi Meijer on 29 April 2013 for the Automatic Earth -

Image above: Illustration for original article by author.

A report came out in Britain 10 days ago that deserves more attention than it got. If only because it uses the great term "unburnable carbon", great even before it's defined. It makes me ponder the popular and somewhat crazy claims about shale and fracking leading to US energy independence, the holy grail du jour.

It promises much vaunted freedom from outsiders, but what exactly does it consist of? Does it mean the ability to burn ever more carbon-based energy sources without having to buy them abroad? And does "abroad" include Canada, or do we think of this as an "energy Nafta"? Guys, if you would just waste a bit less of the stuff, you'd have been energy independent ages ago without having to inject tons of toxic concoctions into your land. What on earth are you thinking?

"Unburnable carbon" also makes me think of Professor Kenneth Deffeyes, who stated that "Crude oil is much too valuable to be burned as a fuel" , in reference to the long list of products, some of which are very beneficial to us (think medicine), that are made with oil carbons.

Deffeyes also said: "Thirty years from now, oil will be little used as a source of energy. Our grandchildren will say, 'you burned it? All those beautiful molecules? You burned it?'"

Will we ever understand this? Not very likely. We don't even think about it. We just want to find more of the stuff and then burn it. Give any organism access to an energy surplus, and it will use it up as fast as possible. Man is no exception.

But first, that report. Which claims that national and international climate targets risk leaving huge amounts of oil and gas stranded. The risk alone should be enough to inject so much uncertainty into the markets that they could plunge into a huge crisis. Damian Carrington for The Guardian:

The world could be heading for a major economic crisis as stock markets inflate an investment bubble in fossil fuels to the tune of trillions of dollars, according to leading economists.
"The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed," said Lord (Nicholas) Stern, a professor at the London School of Economics. He said the risk was "very big indeed" and that almost all investors and regulators were failing to address it.

The so-called "carbon bubble" is the result of an over-valuation of oil, coal and gas reserves held by fossil fuel companies. According to a report published on Friday, at least two-thirds of these reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid the threshold for "dangerous" climate change. If the agreements hold, these reserves will be in effect unburnable and so worthless – leading to massive market losses . But the stock markets are betting on countries' inaction on climate change.

The stark report is by Stern and the thinktank Carbon Tracker. Their warning is supported by organisations including HSBC, Citi, Standard and Poor's and the International Energy Agency. The Bank of England has also recognised that a collapse in the value of oil, gas and coal assets as nations tackle global warming is a potential systemic risk to the economy, with London being particularly at risk owing to its huge listings of coal.

Stern said that far from reducing efforts to develop fossil fuels, the top 200 companies spent $674bn (£441bn) in 2012 to find and exploit even more new resources, a sum equivalent to 1% of global GDP, which could end up as "stranded" or valueless assets. Stern's landmark 2006 report on the economic impact of climate change – commissioned by the then chancellor, Gordon Brown – concluded that spending 1% of GDP would pay for a transition to a clean and sustainable economy.

The world's governments have agreed to restrict the global temperature rise to 2C, beyond which the impacts become severe and unpredictable. But Stern said the investors clearly did not believe action to curb climate change was going to be taken. "They can't believe that and also believe that the markets are sensibly valued now."[..]

Paul Spedding, an oil and gas analyst at HSBC, said: "The scale of 'listed' unburnable carbon revealed in this report is astonishing. This report makes it clear that 'business as usual' is not a viable option for the fossil fuel industry in the long term. [The market] is assuming it will get early warning, but my worry is that things often happen suddenly in the oil and gas sector."
HSBC warned that 40-60% of the market capitalisation of oil and gas companies [is] at risk from the carbon bubble, with the top 200 fossil fuel companies alone having a current value of $4 trillion, along with $1.5 trillion debt. [..]
The report calculates that the world's currently indicated fossil fuel reserves equate to 2,860 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, but that just 31% could be burned for an 80% chance of keeping below a 2C temperature rise. For a 50% chance of 2C or less, just 38% could be burned.
Carbon capture and storage technology, which buries emissions underground, can play a role in the future, but even an optimistic scenario which sees 3,800 commercial projects worldwide would allow only an extra 4% of fossil fuel reserves to be burned. There are currently no commercial projects up and running. The normally conservative International Energy Agency has also concluded that a major part of fossil fuel reserves is unburnable. [..]
Jeremy Grantham, a billionaire fund manager who oversees $106bn of assets, said his company was on the verge of pulling out of all coal and unconventional fossil fuels, such as oil from tar sands. "The probability of them running into trouble is too high for me to take that risk as an investor." He said: "If we mean to burn all the coal and any appreciable percentage of the tar sands, or other unconventional oil and gas then we're cooked. [There are] terrible consequences that we will lay at the door of our grandchildren."

And it's of course not just the US that is involved. All major energy producers (and consumers) are. Nor is it just oil and gas: coal could get hit hard. Damian Carrington had this on Australia over the weekend:

Australia's huge coal industry is a speculative bubble ripe for financial implosion if the world's governments fulfil their agreement to act on climate change, according to a new report. The warning that much of the nation's coal reserves will become worthless as the world hits carbon emission limits comes after banking giant Citi also warned Australian investors that fossil fuel companies could do little to avoid the future loss of value.
Australia is already the globe's biggest coal exporter and "mega-mine" plans in Queensland for more extraction are identified as the world's second biggest "carbon bomb" threatening runaway global warming.
"Investments in Australian coal rest on a speculative bubble of climate denial, indifference or dreaming," said John Connor, one of the new report's authors and CEO of The Climate Institute, an independent research organisation based in Sydney. "Investors, governments and even some coal companies say they take climate change seriously, but this report shows they do not or are taking risky gambles."
James Leaton, at thinktank Carbon Tracker and also another of the report's authors, said: "Investors need to challenge the assumption that coal demand will continue to rise in China and elsewhere, otherwise billions of dollars of taxpayer, superannuation and shareholder funds will be wasted in assets linked to unburnable carbon."
Carbon Tracker's recent global report found that at least two-thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves will have to remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid the threshold for "dangerous" climate change. The new report shows Australian coal reserves owned by listed companies alone are equivalent to 25% of the global carbon budget for the fuel to 2050.
However, far from cutting back on exploration for new coal reserves, Australian listed companies spent AU$6 billion on developing new deposits. If only half of potential future reserves were exploited, Australian coal would use up 75% of the global carbon budget for the fuel.
Earlier in April, Citi banking group issued a warning to investors in fossil fuel companies. "We see limited potential for engagement to alter the outcome in this case," concluded its report. "If the unburnable carbon [scenario] does occur – even with carbon capture and storage technology – it is difficult to see how the value of fossil fuel reserves can be maintained."
Leaton said China has indicated its coal use will peak in the next five years, but that this had not been priced by markets. "I don't know why the market does not believe China. When it says it is going to do something, it usually does." Yet Australia is banking on selling coal to China: "That doesn't add up."

Still, you could argue that governments will try to find a way to ignore climate treaties. Once they start painting a picture of plunging economies and lifestyles for their people, the hope will be that the treaties can be watered down to facilitate business as usual. Given the strength and broad appeal of climate activism, that won't be as easy as some might think.

For the Canadian government and economy, climate issues may not be the biggest headache going forward. Ottawa faces a growing and steadily better organized resistance from Indigenous peoples. Who, if they resist being divided and bought off, can be a major pain in the government butt, not least of all because they still have many elders who remember being raised on notions of keeping the land fit to pass on to multiple generations. Large scale exploitation of carbon resources doesn't seem to fit that bill. Martin Lukacs for the Guardian in December last year:

Canada's placid winter surface has been broken by unprecedented protests by its aboriginal peoples. In just a few weeks, a small campaign launched against the Conservative government's budget bill by four aboriginal women has expanded and transformed into a season of discontent: a cultural and political resurgence.

It has seen rallies in dozens of cities, a disruption of legislature, blockades of major highways, drumming flash mobs in malls, a flurry of Twitter activity under the hashtag #IdleNoMore and a hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence, in a tepee minutes from Ottawa's parliament. Into her tenth day, Spence says she is "willing to die for her people" to get the prime minister, chiefs and Queen to discuss respect for historical treaties.

[..] What remains unspeakable in mainstream politics in Canada was recently uttered, in a moment of rare candour, by former Prime Minister Paul Martin:
"We have never admitted to ourselves that we were, and still are, a colonial power."
[..] While Canada has the world's largest supply of fresh water, more than 100 aboriginal communities have tapwater so foul they are under continual boil alert. Aboriginal peoples constitute 3% of Canada's population; they make up 20% of its prisons' inmates. In the far north, the rate of tuberculosis is a stunning 137 times that of the rest of the country. And the suicide rate capital of the world? A small reserve in Ontario, where a group of school-age girls once signed a pact to collectively take their lives.
Such realities have not stopped politicians and pundits from prattling on about the sums supposedly lavished on aboriginal peoples. [..] Billions have indeed been spent – not on fixing housing, building schools or ending the country's two-tiered child aid services, but on a legal war against aboriginal communities. 

Every year, the government pours more than $100 million into court battles to curtail aboriginal rights – and that figure alone went to defeating a single lawsuit launched by two Alberta First Nations trying to recover oil royalties essentially stolen by bureaucrats.

Despite such odds, the highest courts of the land have ruled time and again in favour of aboriginal peoples. Over the last three decades, they have recognized that aboriginal nations have hunting, fishing and land rights, in some cases even outright ownership, over vast areas of unceded territory in British Columbia and elsewhere.

Parliament will soon debate a bill that would break up reserves – still, mostly, collectively held – into individual private property that can be purchased by non-native speculators. The undeclared agenda of government policy is the same as it was a century ago: a grab for resource-rich lands, and the assimilation of aboriginal nations.

The Canadian federal and provincial governments act on a "shoot first, talk later" basis. As in many other places in the world, government policy is based on bullying citizens into compliance with what are labeled "democratic policies", which actually hugely benefit both the government and its corporate backers financially, but leave those citizens with mere scraps off the table.

In Canada, the situation is far less simple than the government would like, because aboriginal - land - claims that have been ratified in various treaties, and on many occasions confirmed by its own Supreme Court, numerous times, can't just be ignored without trampling both democracy itself and the rule of law.

In a very cynical move, Ottawa spends $100 million per year in legal fees to fight these aboriginal claims in courts across the country. Cynical because one might argue that this stunning amount of money rightfully belongs to the aboriginal population in the first place: hence, their own money is being used to keep them poor. Lukacs again:

In a boardroom in a soaring high-rise on Wall Street, Indigenous activist Arthur Manuel is sitting across from one of the most powerful financial agents in North America.

It's 2004, and Manuel is on a typical mission. Part of a line of distinguished Indigenous leaders from western Canada, Manuel is what you might call an economic hit-man for the right cause. A brilliant thinker trained in law, he has devoted himself to fighting Canada's policies toward Indigenous peoples by assailing the government where it hurts most – in its pocketbook.

Which is why he secured a meeting in New York with a top-ranking official at Standard & Poor's, the influential credit agency that issues Canada's top-notch AAA rating. That's what assures investors that the country has its debts covered, that it is a safe and profitable place to do business.

This coveted credit rating is Manuel's target. His line of attack is to try to lift the veil on Canada's dirty business secret: that contrary to the myth that Indigenous peoples leech off the state, resources taken from their lands have in fact been subsidizing the Canadian economy. 

In their haste to get at that wealth, the government has been flouting their own laws, ignoring Supreme Court decisions calling for the respect of Indigenous and treaty rights over large territories. Canada has become very rich, and Indigenous peoples very poor.

In other words, Canada owes big. Some have even begun calculating how much. According to economist Fred Lazar, First Nations in northern Ontario alone are owed $32 billion for the last century of unfulfilled treaty promises to share revenue from resources. Manuel's argument is that this unpaid debt – a massive liability of trillions of dollars carried by the Canadian state, which it has deliberately failed to report – should be recognized as a risk to the country's credit rating.

How did the official who could pull the rug under Canada's economy respond? Unlike Canadian politicians and media who regularly dismiss the significance of Indigenous rights, he took Manuel seriously. It was evident he knew all the jurisprudence. He followed the political developments. He didn't contradict any of Manuel's facts.

He no doubt understood what Manuel was remarkably driving at: under threat of a dented credit rating, Canada might finally feel pressure to deal fairly with Indigenous peoples. But here was the hitch: Standard & Poor's wouldn't acknowledge the debt, because the official didn't think Manuel and First Nations could ever collect it. Why? As author Naomi Klein, who accompanied Manuel at the meeting, remembers, his answer amounted to a realpolitik shoulder shrug.

"Who will able to enforce the debt? You and what army?"

[..] The movement confronts a Conservative Canadian government aggressively pursuing $600 billion of resource development on or near Indigenous lands. That means the unbridled exploitation of huge hydrocarbon reserves, including the three-fold expansion of one of the world's most carbon-intensive projects, the Alberta tar sands. Living closest to these lands, Indigenous peoples are the best and last defence against this fossil fuel scramble. 

No surprise, then, about the government's basic approach toward First Nations: "removing obstacles to major economic development." Hence the movement's next stage – a call for defiance branded Sovereignty Summer – is to put more obstacles up. The assertion of constitutionally-protected Indigenous and treaty rights – backed up by direct action, legal challenges and massive support from Canadians – is exactly what can create chronic uncertainty for this corporate and government agenda. [..]

The "Lord Stern report" focuses on the carbon bubble caused by the discrepancy between climate targets and the exploitation of carbon resources.

But there's another potential bubble in carbon that the report does not address: a large part of the resources will simply never become economically viable.

Even before you run into climate related limits, a lot of carbon will prove unburnable not primarily because of climate change legislation, but because of either one of two issues: 1) physics meets monetary limits, i.e. developing the asset makes no sense economically, or 2) physics meets physics, i.e. developing the asset makes no sense in energy terms because it costs more energy than it delivers.

In connection with these two issues, at present a substantial part of America's unconventional oil and gas only looks financially interesting because of the fortunes being made in speculation, for instance in land and land rights (in true Enron spirit, Aubrey McClendon and Chesapeake Energy have blown a huge market distorting bubble there).

Far more money is spent on the promise of oil and gas plays than on the actual product. The result is a carbon related land (rights) bubble, and a typical case of something that looks good; until it doesn't.

But there's more. A large part of the money that is being lavished on the carbon bubble is zombie money. If that money were not available, there would be no bubble. Every single debt that is not properly recognized, and restructured or defaulted upon, leaves zombie money present in a financial system. And every single asset this zombie money is invested in is by definition in a bubble.

If people had a more profound understanding of what occurs when debts are not cleansed the way they should be, there would be no zombie money. As it stands, accounting standards in nations hit by the 2007-08 crisis have become running jokes, all in order to hide the real state of both governments and financial institutions.

Hiding debt means hiding reality. Neither can remain hidden forever. Which, come to think of it, sets them apart from a lot of carbon resources. Which will never see the light of day.

The point to take away from all this is that a storm cloud of uncertainties is taking shape above the carbon industry. And that alone will be enough to leave a lot of carbon unburnable. Which may not be such a bad thing.

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