Oil bigs to Obama: Get real

The CEO of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia, lashed out at the Obama administration Thursday, lamenting the oversupply of “rhetoric”  from major oil-consuming nations regarding energy independence. Without naming the U.S. president directly, Khalid Al Falih couldn’t have been clearer who he was referring to. He called pervasive talk from nations that want to wean themselves from an addiction to foreign oil, a common trope in U.S. environmental circles, “unachievable and misleading to the public.”

Al Falih anchored an extraordinary collection of representatives of major oil producers at a morning session at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Chaired by consultant and prizewinning author Daniel Yergin, the panel provided a heavy dose of reality into a debate often dominated in Western media and policy circles by a hopeful yearning for alternative energy.

Some highlights:

  • Tony Hayward, group chief executive of BP (BP), said that though the recession certainly had crimped energy demand in developed countries, BP is forecasting a 40% increase in energy consumption among non-OECD nations over the next 20 years. Furthermore, for all the development initiatives in alternative energy, oil and gas will remain predominant. “Even in the most aggressive climate change legislation perceived, hydrocarbons will represent 80% of energy consumption over next 20 years,” Hayward said. He also said that while gasoline demand is now in “structural decline” in Europe and won’t again exceed 2007 levels, that decline will be more than offset by increased demand in China alone.
  • Peter Voser, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, also offered his view of energy “realism.” Change in the energy industry, he said, doesn’t work like an on-off switch. “It takes 25 to 30 years to gain 1% of global market share from the moment we start investing in a major project,” he said.

  • Ilham Aliyev, president of major oil and gas producer Azerbaijan, said 85% of the country’s GDP is now industrial – as opposed to energy —  up from zero when Azerbaijan became independent of the Soviet Union. He didn’t say it, but his country’s achievement is in marked contrast to Russia, which remains heavily reliant on oil revenues.
  • The sole representative of energy consumers was Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical (DOW), which bills itself as the largest energy customer in the U.S. He said Dow’s energy costs jumped from $8 billion to $32 billion when the price of oil spiked. Interestingly, Liveris flagged the impact of oil-price volatility on his business. Normal hedging, he said, becomes impossible in such a climate, which in terms crimps investment given the uncertainty produced by an inability to hedge. Liveris said he supports neither a carbon tax, which merely would be passed on to consumers, nor a cap and trade system that rewards speculators. He said without elaboration that he would support initiatives that change the behavior of energy consumers.

BP’s Hayward also gave an update on his company’s efforts in Iraq, where it is in the process of redeveloping an oil field BP discovered in 1953. The field is producing 1 million barrels of oil per day now, he said. BP intends for its investments in the field to boost production to 3 million barrels by 2020. Overall, Hayward predicted Iraq will be producing 10 million barrels a day in 10 years. That would be a five-fold increase and a gigantic accomplishment.

The star of the show by far was Aramco’s Al Falih. He believes the “peak oil” debate is dead, though it caused damage in the form of price increases and volatility. He said Saudi Arabia has 4 million barrels per day of idle oil capacity at the moment and that the country continued to invest in its fields through the recession, adding 2 million barrels of capacity last year despite the global decline in demand. His beef is that though Saudi Arabia continues to invest in production, “we don’t see reciprocal assurances from customers, by which I mean policymakers, to signal to us a long-term commitment.”

There was no discord on this panel of the global oil elite. With no time for Q&A, if anyone sympathetic to the Obama administration’s energy policy was in the room, they had no opportunity for rebuttal.

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