By Irwin Greenstein
Energy investors may find themselves at odds in weighing whether to put their money into fossil fuels or green alternatives. Two separate articles in Friday’s Wall Street Journal provide a good backdrop for the current dilemma. Ultimately, we’re of the opinion that it’s still too early for alternative energy to make a convincing business case.
In one story, the Journal covers a recently released annual report from the International Energy Agency. According to the Journal, the IEA paints a gloomy picture of energy shortages and escalating costs of discovery and recovery.
The IEA says that current low oil prices are an anomaly linked to the economic crisis embracing the world. Eventually, when the economy regains its health, oil prices will continue to climb over the coming years to hit $200 a barrel by 2030.
One problem with energy prices remains a dilapidated infrastructure. In turn, energy companies would have to invest more than $26 trillion by 2030, with over half of that going to increased power generation and distribution. Most of the rest of the investment will go to exploring and developing new sources of oil, the Journal writes.
Underinvestment by the oil industry could be just as responsible as increased global consumption for future price increases. Energy companies will have to spend $350 billion a year on new oil and gas projects through 2030. By comparison, the industry spent a total of $390 billion from 2000 to 2007, said the Journal.
There are two obstacles faced by oil companies when it comes to making these massive investments.
The first is the state of the current economy and shrinking energy consumption. The second is that many oil fields are past their prime, as Peak Oil proponents have been saying for decades. To extract more oil presents a questionable economic argument for new investment.
The IEA asserts, however, that renewable energy sources will grow by over 7% a year - reaching 4% of the world total by 2030, up from 1% in 2006.
That said, the IEA also said the U.S., Europe and Japan will likely never use more oil than they did last year. All projected increases in oil demand will come from the developing world, mainly China, India and the Middle East.
So if in fact the U.S. oil consumption has peaked, does it make sense for our new democratic regime to sink $150 billion over the next decade into creating new jobs for the green sector?
That’s the question asked in the second article in Friday’s Journal.
This piece challenges the wisdom of creating government-subsidized green jobs, at a time when the jury is still out about the economics of green energy.
President-elect Obama maintains that spending $150 billion over the next decade to boost energy efficiency would help create five million jobs, according to the Journal.
But the article goes on to say that these numbers are under assault by another contingent in the Obama camp.
As the Journal writes, several studies estimate that $1 invested in renewable energy or energy efficiency would yield up to four times as many jobs as $1 invested in oil and gas, whose basic infrastructure of wells, refineries and pipelines has been around for years. Moreover, those studies say, clean-energy jobs are likely to be centered in the U.S., unlike jobs in the oil and gas industry, which increasingly are spread around the world.
From our perspective, this argument is riddled with holes. Right now, China is the dominant supplier of solar-energy systems and plans on extending its lead. China is also making a push to develop state-of-the-art wind turbines.
While heavy hitters such as General Electric and T. Boone Pickens talk about their multi-billion investments in wind, there has been little competition to get these deals. Sooner rather than later, China will step in - and we know how that story ends.
The Journal also says that job creation in a burgeoning green sector could also lead to job losses in mature energy industries such as coal and oil.
Robert Pollin, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, co-wrote a study that questions the job target by the Obama campaign.
It said that $100 billion spent over two years could produce two million green jobs, according to the Journal. But his study didn’t count jobs that might be lost elsewhere in the economy if the country shifted to more expensive sources of green energy.
As we see it, more expensive energy leads to inflation, which also results in job losses. Businesses have to maintain a certain level of profitability, and if they’re paying more for clean energy it seems that heads will roll in the interest of net profits.
Once again, the numbers point to higher investments in fossil-fuel infrastructure versus clean energy. It’s not that we’re opposed to a cleaner environment, but new technologies in fossil-fuel discovery, reduced emissions and improved efficiency will continue to provide bigger returns in fossil fuels.