Does the man doth protest too much? The impact of attacks on coal by oil and gas

BHP-Billiton-Middelburg-1Did you read about Andrew Mackenzie, CEO of BHP Billiton, and his plea to his colleagues in the oil and gas industry? He asked them to stop publicly asserting that natural gas and oil produce fewer carbon emissions than coal. Interpreting, liberally: You guys (a euphemism for men and women) are hurting BHP and its mining and resource development businesses, as well as the entire sector.

Mackenzie said it nicely. He suggested that they lay off the criticism. Because we live in a peaceful, collaborative, problem-solving era (you’re supposed to laugh at this point), his solution, sort of Isaiah-like, was, “Come, let us now reason together.” On behalf of BHP, a conglomerate and the biggest mining company (dollar capitalization) in the world — a company that also has big stakes in oil and gas — Mackenzie asked that fossil fuel companies break bread together and find mutually beneficial solutions to the carbon problem — assumedly consistent with their respective bottom lines. Put another more interpretive way, why should his colleagues in the industry undercut each other by demeaning each other’s products? Paraphrasing a common phrase today, Mackenzie seems to believe that we are all BHP; we are all Exxon; and we are all Texaco. We all have carbon issues and face government emission regulations.

Mackenzie called for the industry to develop carbon capture and storage solutions. His proposals can be construed as relatively company-friendly in that they start off seemingly focused on protecting the diverse resource production menu of each company, particularly, but not only, coal. They also may help each company avoid (at least initially) caps, taxes and fixed emission or production targets.

We shouldn’t be cynical. Carbon capture and storage have been, and continue to be, supported by some respected environmentalists and scientists. Both are endorsed in their many papers, speeches and media.

By his proposal, Mackenzie suggests that the resource-development industry is stronger when the companies that are in it work together. Accordingly, they should not be at each other’s throats and denigrate products of their competitors. We should have peace rather than war! The calls from oil and gas companies to switch from coal to gas, as a strategy to reduce GHG emissions, Mackenzie indicates, is a “very western, rich country solution.” People in many developing countries have easier access to coal than gas. To get out of poverty, they will need to “burn coal cleanly.” He said: “I think there is a marketing ploy, which is ‘give up coal and burn more gas.’ ” Very insightful! Wow! When did he discover this?

The transition to natural gas from coal among utilities has led to a visible reduction of GHG emissions. Natural-gas-based ethanol promises the same kind of reduction in transportation. Don’t knock competition or abort it unless his desired industry collaboration can result in something better and cheaper!

Whether Mackenzie’s thoughts generate from the public interest or the bottom line, from expiation of guilt or inner wisdom, it doesn’t really matter. The industry, as a whole, has been laggard in coming up with and carrying out proposals concerning GHG or criteria pollutants. Maybe we need an Australian-based firm to energize it to ultimately play or pay! But maybe not!

Mackenzie said: “I still accept the drift from coal to gas is a good thing, but these things happen gradually. We need the power of the whole oil and gas industry and the whole mining industry, together aligned on this agenda to move the needle.” What needle, and where is it being moved? Doing good while making money? Perhaps. But his language doesn’t quite go that far. Sounds more like making money by doing as much good as we have to do. From a business standpoint, both are consistent with the view of those that the business of business is business.

It’s hard to know, from a policy perspective, exactly what to do with Mackenzie’s industry-wide collaboration idea or his proposals. It’s not a case of like them or leave them. But caveat emptor!

Sequestration, the fancy name for what he opines as a solution to GHG emissions, is expensive, uses lots of energy, takes a lot of time to initiate, and is unsafe in some areas, depending on geology. Contrary to his words, it may not be relevant to poor nations or poor areas. Yet, on the other hand, it’s worthy of consideration by both the public and private sector because its strategic use can reduce emissions. We need to weigh relative benefits and costs of emissions-reduction strategies. Further, and most important, if public funds are sought, the opportunity costing analyses must be transparent and convincing before moving toward scale-up possibilities.

Elimination of competition within the industry could end up muting the value of alternative fuels and alternate power sources. It could be very costly to the public. Most experts indicate there is no such thing as “clean” coal. There is cleaner coal, but it’s still dirty, and oil remains a major GHG emitter and criteria pollutant. Reliance on both coal and oil, when we have access to cleaner alcohol-based transitional fuels for power, industrial plants and transportation is problematic, at best, and bad policy concerning GHG and other pollutants, at worst.

Lots of questions: Is Mackenzie an enlightened business leader or a leader mainly interested in preserving the value of his coal reserves? Is sequestration in its various forms a viable option that would allow the use of coal, and other portfolio resources, without major GHG impacts? Are there better alternatives? Since market segmentation is external and will likely result in increased sensitivity by CEOs to criticism concerning the public harm caused by multiple energy related products, will collaboration among them generate controlled energy markets and ultimately minimize efforts to reduce GHG emissions and provide a cleaner, healthier environment? Remember that the industry, particularly the companies in it that produce lots of oil, has been and remains against open fuel markets and increasing the number of flex-fuel vehicles. There are no easy answers.

Mark Twain, a great oil and gas man, once said, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” Finally, borrowing and amending Shakespeare, maybe Mackenzie doth protest too much!

Photo Credit: africagreenmedia.co.za

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