Why find more? Unburnable carbon as financial assets.
December 19, 2013 9:59 AM   Subscribe

There is another bubble. Before it's burned, Coal, Oil and Gas sit for years on the balance sheets of private (and national) resource companies, as "known reserve" assets. Assets that, someday, will become revenues. Or will they? And if they won't, what will the balance sheets of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Petrochina, and Gazprom actually look like?

In the meantime, exploring for more coal, oil, and gas remains tax-deductible. Global subsidies to the fossil fuel sector may be as high as $600 billion per year.
posted by anthill (22 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's a good book on this topic. The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance (2013; review, video) by Jeremy Leggett.
posted by stbalbach at 10:24 AM on December 19, 2013


Ahh I see Jeremy Leggett is also Chairman of carbontracker.org the first link.
posted by stbalbach at 10:35 AM on December 19, 2013


Unburnable carbon as financial assets? Didn't DeBeers popularize this a while back? Even I have a chunk of that. It's an asset with a value that is only perceived when I'm buying it and will never ever be regained when/if I sell it. Sweetly heart shaped to boot.
posted by tilde at 10:46 AM on December 19, 2013


The actual reserves aren't on Balance Sheet, the cost of finding & developing or purchasing the reserves are on Balance Sheet. If Carbon were priced appropriately the degree to which those values would be impaired would be a function of the carbon intensity of the fuel, the carbon intensity of the extraction, and the cost of production compared to a true price of carbon + fuel.

like for someone like Gazprom that is mostly Nat Gas and is at the low end of the cost curve it wouldn't imply a write down of assets on their balance sheet so much as impaired future profitability.
posted by JPD at 10:47 AM on December 19, 2013


The problem is that there is no such thing as a "carbon budget" now and every barrel, mcf, and ton of that carbon is fully burnable. Accounting rules don't allow you to write down assets on account of a feared regulation, and even if they did, an analysis of the regulatory arbitrage potential assures that the impact would be minimal. Should be included in risk factors, but probably deserves fewer bullet points than technology -- cheaper solar cells and better batteries are a much higher risk to prices and volumes.
posted by MattD at 11:00 AM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


The whole report, and the idea of "unburnable carbon", seems to rest on the assumption — this is from the 'Letter to readers' in the PDF — that "governments will do what they say they intend to do on emissions", i.e. that they will prohibit the use of the proven reserves of carbon.

That is a giant, staggering and honestly pretty comical assumption. If the carbon is there, and we know it's there, and it can be extracted with available technology at a net-positive EROEI, we're going to burn that shit. The Cancun Agreement is toothless and doesn't have any sort of binding agreement on carbon reductions. All it says is that, maybe, at some point in the future, it might be a good idea to think really hard about the idea of possibly reducing carbon emissions (if, of course, it's not too late at that point). So I think they are begging the whole question w/r/t stranded assets.

The reason that companies don't factor in the risk of having "known reserves" stranded is because that risk is perceived as negligible. Market price is a greater risk, as MattD notes above; if energy prices fall, various nontraditional extraction techniques might not be viable any longer, so those reserves stay in the ground. Thus cheap alternatives to carbon would result in less of it being extracted, or at least less of it being extracted as quickly. It's my guess that there will always be some uses for which petroleum is particularly suited (aircraft fuels, for instance; other stuff like non-fracked natural gas has such a high EROEI that I can't foresee it being neglected) and so there will be some ongoing extraction even if alternatives became absolutely on-their-own-merits competitive as baseload and transportation primary energy sources. So the carbon will almost certainly get released over time. But ecologically, a slow release might be very preferable to a giant sudden release, so that would be an improvement.

If governments actually started showing some serious progress towards a "carbon budget" such that it was infeasible to sell known reserves on the world market — and that would mean, somehow, prohibiting you from just selling it to China or India or one of the burgeoning African markets — then I'm sure the companies would start looking harder at those known reserve valuations. But the fact that they don't tells you all you need to know about the seriousness with which they regard the UN Climate Change Conferences and their ilk.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:29 AM on December 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


Well, it is an interesting perspective, anyways. But, as noted above though, the currently booked reserves of O&G companies are, by definition, extractable at commercial rates of return using currently available technologies and distribution networks within the current regulatory framework. They are, by any accounting standards, real assets. There is no 'bubble'; O&G companies are not overvalued. To claim otherwise is to claim that somehow investors have missed the part where, say, ExxonMobil's business is the extraction, refinining and marketing of hydrocarbons.

Of course, a change in the regulatory or geopolitical environment can have large effects on the booked assets. This risk is extremely hard to quantify as those changes are very difficult to predict. 7-8 years ago, I thought there was strong political momentum to start limiting carbon emissions, through a variety of mechanisms. Since then, there has been very little effective regulatory action, certainly nothing that has dragged on the valuation of O&G companies. The only major event that has dragged O&G company valuations is the real (but possibly short term) glut of gas, and arguably modest over-supply of oil.

In the decades to come, it may be that HC reserves become 'unburnable' -- by regulation. If you believed that, you might choose not to invest in those companies. As the carbontracker people make clear however, its pretty difficult to avoid this if you invest in index funds or participate in a pension scheme.

Depressingly, I think that the kind of strong regulatory action that might affect O&G company valuations would only occur after things really started going pear-shaped. At which point, we may well have bigger problems than the values of our pensions and retirement portfolios.
posted by bumpkin at 12:13 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kadin2048: I agree with every word you say, except

> honestly pretty comical assumption

I'd say that it's a desperate and hopeful assumption - but the fact that that assumption is almost certainly wrong spells extremely bad things for humanity. There's no comedy here, except of the blackest kind.

The governments of the world have decided - or more specifically, they have decided not to decide, not to do anything significant. They're going to let us take the bullet, and then try to clean up afterward.

It is one of my many beefs with the current Administration that they must know that the problem is real, but they have chosen to do nothing, and indeed to retrench on many key issues. When this is brought up in Metafilter, there's usually an argument that amounts to, "They are powerless to do anything."

Government that is powerless to act in a case of existential threat is not just bad government, it's broken government.

We are told that if we are good citizens, and support Democratic grassroots candidates, perhaps in twenty years we'll be able to start to effect change - except this will be too late, far too late.

The best we can do is plan locally to do the best job we can as individuals - and also note the names of the culprits, and make sure that they are punished adequately. If individuals in the government really believed that there would be severe personal consequences for themselves if things went wrong in the future, they might conduct themselves more responsibly.

Indeed, it would be nice if there were some way we could politely contact the leaders of the world and make it clear to them, "Since you're determined to do nothing about this, if(*) the shit really does hit the fan, we will find you, and we will punish you severely" - though of course in practice putting your name behind this sentiment with any force would be bad for your health...

(* - really, it's "when" but one must be polite.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:34 PM on December 19, 2013 [6 favorites]


Government that is powerless to act in a case of existential threat is not just bad government, it's broken government.

Yes, and? This is not known? The fault is not in our stars. It is in our Republicans. Tempting as it may be to dream of hauling aside Chuck Schumer by his ear and whispering he'll be first against the wall come the revolution, he's not the problem. The James Inhofes of the world, they're the problem. Replacing the current crop of Dems with fire-breathing leftists wouldn't do dick, because both moderate and liberal dems will vote for a carbon tax. Convincing the vast red swathes of the country that global warming exists and they should elect people willing to do something about it is the obstacle.
posted by Diablevert at 12:47 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


> The fault is not in our stars. It is in our Republicans.

The executive branch has been Democratic for five years now. Mr. Obama's record on climate change has been dismal - in his own words, "Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’ve quad­rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth."

Neither side is willing to act - the Republicans are simply more blatant about it. If we break our climate system, there will be more than enough blame to go around.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 2:18 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Neither side is willing to act - the Republicans are simply more blatant about it. If we break our climate system, there will be more than enough blame to go around.

You cannot pass a cap and trade bill or a carbon tax by executive fiat. Obama hasn't led on this, you're right. But achieving significant reductions through sons sort of mandate will require Congressional action.
posted by Diablevert at 2:52 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


sort of a silly concept. if we ban cash, then corporations' cash should have some reserve. but we only book reserves if its more likely than not that there will be an impairment. or: this is addleheaded wishful thinking posing as financial disclosure commentary.
posted by jpe at 3:13 PM on December 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Huh. I think folks here are too pessimistic about scenarios that might play out that support the thesis this policy vignette is working from. I'm going to make a couple guesses, and some of them might right, and many will be wrong, but only a few have to be right for some of the things they're saying to come true.

I suspect that some (many) of the exploration projects that are being invested in are being invested in using special purpose corporations which, while owned predominantly by public entities, are private. The implication of this is that the investors are probably external, which makes the corporate vehicle not "wholly owned," and thus treated as a private company unto itself in most ways.

And I suspect that some of these special purpose corporations have employees, and some of those employees are receiving equity or other deferred compensation which is not merely liquidation carry from the eventual dissolution of the SPC. So the corporation must get a Section 409A valuation annually to set its share price. Which means some valuation company or specialty bank has to send an analyst to do those calculations.

And I'd assert that the majority of the valuation of the shares rests in the final settlement value of the mineral assets on the far end of the consumption chain - that buyers at the end of the chain cause the SPC to be worth money at all, and if there are none, whether because we all learn how to photosynthesize, or because public policy shifts, that's material to the calculation.

Now if we know that there's regulation in place which sets a real cap on a firm's ability to liquidate their mineral asset holdings, even if we know that the odds of the US enforcing are not 100%, if we can reasonably assume that they're going to reach, say, 75% of their enforcement target, we'd have to discount the non-disposable assets consistent with the likely enforcement rate. So now the main thrust of the valuation of the SPC has fallen by some meaningful amount.

Then, if you consider that the firms doing these valuations are just individual human valuation experts, you really only have to convince a handful of them to treat the assets this way, and they have to devalue enough of some major firm's SPCs such that it's a reportable event of the public parent. Now you've got someone reporting to the SEC that their child assets are abruptly falling in value due to a regulatory shift that's causing the assets of these entities to fall. And that's in a 10K somewhere.

That makes it all real at that point: the public markets will have to respond, the investment managers for the major financiers of the exploration will have to answer to their boards, and there are real shareholder concerns at all the other energy companies about whether their shares are overvalued based on a hidden whack to their assets that they just haven't chosen to take yet. And then the public markets punish those firms (a little) because of their fear. Maybe some clever environmental group files shareholder suits to get some of the firms to recognize the damage on their books too, because now there's a perfectly logical chain for them to work with.

In summary, it's not really enough to say *grawr* they never enforce. I laid out one scenario I immediately imagined would result in appreciably what the original posting suggests out of probably a hundred scenarios, some of which, I suspect, could happen without as much intervention as I said. Yes, if you're waiting for the government to use enforcement as the vanguard for normalizing a complex and critical industry, you'll wait forever. But like many infectious diseases, it's the secondary effects that will get you. You can't assume that the underlying complexity of these corporate systems that typically shield them won't also ultimately consume them. Indeed, it is the way almost all of them die.
posted by kochbeck at 5:03 PM on December 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


> Obama hasn't led on this, you're right. But achieving significant reductions through sons sort of mandate will require Congressional action.

Without a leader for that effort, how, exactly, would that work?

When we elected Mr. Obama, we thought we were getting a leader. We needed a leader. Instead, what we got someone who prioritizes party politics above the future of the planet - someone who spends a lot more attention on drones than on climate change.

The President is to blame, and Congress is also to blame. This is a grave threat to all humanity, and instead they're sitting around with their thumbs up their asses, blaming each other for not acting. As I said, there is more than enough blame to go around.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:21 PM on December 19, 2013


Without a leader for that effort, how, exactly, would that work?

Passing a bill through Congress does not require the President. The President is a cheerleader, when it comes to passing bills. He makes suggestions. Congress can listen to those suggestions or not. We could have a President who was perfect indifferent to climate change, if Congressional leadership wanted to pass a bill on it they could do so. And if they don't they won't.

Obama's relationship with Congress leaves a lot to be desired. During the brief period when he had bulletproof majorities in both houses and a chance to do anything he wanted, he went for Obamacare and the stimulus. Given that we were in the middle of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and that health care was the key issue he ran on, those seem like okay priorities to me. He might have gotten around to climate change next, if he'd had the capital. He didn't. Since he got into office, the Republicans have filibustered every single Dem bill. The bulletproof majority went poof when Teddy Kennedy got sick in the spring of 2009. (Seriously: They practically had to drag TK out of his hospital room in his gown to break the filibuster three times during Obama's first 6 months.) Post-2010 midterms, he couldn't get the Pope appointed dogcatcher if it required a Senate vote.

Honest to god, I don't understand this idea that if only Obama had sprinkled just a smidge more more magical leadership dust around every Dem priority would be sound law by now. Do people really think it's a matter of him just talking a little bit nicer and all of a sudden everybody would see the light and do the right thing? Obama may be the most eloquent president we've had in the past 50 years, but he's not Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra movie. Because nobody is, because that's not real. And in the real world speeches are nice and sometimes useful but true power encompasses a lot more than that.

The Republican party made the calculated (and frankly quite rational) decision that utter, implacable opposition to every single aspect of the President's agenda was the best way for them to keep the most power and rake in the most money to support their organization. They have said this, out loud. And they have done it, at every step. They damn near wrecked the world economy over it, again, less than two months ago. A fair chunk of their supporters think that Obama's the antichrist and that these are the end times. There ain't no one speech that's gonna clear that up. Not even a whistlestop tour. Not even if they use really, really big banners.

So i think if you really wanted to change this, you'd have to start at the roots. Full court press. Scientist-agitators getting elected to the school boards of Dustbowl County, Oaklahoma and rewriting the curriculum to support their agenda. Talk shows, billboards, bus stops. Hammer it. Hammer it again and again and again, and five, ten years from now you might get a five to ten point swing your way in red state public opinion and then you can get going on getting the state legislatures crammed with your guys and 10, 15 years from now your guys are running Congress and you can pass a law outlawwing Exxon Mobile, if you want. (Well, maybe not quite that far.) I think that's what it'd take. A full on decade long multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign. Worked for Karl Rove et al.

But like you said, we ain't got that kind of time. Of course, if Obama came out and vigorously opposed a carbon tax Republicans might pass one just to spite him. At this point it's probably worth a shot.
posted by Diablevert at 7:47 PM on December 19, 2013 [5 favorites]


A full on decade long multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign.

I have uh... two dollars... and a Casio.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 6:55 AM on December 20, 2013


> Do people really think it's a matter of him just talking a little bit nicer and all of a sudden everybody would see the light and do the right thing?

Yes, I agree with you - this President is a poor leader. The idea of a leader that they lead, their speech actually changes people's opinions. Whether we're talking about Hitler or FDR, it's been possible in the past for leaders to completely change the direction of a country. The current President has simply kept the country going in the wrong direction.

Indeed, this President has strongly talked up his accomplishments involving getting more fossil fuel out of the ground and burned. The idea that this example has no effect is ridiculous - it's an obvious message, "Business as usual, don't worry about this climate change crap."

> 10, 15 years from now your guys are running Congress

Your scenario is impossible within the confines of the Republican/Democrat system - absolutely impossible. As long as these two right-wing parties are the gatekeepers of who gets to run, we can do all the "grassroots" organizing we like, but it will amount to nothing. The young Congresspeople and Senators of today will be the gatekeepers of the party of tomorrow - 10 to 15 years isn't so long. These people simply won't allow

Again, look at Candidate Obama. He said all the right things - and yet he got elected and became Mr. Drone, Mr. Surveillance, Mr. "Drill The Gulf", Mr. "Pipeline Around The Earth".

When he was running. I was frankly surprised that the establishment had allowed him to get anywhere near the Presidency. Once he got the job, I almost immediately understood why - the only way he'd gotten there was making it clear to them that he wouldn't upset the apple cart.

The devastation that this wrought on young people in particular cannot be overestimated. In 2008, young people were committed, were informed and interested. Now talk to leftists, progressives and the like who are under 25 - almost universally, they will tell you, "I'm not interested in politics", "I don't follow politics", "Politics makes no difference". (This isn't true of people on the right - because they keep getting what they want, even if it's an Emmanuel Goldstein running the country...)

Your solution is no solution. Your solution is to give up on this problem and work on tiny things in the hope that somehow, a generation from now, after it's too late, we'll fool the gatekeepers into accepting change. That is not an appropriate response to an existential threat to our society...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:50 AM on December 20, 2013


Yes, I agree with you - this President is a poor leader. The idea of a leader that they lead, their speech actually changes people's opinions. Whether we're talking about Hitler or FDR, it's been possible in the past for leaders to completely change the direction of a country. The current President has simply kept the country going in the wrong direction.

You think FDR was able to accomplish what he did through speeches?

I don't want to rant at you. Suffice it to say I find that your conception of the breadth of presidential power betrays a profound unfamiliarity with history. The Great Depression started in 1929, following a decade of fairly successful and popular Repulican governance. The manifest failure of Hoovers's response to the Depression was what shifted public opinion and caused FDR to be elected in the first place. During that same election, fall 1932, the composition of the Senate went from a slight Republican majority to a 2/3 reds Democratic majority. The house went from a nearly even split in 1930 to a 3/4ths Democratic majority in 1932. The profound changes FDR was able to bring about in his first 100 days were the result of him having huge majorities in both houses which we were willing to back the passage of radical new legislation. FDR didn't get elected in a centrist country and turn it left though the power of his words. He got elected by a country that was loudly rejecting centerism and open to radical alternatives and he took that lead and ran with it.

This, for better or worse, is a democracy. Getting the big laws passed in your favor starts with getting public opinion and local influence in your favor. The biggest problem with addressing climate change is that about a third if the public thinks it's a hoax and another third is indifferent. And the representatives they have elected reflect those positions. If you can't change people's mind son this, you can't get the kind of radical changes that would be required to successfully address this to be put in place.

The "gatekeepers" don't stop anybody from running. The gatekeepers merely chose to help the people they think will actually get elected. If addressing climate change were the number 1 priority for the majority of the public, they'd be falling over themselves to give candidates who ran on stopping climate change their money.
posted by Diablevert at 9:29 AM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


> He got elected by a country that was loudly rejecting centerism and open to radical alternatives and he took that lead and ran with it.

After eight years of George W. Bush, the USA in 2008 was "open to radical alternatives". Why exactly do you think Candidate Obama's radical rhetoric was so very successful?

We have absolutely no idea what would have happened if Mr. Obama hadn't abandoned his radical stance the moment he was elected.

I myself was fully expecting him to pull the fire alarm - tell us what a bad state we were in due to the World Financial Crisis - remember how terrified everyone was of that, remember how we expected dramatic action in response? The one thing I did not expect was that Mr. Obama would say, "Everything's fine! Business as usual!"

The fact that President Obama made absolutely no effort to lead us in the right direction is no proof whatsoever that if he had tried it, he would have failed. And some things are so important that they're worth risking failure for.

Please remember that we were told for the whole first Administration that Mr. Obama was keeping his powder dry so he could use a second term to actually put his ideas into practice. Well, here we are in that second term and we're still getting a right wing government.

> If addressing climate change were the number 1 priority for the majority of the public, they'd be falling over themselves to give candidates who ran on stopping climate change their money.

If ANY of our leaders acted as if they took climate change seriously, the public might follow them. As long as all of our leaders act as if climate change is not important, there is zero chance that the public will break with them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:43 AM on December 20, 2013


Oh, and let me add that I've actually been on Metafilter for "10-15 years" and this idea of supporting the Democrats and hoping for change from them has been around since the earliest days. We did actually "grassroots organize" for the Democrats - the biggest example was in the 2008 elections - and the result was what you see now - "No change", "Ask again later".

Indeed, as I pointed out above, that grassroots organization ended up being terrible destructive to the political commitment of young people. We promised them change, they didn't get change, and now they have simply given up - oh, and we then get the humiliating spectacle of mainstream Democrats blaming them for their defeat in 2010, rather than admitting that they just drove away their supporters with the bait-and-switch.

At what point are we willing to admit that the idea of supplicating the Democrats in the hope that in a decade or two they will relent is a broken idea?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:53 AM on December 20, 2013


One more comment, much later...

With the conservative movement pouring an estimated $1 billion a year into anti-climate-change propaganda, is "waiting to see what people think" really a fair strategy?

Where are the "climate change is a serious issue" ads from the Democrats? Where's the new Daisy?

Answer: the Democrats just aren't that interested in the issue. "Pretending to care, and doing nothing," works perfectly well for them, as it hits their target squarely, "Get the most votes with the fewest change." The goal, "Do the best job you can for America and its future" is not at all a priority for them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 6:36 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


Elizabeth Warren Comes Down Hard Against Keystone XL Pipeline While Hillary Clinton's Allies Push It Ahead
posted by jeffburdges at 4:07 PM on December 25, 2013


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