What oil price is best for energy transition?

It is possible to decarbonize all of global energy by 2050. But $30/bbl oil prices would stall this energy transition, killing the relative economics of electric vehicles, renewables, industrial efficiency, flaring reductions, CO2 sequestration and new energy R&D. This 15-page note looks line by line through our models of oil industry decarbonization. We find stable, $60/bbl oil is ‘best’ for the transition.

Our roadmap for the energy transition is outlined on pages 2-4, obviating 45Mbpd of long-term oil demand by 2050, looking across each component of the oil market.

Vehicle fuel economy stalls when oil prices are below $30/bbl, amplifying purchases of inefficient trucks and making EV purchases deeply uneconomical (pages 5-6).

Industrial efficiency stalls when oil prices are below $30/bbl, as oil outcompetes renewables and more efficient heating technologies (page 7).

Cleaning up oil and gas is harder at low oil prices, cutting funding for flaring reduction, methane mitigation, digitization initiatives and power from shore (pages 8-9).

New energy technologies are developed more slowly when fossil fuel prices are depressed, based on R&D budgets, patent filings and venturing data (pages 10-11).

CO2 sequestration is one of the largest challenges in our energy transition models. CO2-EOR is promising, but the economics do not work below $40/bbl oil prices (pages 12-14).

Our conclusion is that policymakers should exclude high-carbon barrels from the oil market to avoid persistent, depressed oil prices (as outlined on page 15).

Energy Transition: Polarized Perspectives?

Last year, we appeared on RealVision, advocating economic opportunities that can decarbonize the energy system. The “comments” and reactions to the video surprised us, suggesting the topic of energy transition is much more polarized than we had previously thought. It suggests that delivering an energy transition will need to be driven by economics, whereas polarized politics are historically dangerous.


The fist 50 comments from our RealVision interview are tabulated below. 17 were positive and enthusiastic (thank you for the kind words).

But a very surprising number, 16 of the comments, attacked the science of climate change. It is perhaps not a fully fair represenation, as those with extreme views are more likely to post comments in online forums. But 30% dissent is still surprisingly high. Read some of these comments, and it’s clear that fervent opinions are being expressed. Even moreso on our youtube link.

6 of the comments also challenged the politics behind energy transition, expressing concerns that some politicians are evoking fears over climate change in order to justify policies that are self-serving and only tangentially related to the issue.

These attacks are from an unusual direction. Living in New Haven, CT, we are more used to being criticised for seeing a continued, strong role for lower-carbon and carbon-offset fossil fuels in the decarbonised energy system (chart below).

Indeed, another sub-section of the comments argued that our views did not go far enough. 6 of the comments called for a greater emphasis on nuclear or hydrogen and continued vilification of traditional energy companies. Our economic analysis suggests economics will be challenging for hydrogen, while nuclear breakthroughs are not yet technically ready. But one commentator, for example, dismissed this analysis and said our views must be “ideologically driven”.


Mutual animosity was also clear in the comments section of the RealVision video. One comment reads “you are completely delusional..sorry that you got fed the wrong info by these fraudsters in suits and their little girl puppet. You’ll wake up to reality one day.” Another reads “let our kids and future generations figure it out like we had to from our forefathers!”. At last year’s Harvard-Yale football game, the protesters met any such criticism from the crowd with a chant of “OK boomer”.

Deadlock? Others in the comments section tried debating the climate science. One statement was criticised as a “typical ‘we know better’ argument”. Another commenter opined that all peer-reviewed scientific literature is “fraudulent”. The most sensible comment in the mix noted “very little space left between ‘Greta Evangelists’ and equally fanatical ‘haters'”. This appears right. It is a polarized, poisonous, deadlocked debate.

Historical parallels? Over the christmas break, I enjoyed reading James McPherson’s ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, which described the gradual polarization of ante-bellum America, in the 25-years running up to the US Civil War. One cannot help seeing terrifying similarities. Animosity begat animosity. Eventually the whole country was divided by an ideology: abolitionists in slave-free states versus the unrepentant slave economies.

Ideological divides are also deepening in the energy space. 40% of world GDP has now declared itself on a path to zero carbon. What animosities will emerge between these carbon-free states and the unrepentant carbon economies?

Economic opportunities in energy technologies remain the best way we can see to deliver an energy transition without stoking dangerous animoisities. They will remain the central theme in our research in 2020, and we are aiming to stay out of the politics(!). Our RealVision video is linked here.

Global gas: catch methane if you can?

Scaling up natural gas is among the largest decarbonisation opportunities on the planet. But this requires minimising methane leaks. Exciting new technologies are emerging. This 23-page note ranks producers, positions for new policies and advocates developing more LNG. To seize the opportunity, we also identify 23 early-stage companies and 10 public companies in methane mitigation. Global gas demand should treble by 2050 and will not be derailed by methane leaks.

Pages 2-4 explain why methane matters for climate and for the scale up of natural gas. If 3.5% of methane is leaked, then natural gas is, debatably, no greener than coal.

Pages 5-8 quantify methane emissions and leaks across the global gas industry, including a granular breakdown of the US supply-chain, based on asset-by-asset data.

Page 9-10 outlines the incumbent methods for mitigating methane, plus our screen of 34 companies which have filed 150 recent patents for improved technologies.

Pages 11-13 cover the best new developments in drones and robotics for detecting methane emissions at small scale, including three particularly exciting companies.

Pages 14-15 outline next generation satellite technologies, which will provide a step-change in pinpointing global methane leaks and repairing them more quickly.

Pages 16-20 covers the changes underway in the oilfield supply chain, to prevent fugitive methane emissions, highlighting interesting companies and innovations.

Page 20-21 screens methane emissions across the different Energy Majors, and resultant CO2-intensities for different gas plays.

Pages 22-23 advocate new LNG developments, particularly small-scale LNG, which may provide an effective, market-based framework to mitigate most methane.

Robot delivery: Unbelievable fuel economy…

Stand on a street corner in Tallinn, in the summer of 2019, and you might encounter the scene below: not one, but two autonomous delivery robots, comfortably passing one-another.

The fuel economy of these small electric machines is truly transformational, around 100x better than a typical motorcycle (the trusty workhorse of take-aways past), around 200x better than a typical car and around 400x better than a typical pick-up.

Large implications follow for energy supply and demand, if such delivery-robots take off…

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Our conclusion is to have found further evidence that transportation technology is evolving. Forward thinking energy companies will be preparing for the change, as evidenced by their patents, their projects and their venturing.

Lost in the Forest?

In 2019, Shell pledged $300M of new investment into forestry. TOTAL, BP and Eni are also pursuing similar schemes. But can they move the needle for CO2? In order to answer this question, we have tabulated our ‘top five’ facts about forestry. We think Oil Majors may drive the energy transition most effectively via developing better energy technologies in their portfolios.

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Aerial Ascent: why flying cars fly

Aerial vehicles will do in the 2020s what electric vehicles did in the 2010s. They will go from a niche technology to a global mega-trend that no forecaster can ignore. The technology is advancing rapidly. Fuel economies and costs will both be transformational. Aerial vehicles accelerate the energy transition.

These conclusions are all explained in depth, in our new, 20-page insight…

Pages 2-3 demonstrate the need for aerial vehicles, as urban mobility has begun deteriorating, after 200-years’ of progress.

Page 4-5 recap the military development of drones, stretching back to the late 19th Century, accelerating with the US’s Predator and Reaper programmes.

Pages 6-9 identify leaders among 110 companies, employing 50,000 people, which have now flown over 40 aerial vehicles; from start-ups to aerospace heavy-weights.

Pages 10-11 describe average flight parameter across the different vehicle concepts we screened, including speeds, range, payload and fuel-economy of aerial vehicles

Pages 11-13 show electric vehicles leading on the metrics above, with unparalleled fuel economies, which we replicated, bottom-up via the equations of flight.

Pages 13-14 shows the future is battery powered for aerial vehicles, at today’s battery densities, creating a vast opportunity for fast-charging infrastructure.

Pages 14-18 calculate exceptional economics can be attained, comprehensively bridging to levels that are 65-85% below today’s ground-transportation.

Pages 19-20 summarise the hurdles, presenting the best counter-evidence we can find to legal, regulatory and “adoption” pushbacks.

Oil Companies Drive the Energy Transition?

There is only one way to decarbonise the energy system: leading companies must find economic opportunities in better technologies. No other route can source sufficient capital to re-shape such a vast industry that spends c$2trn per annum. We outline seven game-changing opportunities. Leading energy Majors are already pursuing them in their portfolios, patents and venturing. Others must follow suit.

Pages 2-3 show that today’s technologies are not sufficient to decarbonise the global energy system, which will surpass 100,000TWH pa by 2050. Better technologies are needed.

Pages 4-6 show how Oil Majors are starting to accelerate the transition, by developing these game-changing technologies. The work draws on analysis of 3,000 patents, 200 venture investments and other portfolio tilts.

Pages 7-13 profile seven game-changing themes, which can deliver both the energy transition and vast economic opportunities in the evolving energy system. These prospects cover electric mobility, gas, digital, plastics, wind, solar and CCS. In each case, we find leading Oil companies among the front-runners.

Why the Thunder Said?

Energy transition is underway. Or more specifically, five energy transitions are underway at the same time. They include the rise of renewables, shale oil, digital technologies, environmental improvements and new forms of energy demand. This is our rationale for establishing a new research consultancy, Thunder Said Energy, at the nexus of energy-technology and energy-economics.

This 8-page report outlines the ‘four goals’ of Thunder Said Energy; and how we hope we can help your process…

Pages 2-5 show how disruptive energy technologies are re-shaping the world: We see potential for >20Mbpd of Permian production, for natural gas to treble, for ‘digital’ to double Oil Major FCF, and for the emergence of new, multi-billion dollar companies and sub-industries amidst the energy transition.

Page 6 shows how we are ‘scoring’ companies: to see who is embracing new technology most effectively, by analysing >1,000 patents and >400 technical papers so far.

Page 7 compiles quotes from around the industry, calling for a greater focus on technology.

Page 8 explains our research process, and upcoming publication plans.

Under-investment risks in the energy transition?

Fears over the energy transition are now restricting investment in fossil fuels, based on our new paper, published in conjunction with the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, linked here.    

They have elevated capital costsby 4-7% for oil and by c25% for coal, compared with the early 2010s.

  • One consequence will be to concentrate capital into renewables, gas,  and shorter-cycle oil projects (i.e.,  shale).
  • But there will also be negative consequences, risking long-run supply shortages of oil and coal.
  • Companies are also being pressured to ‘harvest’ their existing assets, rather than maximising potential value in the 2020s, which may impact valuations.  

For further details please see the full paper, linked here, or contact us. 

250-years of Energy Disruption?

In 2018, we reviewed 250-years of energy transitions, arguing that another great energy transition is now on hand.

It will occur over the next century. Thus for another hundred years, today’s energy industry will remain vitally important. In addition, new sources of supply will create unimaginable new sources of energy demand.

A podcast summarising the work is available from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.