Why It’s Shortsighted to Curb Oil Development

If you’re a climate activist, don’t hate us for what we are about to say.

While it might seem counterintuitive, fossil fuel production, so reviled by climate activists, is critical to achieving a major climate goal, one we all should support: a world largely reliant on renewable energies.

That’s why recent developments that aim to rein in fossil fuel production are frustratingly short-sighted. Rather than aid the cause, they will only short-circuit the world’s ability to scale up renewable energies to where they can take over from fossil fuels.

This past month, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the energy research body representing leading Western economies, recommended that no new oil or gas fields be approved for development. Its rationale was that the growing policy focus on climate change would sharply cut demand for fossil fuels.

Around the same time, a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS.A, RDS.B) to cut carbon emissions faster than the oil giant’s current plans call for, something that if carried out would entail reduced development of oilfields. And major holders of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) shares, most of them large financial institutions, voted to add to Exxon’s board three climate activists with no experience in energy.

Meanwhile, major Western oil companies have cut capital budgets nearly 50% over the past five years, virtually ensuring a sharp slowdown and possibly declining production in fossil fuels in the near future.

You Need Oil to Move Away from Oil

These developments have been hailed as stepping up the fight against global warming. But the world is highly complex, and these seeming climate victories ignore stubborn complexities that seem certain to boomerang badly.

Currently more than 80% of global energy needs are supplied by fossil fuels, including oil, natural gas, and coal. Around 3% are satisfied by solar and wind, the renewable energies that are the most scalable. Even the most optimistic estimates do not project renewables accounting for half of global energy usage until sometime after 2050.

The table below lists the major users of fossil fuels by industry and makes plain that fossil fuels still play a major role in virtually everything we do on this planet, including manufacture of renewable energies.

Here are some of the latest available numbers.

Clearly, achieving an all-renewable future is a massive transition that will take time. And more important, it will take energy…a lot of it…not just to construct renewable infrastructure but also to extract from the ground all the resources that make up that infrastructure. There’s no getting around the fact that most of that energy will have to come largely from fossil fuels.

In other words: If we prematurely call a halt to the continued development of fossil fuels, we’ll make it impossible to get to the renewable future that we all want.

Increasing Complexities

The challenges and complexities are only going to grow. For instance, realize that the transition to renewables will come in the context of burgeoning long-term growth in developing countries. That growth is essentially synonymous with enormous infrastructure creation, which, like all infrastructure, will require huge energy inputs to achieve.

Could we simply opt to try to slow down growth in the developing world? No, that wouldn’t solve the problem, because these countries, beyond their urgent push to improve living standards, also contain the vast bulk of world commodity resources. If the developing world stagnates and remains largely without infrastructure, these resources, many of which are vital to renewable energy infrastructure, will stay in the ground.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, an African nation with a per capita income of about $1,000, is widely considered the country richest in natural resources. These range from vast amounts of bauxite, cobalt, and copper to limestone, tin, and zinc and are estimated be worth at least $25 trillion. These and other commodities will be vital in providing the steel, cement, aluminum, and chemicals without which a world powered by renewable energies will just be a dream. For now, fossil fuels will be essential in getting them out of the ground.

Watch This Video: The Raw Materials of Wealth

I hope it’s clear that in arguing that it’s total folly to limit oil production, it’s not because I love oil or am an apologist for the oil industry. It’s because all the evidence shows we will need all the fossil fuels we can get to build the renewable future that will ultimately free us from carbon-based energy. We also still need oil to extract the critical materials vital for society.

Among these critical materials are commodities such as copper. Oil is a vital raw material and the same goes for the “red metal.”

Copper is vital for building construction, power generation and transmission, electronics, industrial machinery, and transportation vehicles. Copper wiring and plumbing are mainstays of heating and cooling systems, appliances, and telecommunications links.

This year and beyond, as the world economy resumes growth and infrastructure spending explodes, so will demand for copper. For our favorite investment play on this crucial commodity, click here now.