The energy transition

Is the least grubby hydrocarbon a bridge fuel to a greener future, or a trap?


ENERGY COMPANIES have no seat at the climate high table convened by President Joe Biden on April 22 nd and 23 rd, to which he has invited 40 other world leaders to discuss how to speed up the shift from dirty energy. From the sidelines, coal firms will scowl at efforts to curb demand in Asia and oil drillers will wince at support for electric cars. Watching particularly closely will be those companies which have bet big on natural gas. As the energy transition gathers momentum, no fuel’s future is hazier than that of the least grubby hydrocarbon.

美国总统拜登于 4 月 22 日和 23 日召开气候峰会,邀请 40 位世界领导人讨论如何加速从肮脏能源的转型,能源公司人士不在其中。从旁观望的煤炭企业会对抑制亚洲需求的努力皱眉,石油钻探商会对支持电动汽车的举措感到不适。而尤其密切关注会议动向的将是那些对天然气押下重注的公司。随着能源转型势头渐起,相比其他燃料,天然气这种污染最少的烃类燃料的未来最为扑朔迷离。

Proponents see gas as the “bridge fuel” to a greener world. They include the five largest international oil firms: ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Total and BP. These supermajors saw gas rise from 39% of their combined hydrocarbon output in 2007 to 44% in 2019 (see chart 1). That year producers approved a record level of liquefied natural gas (LNG) capacity. Those projects will come online in a few years. Shell, which in 2016 paid $53 bn for BG, a British gas group, now says its oil production peaked in 2019, but that it will expand its gas business with annual investments of about $4 bn. Total expects its crude output to sink over the next decade, but for gas to rise from 40% to 50% of sales. In February Qatar Petroleum, a state-owned giant, said it would begin the largest LNG project in history.

天然气的支持者视之为通往更环保世界的「过渡性燃料」。它们包括埃克森美孚、雪佛龙、荷兰皇家壳牌、道达尔和 BP 这五家最大的国际石油公司。这些巨头的天然气产量从 2007 年占其烃类燃料总产量的 39% 上升到 2019 年的 44%(见图表 1)。2019 年,生产商们核准建设的液化天然气(LNG)产能达到历史最高水平。这些项目将在几年内上马。壳牌在 2016 年斥资 530 亿美元收购了英国天然气集团 BG,它目前表示自己的石油产量已在 2019 年达到峰值,但它计划每年投资约 40 亿美元来扩大天然气业务。道达尔预计,未来十年,自己的原油产量将下降,但天然气的销量占比将从 40% 上升到 50%。今年 2 月,国有巨头卡塔尔石油公司(Qatar Petroleum)表示将启动史上最大的 LNG 工程。

Yet debate is intensifying over whether gas will be a bridge or a dead end. Mr Biden and his counterparts elsewhere appear to be serious about achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. That would require accelerating the phase-out of all fossil fuels, gas included, unless paired with technology to capture and store emissions. Inexpensive wind and solar power already threaten gas-fired electricity, particularly in America and Europe. Even as demand looks uncertain, cheap gas from state-owned firms such as Qatar’s will add to global supply. Some companies’ bets will go bad.

然而,关于天然气到底是过渡的桥梁还是死胡同,争论越发激烈。对于到 2050 年实现净零排放的目标,拜登和其他国家的领导人看起来是认真的。这将需要加速淘汰包括天然气在内的所有化石燃料,除非配有排放捕获和存储技术。不再昂贵的风能和太阳能已经对燃气发电构成了威胁,尤其是在美国和欧洲。即便此时市场需求看上去并不确定,卡塔尔石油公司等国有企业生产的廉价天然气将提高全球供应量。一些公司的赌注将落空。

On the demand side, gas remains a sensible gamble in some ways. A gas-fired power plant belches about half the emissions of a coal-fired one per unit of energy. The fuel benefits from diverse sources of demand, too. In addition to producing electricity, gas is used to make fertiliser and generate heat for buildings and industry. Unlike exhaust from a car, emissions from a factory can theoretically be captured and stored below ground. Gas can also be used to generate hydrogen, which may in turn serve as a form of long-term energy storage.


However, companies’ investments have not always gone as planned. A rush for gas between 2008 and 2014 was part of a broader stampede by energy giants, as higher energy prices spurred investments with little regard for costs, explains Michele Della Vigna of Goldman Sachs, an investment bank. In 2019 Chevron said it would write down as much as $11 bn, largely owing to underperforming shale-gas assets in Appalachia. Gas comprised the bulk of the $15 bn-22 bn of impairments announced by Shell last June. In November ExxonMobil said it would write down the value of its gas portfolio by $17 bn-20 bn, its biggest impairment ever. Its $41 bn purchase in 2010 of XTO Energy, a shale-gas company, may be the worst-timed investment made by an oil major in the past 20 years.

然而,企业的投资并不总能按计划发展。2008 年至 2014 年的天然气热潮是能源巨头们更广泛投资狂热的一部分——能源价格上涨刺激了投资,成本问题几乎被抛诸脑后,投资银行高盛的米凯莱・德拉维尼亚(Michele Della Vigna)解释说。2019 年,雪佛龙表示将减记多达 110 亿美元的资产,主因是美国阿巴拉契亚地区的页岩气资产表现不佳。壳牌去年 6 月宣布减记 150 亿至 220 亿美元的资产价值,其中天然气占了一大部分。去年 11 月,埃克森美孚表示将对天然气投资组合的价值减记 170 亿至 200 亿美元,这是该公司有史以来最大的资产减记。2010 年,它以 410 亿美元收购了页岩气公司 XTO Energy,这可能是过去 20 年中石油巨头择时最糟的一次投资。

Two big questions now hang over future demand, each difficult to answer with any certainty. The first is how fast governments limit carbon emissions. The extraction, liquefaction and transport of gas produce their own emissions, on top of those from its eventual combustion. Gas production also releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Adding methane leaks from fracking or pipelines, the Natural Resources Defence Council, an environmental group, calculates that American LNG exports in the next decade may produce greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of about 45m new cars—not counting burning the stuff for energy.

对于未来的需求,目前有两大问题悬而未决,每个问题都很难有确切答案。首先是政府限制碳排放的进展速度。在最终燃烧产生的排放外,天然气的提取、液化和运输本身也会产生排放。天然气生产还会排放甲烷,这种温室气体在 20 年跨度里的温室效应大约是二氧化碳的 80 倍。加上水力压裂和管道泄漏的甲烷,环保组织自然资源保护协会(Natural Resources Defence Council)估计,美国未来十年的 LNG 出口可能产生的温室气体相当于约 4500 万辆新车一年的排放量——这还没有包括燃烧 LNG 发电的排放。

Responding to climate concerns, the Netherlands and some Californian cities have banned gas in new buildings. Britain will do so from 2025. “To put it mildly,” Werner Hoyer, president of the European Investment Bank, declared in January, “gas is over.” John Kerry, Mr Biden’s climate envoy, warned in January that natural-gas assets risked becoming stranded. The International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group, reckons that demand growth will slow to about 1.2% a year until 2040, from an average of 2.2% in 2010-19. If governments move more aggressively to restrain temperatures, demand could be lower in 2040 than it was in 2019 (see chart 2). BP offers a more bearish scenario: if the world were to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, gas demand would peak within the next few years and nearly halve by mid-century. “For the business to survive,” argues Massimo Di Odoardo of Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy, “it’s not just about marketing gas. It’s about marketing gas and managing emissions.”

为了应对气候挑战,荷兰以及加州部分城市已经禁止在新建筑中使用天然气。英国将从 2025 年开始效法。「毫不夸张地说,」欧洲投资银行(European Investment Bank)的总裁沃纳・霍耶(Werner Hoyer)今年 1 月宣布,「天然气的日子到头了。」同月,拜登的气候特使约翰・克里(John Kerry)警告,天然气资产面临搁浅的风险。政府间组织国际能源署(International Energy Agency)估计,到 2040 年,需求增长将从 2010 年至 2019 年间的平均每年 2.2% 减缓到每年 1.2% 左右。如果各国政府采取更积极的行动来遏制全球变暖,2040 年的需求可能会低于 2019 年(见图表 2)。BP 提出了一个更悲观的前景:如果世界到 2050 年实现净零排放,天然气需求将在未来几年内达到峰值,到本世纪中叶几乎减半。「这个行业若要生存下去,」能源咨询公司 Wood Mackenzie 的马西莫・迪奥多尔多(Massimo Di Odoardo)认为,「重要的不仅仅是营销天然气,而是营销天然气和管理排放。」

The second question with respect to demand is how quickly rival technologies advance. Already, about two-thirds of the world’s population lives in places where power from new wind and solar farms is cheaper than from new gas plants, according to BloombergNEF, a data provider. Electric heat pumps threaten gas in buildings. In future, gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS) may prove pricier than hydrogen generated by renewable electricity. Mr Biden’s proposed $2 trn infrastructure bill includes support for CCS, but also for things that may challenge gas’s role in industry, power and heating. The European Union aspires to make its members leaders in hydrogen, hoping it could one day replace gas in many applications while using existing pipelines and other infrastructure.

关于需求的第二个问题是替代性技术的进步有多快。数据供应商彭博新能源(BloombergNEF)称,在世界大约三分之二的人口生活的地区,新的风能和太阳能电厂的发电已经比新的天然气电厂更便宜了。电热泵可能会取代建筑物中使用的天然气。未来,带有碳捕获和存储(CCS)的天然气的价格可能会超过利用可再生电力生产的氢气。拜登提出的 2 万亿美元的基础设施法案中包括对 CCS 的支持,但也包括可能挑战天然气在工业生产、发电和供暖方面的地位的替代性技术。欧盟渴望让其成员国成为氢气领域的领跑者,希望有朝一日氢气能在许多应用领域取代天然气,同时继续使用现有的管道和其他基础设施。

Then there is the matter of supply. Maarten Wetselaar, Shell’s gas chief, says the industry used to expect the market to be undersupplied and the price set by the marginal buyer. Instead, the world has plenty of gas courtesy of American shale, he notes. On top of that, private firms must compete with state ones in Qatar and Russia, which can extract gas cheaply and have a political imperative to monetise reserves while they can. Qatar’s new project will raise its LNG capacity by 40% by 2026. And a growing spot market and shaky demand have made LNG buyers Less interested in traditional long-term contracts. At least a quarter of LNG supply is now uncontracted, estimates Mr Di Odoardo. As approved projects come online, the share of uncontracted LNG may exceed 50% by 2030.

此外还有供应方面的问题。壳牌的天然气业务主管魏思乐(Maarten Wetselaar)表示,业界过去预计天然气的市场供应不足,价格因而由边际买家决定。他指出,实际上正相反,美国的页岩为世界提供了大量的天然气。除此之外,私营企业必须与卡塔尔和俄罗斯的国有企业竞争,而后者能以更低廉的成本开采天然气,而且出于政治上的需要,它们会在可能时将储量变现。到 2026 年,卡塔尔的新项目将把自己的 LNG 产能增加 40%。而日渐增长的现货市场和不稳定的需求使得 LNG 买家对传统的长期合同兴趣下降。迪奥多尔多估计,目前至少有四分之一的 LNG 供应没有签订合同。随着获批项目的上马,到 2030 年,未签合同的 LNG 比例可能超过 50%。

All this is prompting some in the industry to rethink their embrace of gas. Last July Dominion Energy, an American utility, cancelled plans for a controversial pipeline and sold its entire pipeline business to Berkshire Hathaway, a huge conglomerate, for $9.7 bn. In November Engie, a French energy company, scrapped plans to sign an LNG contract with NextDecade, an American firm, over concerns about shale emissions. Other firms are trying to adapt to a gas business that looks set to grow both more competitive and more complex.

所有这些都在促使一些业内人士重新考虑他们对天然气的投入。去年 7 月,美国公用事业公司道明尼能源(Dominion Energy)取消了一项有争议的天然气管道计划,并将其整个管道业务以 97 亿美元的价格出售给了大型企业集团伯克希尔・哈撒韦。去年 11 月,出于对页岩排放的担忧,法国能源公司 Engie 取消了与美国公司 NextDecade 签订一项 LNG 合同的计划。其他公司也在努力适应一个看上去势必会有更多竞争也更复杂的天然气行业。

Big players are now applying a higher cost of capital to their hydrocarbon investments, with a greater focus on profitability, notes Mr Della Vigna. Scale is turning to their advantage, too.


Shell’s share of gas production actually fell in recent years, as it sold off Less profitable gas assets in America and Nigeria. Mr Wetselaar maintains that Shell is well positioned to deal with the market’s new realities. Unlike smaller players, which depend on long-term supply contracts to attract financing for new projects, Shell can use its balance-sheet. Trading capabilities make it easier to sell LNG to diverse buyers. For those who want zero-emissions energy, Shell has already sold ten “carbon neutral” LNG cargoes, paired with offsets. Total plans to double its LNG sales over the coming decade, while touting its plans to reduce methane emissions. ExxonMobil reckons that its new investments in CCS will both limit emissions and support its traditional business.

由于出售了在美国和尼日利亚的利润较低的天然气资产,近年来壳牌的天然气产量的份额实际上有所下降。魏思乐坚称,壳牌已做好了应对市场新形势的准备。和依赖长期供应合同来为新项目吸引融资的小公司不同,壳牌可以利用自己的资产负债表。强大的交易能力让它更容易向形形色色的买家出售 LNG。对那些想要零排放能源的买家,壳牌已经售出了 10 船「碳中和」(即相应碳排放已被抵消)的 LNG。道达尔计划在未来十年将其 LNG 销量翻番,同时大力宣传自己减少甲烷排放的计划。埃克森美孚认为,自己在 CCS 上的新投资既能限制排放,又能支持自己的传统业务。

Such plans are unlikely to sway those who want investment in all fossil fuels to plunge. Companies’ plans can be disrupted by any number of forces—in March an attack in Mozambique prompted Total to suspend a giant LNG project there. The changing market means only the safest, most profitable projects backed by the strongest firms are likely to move forward.

这类计划不太可能说服那些希望所有化石燃料投资都大幅下降的人。公司计划可能会受到许多力量的干扰——3 月,莫桑比克的一次袭击事件让道达尔暂停了当地的一个大型 LNG 项目。不断变化的市场意味着只有实力最强的公司所支持的最安全、最赚钱的项目才有较大的可能向前推进。

NextDecade, having failed to secure Engie as a client, has delayed a final investment decision on a proposed facility in Texas and scrapped another. It had sought to build an LNG import terminal in Ireland but in January Irish officials let a preliminary agreement with NextDecade expire. Gas may not quite be over. But the industry could soon be defined not by the projects that advance but those that don’ t.

没能把 Engie 变成客户的 NextDecade 已经推迟了对得克萨斯州一项提议设施的最终投资决定,并取消了对另一项设施的投资。它曾试图在爱尔兰建造一个 LNG 进口接收站,但今年 1 月爱尔兰官员没有延续双方一个到期的初步协议。天然气的日子可能还没有完全到头,但是这个行业可能很快就要由那些未能推进而不是正在推进的项目来定义了

Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”


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