Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oil Demand, the Climate and the Energy Ladder

NY Times

January 19, 2008
Saturday Interview


Energy demand is expected to grow in coming decades. Jeroen van der Veer, 60, Royal Dutch Shell’s chief executive, recently offered his views on the energy challenge facing the world and the challenge posed by global warming. He spoke of the need for governments to set limits on carbon emissions. He also lifted the veil on Shell’s latest long-term energy scenarios, titled Scramble and Blueprints, which he will make public next week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Following are excerpts from the interview:

Q. What are the main findings of Shell’s two scenarios?

A. Scramble is where key actors, like governments, make it their primary focus to do a good job for their own country. So they look after their self-interest and try to optimize within their own boundaries what they try to do. Blueprints is basically all the international initiatives, like Kyoto, like Bali, or like a future Copenhagen. They start very slowly but before not too long they become relatively successful. This is a model of international cooperation.

Q. Your first scenario looks very similar to today’s world, with energy nationalism, competition for resources and little attention to consumption.

A. It depends where you live. I realize there are different opinions about Kyoto in the world. But if you think about Bali, Bali is a good outcome if people can agree how to have useful discussion in the coming two years and the United States, China and India are on board. The Blueprints world is maybe a world that starts slowly and is not that easily feasible, but you see some early indicators that it is a realistic possibility.

Q. The world seems to be at some form of inflection point with a big shift in demand.

A. The basic drivers are pretty easy and they are twofold. You go from six billion people to nine billion people basically in 2050. This combination of many more people climbing the energy ladder, which is basically welfare for a lot of people who live in poverty, creates that enormous demand for energy.

Q. How will the demand be fulfilled?

A. Many politicians think we have to make a choice between fossil fuels and renewables. We have to grow both fossil fuels and renewables. And that will be a huge effort for both.

Q. More energy means more carbon emissions. How do you deal with that?

A. That is absolutely the crux of the matter. The principal way we see is that in the very short term, man-made carbon emissions will increase. But over time people will figure out ways — and we work very hard on that — that while using fossil fuels you try to find carbon dioxide solutions. For instance, carbon sequestration. The problem is that many of the renewables, if you take the subsidies out, are still too expensive. That is the dilemma we face now.

Q. Fossil fuels are still going to represent the lion’s share of the energy mix in the next century?

A. First, there is no lack in itself of oil or gas, or coal for that matter. But the problem is that the easy-to-produce oil or easy-to-produce gas will be depleted or with difficult access. But if you look at difficult oil or difficult gas, which we in the industry call the unconventionals, such as oil sands or shales, they may be exploitable. But per barrel, you need a lot more technology and a lot more investments, and per barrel you need a lot more brain to produce it. It’s much more expensive.

Q. What kind of alternatives can compete?

A. The competition is partly true competition — markets, inventions — and part of it is governments. I think if you can price carbon dioxide, probably you can stimulate carbon capture and sequestration. If you tax a certain form of energy, over time it gets more expensive and you may use less of it.

Q. It still seems there is a gap that is hard to bridge.

A. If carbon is the real bottleneck, as a world it makes sense that we use our money where we get the biggest reduction for the lowest cost. You get more carbon reduction for less money by tackling the power sector and maybe the building sector.

Q. It is still hard to see that people are willing to pay more for greener energy.

A. I am a strong believer and strong advocate of free enterprise. If you would like to solve the carbon problem in the world, free enterprise has to work in close cooperation with governments to form the right framework. How you tackled the sulfur dioxide problem in the United States was the basic inspiration for the European trading system of carbon. So there are examples from the past we can apply to overcome that problem. But we can’t do it on our own as an industry. We need cooperation from governments.

Q. How close are we to an understanding globally that climate policy and energy policy are all interrelated issues?

A. Thanks to Al Gore, and many others, the awareness is there. There is a kind of sense of urgency. Secondly, there is a preparedness to do things. Thirdly, do we agree who has to take what action? I think that is still a huge problem.

Q. There was a lot of disagreement at the Bali climate conference.

A. That is correct. I realize that Bali is still very difficult. I am not a pessimist. I see it as a very difficult start-up. The crux of the matter is, if the people say, “Hang on, we are really concerned about the climate and we’d better do something on carbon emissions,” that is in the end the powerful force which politicians and companies cannot ignore. And I think we are past that point.


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