OPINION: It is hard to pinpoint an exact moment of historic change in an industry, but this just might be it.
BP’s latest Energy Outlook assessments and its $1.1 billion wind investment suggest at least one of the biggest oil majors is convinced transformation is both here and essential.
The 2020 annual forecasting report warns Covid-19 may have brought forward peak global demand for oil to the present day.
Previous BP Energy Outlooks suggested peak demand after more than 100 years of growth would be likely some time after 2030.
In the latest report’s greenest scenario, oil demand could fall 80% by the middle of this century.
Gas prospects are much better. Demand is expected to grow for the next 15 years, aided by new carbon, capture and storage systems.
Global renewable energy use — as a percentage of total energy use — could rise from the current 5% to anywhere between 20% and 60% from now to 2050, BP believes, though it warns its forecasts could change, depending on what governments and society demand.
BP says these assessments have not accounted for any potential post-Covid green economic packages being introduced, which could accelerate the energy transition process.
Meanwhile, BP expects to see a global carbon price being introduced, perhaps reaching $100 per tonne by 2030 and $250 by 2050.
This is the background data that explains why BP wants to, or thinks it is forced to, change from oil company to international energy company.
The decision to spend $1.1 billion on a first foray into offshore wind under a deal in the US with Norway's Equinor will be followed by other projects to raise BP’s renewable energy portfolio to 50 gigawatts by 2030.
Looney insists BP can deliver decent rates of return for all forms of energy.
BP's plan to target net zero carbon emissions by 2050, its write-down of fossil fuel assets, and cutting oil and gas output by 40% were also informed by its forecasts of a changing industry.
But its own transition will not be sudden, with Looney insisting BP will adopt a twin-track approach.
The company will still be a major producer of oil and gas in 2030 and direct two-thirds of its $15 billion in annual capital expenditure towards fossil fuels, he has emphasised.
Looney has already won plaudits from some environmentalists and analysts, but still has to act on many of his plans and convince others.
Will BP’s transition be fast enough to satisfy rapidly changing public opinion, or too fast to keep shareholders with the rates of return they expect?
American oil historian, Daniel Yergin, warned recently in a New York Times article: “To make a switch from a global economy that depends on fossil fuels for 80% of its energy to something else is a very, very big job.”
Looney insists that is why he wants to keep the cash coming in from high-value oil schemes while pivoting to a lower-carbon future.
And he firmly believes BP has an edge in new markets such as renewables or hydrogen because of its project-management skills, experience with partnerships, integration of its different departments and openness to digital solutions.
BP's new forecast makes clear the speed of transition to a low-carbon economy remains highly uncertain. This week, Looney and BP showed they are at least very well prepared — for pretty much anything.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)