OPINION: News forums have been full of talk about climate change rebellion, disruption and energy transition, but such words can mean different things to different people in different parts of the world.
In a Western capital such as London, the debate tends to reinforce the impression that the end of the oil industry is nigh. Camilla Cavendish, who was policy director to former Prime Minister David Cameron, wrote in the Financial Times that the climate movement is rapidly turning Big Oil into the new Big Tobacco, such is the upswell of opprobrium in society.
Not everyone sympathises with the climate change protesters, and their disruptive measures can annoy commuters, but international oil companies are clearly under pressure.
The industry is becoming familiar with protests like those by Greenpeace activists this week, when they daubed an abandoned leg of Shell’s decommissioned Brent Bravo platform with the words “toxic waste”.
Yet with populism on the rise, shrewd politicians, especially in developing nations, are not about to get fully behind a campaign that can easily flip in the eyes of less privileged citizens.
The middle-class cadres of Extinction Rebellion may be snarling up the traffic in London this month, but have we really moved past the time when higher fuel costs will trigger protests by lorry drivers?
The recent unrest in Ecuador provides a powerful reminder that fuel prices are a volatile trigger for unrest. A decision to end fuel subsidies, though part of a broader batch of austerity measures, sparked protests that forced President Lenin Moreno to move his cabinet from Quito to Guayaquil and ultimately back down over the fuel price increase.
A similar response to fuel price hikes by Brazilian lorry drivers brought the country to a halt in 2018, and forced the resignation of former Petrobras chief executive Pedro Parente.
There have been some attempts to respond to the tension between middle-class environmental demands and popular demands for modern comforts such as cheap holidays.
And when the giant populations of China and India are brought into the equation, the kind of decarbonisation measures that are being demanded and, to some extent, promised in places like the UK and Germany, can begin to look like a drop in the ocean.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has won plaudits for connecting hundreds of millions of new residential consumers to the grid, and politicians in the world’s biggest democracy know that they ignore such demands at their peril.
In debates held at the recent World Energy Congress, Indian ministers nodded to the potential of renewable energy but made it clear that the country's current economic patch will see an increase in coal-fired power.
The role that natural gas can play in managing the energy transition has been amply discussed and countries are responding to this, including India, which announced massive new investments in gas pipeline infrastructure this week. This should signal a healthy future for liquefied natural gas producers, including potential newcomers, such as Brazil and Argentina.
The real challenge for the oil and gas companies is to find their own role in this transition and to navigate the difficult terrain of public relations.
The industry is more unpopular among the citizens of Western democracies, and there seems to be little space for offering a nuanced explanation about energy transition.
Providing the energy to the world is the easy part, but winning hearts and minds with tainted oil company brands is going to be a daunting challenge.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)