Saudi Arabia has been blaming underinvestment in oil and gas exploration for the energy crunch for months. As one of the world's biggest oil producers, its opinions on energy security have been politely but firmly dismissed as the European Union and its G7 partners forged ahead with their energy transition plans. And now that chickens are coming home to roost for the transition planners, the race is on for these countries to secure as much oil, gas, and coal as they can.
The problem with this approach is that while Europe and its partners were pushing for a transition away from oil, gas, and coal, the industry was listening. Investments are down, and so is exploration, according to a recent report by Rystad Energy. The energy consultancy said that the new acreage awarded to oil and gas companies this year had shrunk to the lowest in 20 years and that lease rounds for the year are going to be the fewest since 2000.
"Global spending on exploration has been falling in recent years as oil and gas companies seek to limit risk by focusing on core producing assets and regions with guaranteed output, aiming to streamline their operations and build a more resilient business amid market uncertainty and the threat of a recession," Rystad analysts wrote,
"These are the real causes of this state of energy insecurity: under-investment in oil and gas; alternatives not ready; and no back-up plan. But you would not know that from the response so far," said Aramco's Amin Nasser at the Schlumberger Digital Forum 2022 in Switzerland this week.
Meanwhile, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, struck at the oil industry once again, accusing it of "feasting" on billions in subsidies and enjoying windfall profits while "our planet burns."
"Our world is addicted to fossil fuels. It's time for an intervention," Guterres said, adding that we need to hold fossil fuel companies "and their enablers" to account. The accounting, according to him, should come in the form of windfall profits, to be distributed among those most affected by climate change by those struggling with energy and food inflation.
While Guterres' accusations toward the oil and gas industry are quite emotional as statements go, it is true that the industry has seen a boost in financial support, according to the International Energy Agency.
In a report last month, co-authored with the OECD, the IEA said that "Major economies sharply increased support for the production and consumption of coal, oil and natural gas, with many countries struggling to balance longstanding pledges to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies with efforts to protect households from surging energy prices."
If the IEA had asked Aramco's Nasser why this might be, he would have probably had an answer ready: because these countries have realized the importance of energy security and why it is more important than transition goals. Alas, the IEA did not ask the Aramco CEO to share his opinion on the situation.
It is also doubtful whether agenda-setters and decision-makers in European capitals and in Washington will hear Nasser's latest warning even as they seek to improve their oil and gas—and coal—supply. To them, the leitmotif of this return to fossil fuels is that it is a temporary measure, just while the crisis lasts. What they appear to be failing to grasp is that the crisis could last a while.
Of course, excessive energy prices will lead to demand destruction. This has always been the case, and this crisis will be no exception. The problem is that with demand, a lot more will be destroyed if it comes to that. Some are already talking about Europe's looming deindustrialization because of the energy crisis.
Indeed, aluminum smelters, steel mills, fertilizer plants, and farms have been shutting down across the EU because they cannot afford to keep operating at these energy prices. Governments have pledged support, but the question of how much they can provide in support and for how long remains open.
Many analysts have pointed out that the current crisis in Europe had its roots much further back in time than February 24, when the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalated. This fact tends to get swept under the rug of political outrage because it is an uncomfortable fact.
Europe has for years been walking the transition tightrope without a safety net. Now that the rope is fraying, it may be too late to try and get the net back. At least fast enough to survive the fall.