Net-Zero Goals Won’t Slow Down Oil Exploration

Underinvestment in oil and gas exploration has been a scarecrow for energy security for several years now.

Various industry executives, most notably perhaps those from the Middle East oil kingdoms, have warned that unless investment in new exploration rebounds, energy security will be compromised on a global scale.

Wood Mackenzie recently had some good news for these executives: investment in new oil and gas exploration is recovering and is set to average $22 billion annually over the next four years. Despite the billions being channeled into the transition away from hydrocarbons.

At the same time, there is a connection between the transition and the rebound in new exploration spending in oil and gas. That connection has to do with the new demands that the transition has created for exploration and production companies – pressure to focus on assets with a low emissions profile, for instance, and stricter environmental requirements that would make some discoveries unviable.

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“While this rebound might surprise some, it must be seen in context. Exploration went through a boom during 2006-2014 and spend peaked at US$79 billion (in 2023 terms),” Julie Wilson, Wood Mac’s director of global exploration research, said.

“But in the prior six years, the average was US$27 billion per year in 2023 terms. While spending will increase, it won’t return to anywhere close to past highs and there will likely be a ceiling on the increase.”

In other words, as the recovery in spending is taking place amid a double-down on the transition, it will be constrained by that transition. Yet it is taking place despite the constraints, which is quite telling. Because the calls to end the hydrocarbons industry have only been growing louder since the start of the year.

Indeed, one campaign group dubbed Oil Change International slammed the Inflation Reduction Act as being “one of the biggest handouts to the fossil fuel industry in US history.

According to that group, “With tens of billions dollars in giveaways for the oil and gas industry, provisions expanding fossil fuel leasing, and incentives for dangerous and unproven technologies designed to keep the fossil fuel industry in business like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), hydrogen, and Direct Air Capture (DAC), this law will not accomplish what we need to have a livable future.”

Indeed, the IRA has money allocated for carbon capture and storage tech. It also has a lot more money to be spent on wind, solar, EVs, and charging infrastructure, and so does the EU. The West is definitely going all in on the energy transition, despite all the challenges that have emerged recently.

If spending oil new oil and gas exploration is taking place in this context, then there must be a very good reason for it, and that reason is not the record profits oil and gas companies made last year. They are part of the reason but not the whole of it. The whole of it is energy security.

The gas squeeze that pushed European prices sky-high last year reminded a lot of people embracing the transition that it does not really enhance energy security. It could, at some point, but that would take time, a lot more money and solving several major problems with wind, solar, and EVs. Right now, however, the only sources of energy that do provide energy security are the hydrocarbon sort.

The transition advocates were not the only ones reminded of that fact of life. The oil and gas industry itself may have temporarily forgotten it and got a wake up call last year. So now, spending is on the rise. And the industry is tying it to achieving transition goals. 

“Continued investments in oil and gas will be needed to make sure that the energy transition happens in a balanced way with a secure supply of affordable and increasingly lower-carbon energy. We will contribute to this balanced transition by focusing our investments on the most profitable and carbon-competitive projects,” Shell’s Integrated Gas and Upstream Director, Zoe Yujnovich, said last month.

Indeed, a fact not often voiced by the transition advocates, both in political circles and outside them, is the fact that the transition away from hydrocarbons depends strongly on those same hydrocarbons.

The raw materials for the transition equipment are produced using machines that run on hydrocarbon fuels. The equipment itself is produced using energy from hydrocarbons—think China, solar panels, and coal powered furnaces—and there are hydrocarbon ingredients in that equipment—think wind turbine blades and epoxy resins.

In other words, spending on new oil and gas exploration is rebounding because, first, demand trends have demonstrated quite clearly that the world’s thirst for hydrocarbons is not falling but rising and, second, because the energy transition away from hydrocarbons depends on them. 

There could certainly be a ceiling somewhere in there as investors flock to new opportunities arising from governments’ transition efforts, shunning the bad reputation of oil and gas. Yet just how high this ceiling will be remains to be seen. Ultimately, energy security would always trump everything else, however noble it might be.