The Hidden Upside to Cheap Oil

Normal people react happily when they see the prices of gasoline and home heating oil dropping. Driving becomes cheaper (a plus in a country as expansive as the U.S.) and the heating-oil premium homeowners and landlords in the colder climes of New England and the upper Midwest must pay just to stay alive and keep their buildings operational decreases dramatically. The flip side is that domestic energy producers, who have essentially destroyed the Arab oil cartel and severely hampered Russia's attempt to get its balance sheet in order, need to make a profit in order to invest in current wells and in developing new means of production, such as fracking.

On the punitive, Calvinist Left, however, cheap oil is their worst nightmare, combining the freedom of the open road with the ability to withstand the harshest weather Mother Nature can throw at us in toasty comfort. It's clearly the work of Satan. But there's something else at work as well...

Rejoice, climate change activists. Around the world, greenhouse gas emissions are dropping. The demand for energy, until recently the cornerstone of globalisation and economic growth, has plummeted as countries implement sharp restrictions on movement and social activity in an effort to beat back Covid-19.

Oil has crashed in value, approaching levels not seen in decades, as lockdowns put economies on hold the world over. Even before oil was engulfed in its latest crisis, it was already facing an existential threat from new forms of renewable energy. Fossil fuel use hit a record low in the UK last year, as the country increasingly opts for cleaner energy in a bid to rid itself of a reliance on oil, gas and coal by 2050...  So you might be forgiven for thinking that this most recent crash represents the final nail in the coffin for oil. But not so soon, say experts.

Why not? Simple. Expensive and inadequate "green" technologies such as scenery-scarring, bird-killing windmills (invented centuries ago, and replaced during the Industrial Revolution) and solar power (good luck with that in New England, Canada, and northern Europe) are not economically feasible without heavy governmental subsidies and thus far have not proven competitive with fossil fuels.

"Low oil and gas prices will place pressure on the economics of renewable energy sources and, without policy support, some renewables that have seen rapid deployment will have to wait for credit markets to recover, ceding ground to cheap hydrocarbons and fossil fuels," says Reed Blakemore, deputy director of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.

The double whammy of Covid-19 smashing world economies and public budgets is also likely to harm the prospects of renewable energy.

The economic downturn is dampening the demand for power as millions of people stay at home and heavy industry operates at minimum capacity. Supply chains have been stretched to breaking point, and financing has been frozen, choking off lifelines to renewable energy companies that desperately need it.

Additionally, both governments and consumers have more important things to worry about these days than climate crankism. '"The combination of coronavirus and volatile market conditions will distract the attention of policymakers, business leaders and investors away from clean energy transitions," says Fatih Birol, executive-director of the International Energy Agency.'

This won't stop the Greens from trying to insert their crackpot nostrums into every post-coronavirus recovery bill they can get their mitts on. But continued low energy prices from fossil fuels also mean that consumers, when they start driving again, are hardly going to wish to pay a green premium on things like electric cars when they're trying to restore the green dollar bills to their pockets.

UPDATE: Sales of electric cars crater.

Global sales of electric vehicles are projected to drop by 43% this year as the technology faces a series of overlapping problems, the consultancy Wood Mackenzie finds in an analysis.

Driving the news: "The coronavirus outbreak, potential delays to fleet purchasing due to lower oil price and a wait-and-see approach to buying new models have all contributed to this decrease in projected sales," they write. They see worldwide sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrids at 1.3 million vehicles this year, compared to 2.2 million last year.