Like it or not, climate change and society’s attempts to constrain it have a growing impact on companies’ bottom lines. Nowhere is that more the case than for oil and coal companies. As carbon emissions become Public Enemy No. 1, the public discourse increasingly reflects the notion that companies with heavy fossil-fuel exposure may find themselves sitting on stranded assets.
The idea is that if global governments start passing legislation aimed at reining in carbon emissions, oil and coal assets may become unburnable, thus rendering them worthless. This prospect has some analysts and observers talking in terms of a “carbon bubble.”
While there’s a ton of sense behind the unburnable-carbon thesis, and indeed many analysts accept its general premise, it hasn’t really piqued the interest of mainstream investors so far. That’s because the likely effects on companies — while potentially substantial — are far enough in the future that they don’t really change valuations much at standard discount rates.
That may be about to change.
Coal, for instance, has been suffering mightily without any help from a global climate deal. Demand has been dropping everywhere but China, and that country too has just made some aggressive moves to constrain coal-fired power plant development in the wake of its “Airpocalypse” earlier this year. As China moves to contain its public-health catastrophe, Deutsche Bank estimates that Chinese coal consumption will have to decline in this decade if the country is to meet its own targets .
Citigroup this month published a research note entitled “The Unimaginable: Peak Coal in China ,” in which it argues that a confluence of factors could lead to a flattening or peaking of coal consumption before 2020. If you’ve watched the free-fall of pure-play coal stock prices over the last few years, it’s hard not to suspect that Citigroup might have a point.
Tipping point for oil demand
Citigroup didn’t rest its case with coal, either. In March, it published a report called “Global Oil Demand Growth — the End is Nigh ,” in which analysts argue that natural gas substitution and increased fuel economy are leading to a tipping point for global oil demand. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, have published various research pieces focusing on oil companies’ rising costs and declining return on equity, and questioning their capital expenditure programs .
All of this adds up to a growing chorus of mainstream investors and analysts warning of real risk to coal and oil in the much nearer term than the market seems to expect.
It’s all about the cost curve
So how do you take this down to individual stocks to see where their risks lie? In an excellent article for Responsible Investor, Craig Mackenzie — Head of Sustainability at Scottish Widows Investment Partnership — observes that risk depends entirely on where a company falls on the industry cost curve.
This is basic economics. When demand falls, the marginal producers at the expensive end of the cost curve become unprofitable and mothball or close capacity, while the producers at the cheap end remain profitable. … [M]arginal oil projects require US$90/bbl to make a return… The cost curve is what, in practice, will drive the ‘unburnability’ of carbon and potential asset stranding. As demand falls, expensive carbon will become unburnable first, cheap carbon later.