Aug 17, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The oil industry faces deepening uncertainty

Barrels of oil on a roller coaster.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The oil industry is facing an immense amount of uncertainty, even for a sector that bobs along in the currents of global markets and geopolitics despite its enormous power.

The big picture: As Democrats hold their convention this week, seeking a boost for Joe Biden heading into the heart of the 2020 campaign, the election is unfolding against another huge source of uncertainty for the industry: the coronavirus pandemic.

The state of play: Biden's platform calls for major new restrictions and regulations on oil-and-gas development, as well as steps to greatly speed deployment of electric vehicles and renewables.

  • It's a stark departure from Trump administration practices. And Biden is also hoping to use diplomacy and trade policy to pressure other countries to move faster on climate.
  • Biden's platform would also go much further than anything proposed — let alone implemented — during the Obama years that saw rapid growth of domestic production.
  • “It’s hard to overstate how far Joe Biden’s Democratic party has shifted on fossil fuels, especially natural gas, in just four years,” Robert McNally of the Rapidan Energy Group tells the Financial Times.

COVID-19 and its unknown trajectory create big new question marks around future oil demand for at least three big reasons...

  1. Nobody really knows when the pandemic will be brought under control in the U.S. or worldwide, and vaccine timing and distribution are mysteries too.
  2. The long-term stickiness of pandemic behaviors, especially working from home, is unclear as well.
  3. How much governments worldwide use economic recovery packages to invest in low-carbon energy is also an unfolding story.

The intrigue: Some of the world's largest companies like BP and Shell are accelerating their moves to diversify away from their still-dominant fossil fuel businesses and into areas like renewable power and EV charging.

What we're watching: How much space the prime-time convention speakers — including Biden and VP pick Kamala Harris — devote to their energy agenda.

  • It's an early — and, admittedly, imperfect — hint at how much political capital they might deploy if they win (and if Democrats also gain Senate control).
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